Step 3: Teach Problem Solving
By Kelly Bonner
Parents of children with a disability need to help their children develop problem solving and decision making skills. Problem solving skills help children gain confidence. These skills are necessary for all children but even more important for children with a disability as they will face obstacles and barriers for the rest of their life and will need to be prepared to handle them successfully in order to be independent. While it may be accurate, I’m not a fan of using the term “barriers” when talking to adults or children with a disability. When you look up the definition of barriers, some of the descriptions you find are: an obstacle that prevents movement or access, an obstacle that keeps people or things apart or prevents progress, or built to bar passage. These terms are 100 percent accurate when talking to the organizations, schools or restaurants that are putting such barriers in place. But when talking to someone with a disability you don’t want them to see these things as a stop sign or something they can’t get past with a little ingenuity. Instead, perhaps they could view this challenge as a kind of puzzle they have to learn to figure out. And oftentimes, the older you get the more puzzles you are able to complete. Some of these puzzle solving opportunities children might face at school could be adapting a game at recess, handling a bathroom accident without a parent, or even bullying.
Typically when a child comes to an adult with a problem they can’t solve, adults will often walk them through some steps so they can figure it out on their own. But when a child with a disability faces a problem or puzzle they can’t solve, the parents or other adults often want to avoid the situation or rectify it as soon as possible. This doesn’t allow the child to learn on his or her own. For example, if a child who uses a wheelchair needs a bowl or a glass they can’t reach, mom and dad will likely get it for them instead of helping them figure out how to get it themselves. Or a child who can’t see will be hand-guided to their desired destination instead of being allowed to navigate it on their own with their cane. The list of scenarios here could go on and on: can’t get over a curb or up a hill, can’t see over the counter to order, can’t reach something in a store or can’t carry their lunch tray while using a walker. It may be easier for the parent or adult to do it or they just want to help their child avoid an awkward situation. This is understandable, but it could lay the ground work for a child who will come to depend on you or others for everything instead of learning how to figure out these puzzles on their own. An example would be catching your wheelchair as it rolls down the hill when you’ve just transferred into your car. It certainly takes a little ingenuity to get out of this jam. Your child, who will one day be an adult, will need to learn how to navigate situations like this.
On the team I coach we encourage the athletes to do things for themselves like order their own food (even at Subway where they can’t see over the counter), get their own wheelchair out of the car, carry their own luggage and certainly push themselves anywhere and everywhere (even if that means up a really steep hill). However hard the situation,as coaches we would rather them figure it out with us present, supporting them and talking them through it, than being stuck without any help and without the knowledge of how to succeed through the situation. We would be doing them a disservice as their coach if we didn’t teach them these life skills. The more we can provide these problem solving opportunities in a safe environment, the better off they will be when coping with whatever life throws at them when they are on their own.