How to Improve Your Child's Critical-Thinking Skills

A 5-step guide to problem-based learning.
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Help children become critical thinkers by talking to them about real-life scenarios that require them to problem solve.

Ask any student in kindergarten to high school about their summer plans and most will respond with family vacations, barbecues and free time to spend with friends. Most students do not associate their summer vacation with homework. Parents struggle during this time of year to help their children balance outside time with technology, and downtime with enhancing cognitive faculties. It’s not always easy to know how to engage your children as deep critical thinkers, especially when you, the parent, continue to have a regular work schedule throughout the summer.

This summer has afforded me the opportunity to witness this struggle first-hand. I have been working with a student who gets good grades, but he often turns in assignments late. He enjoys reading, but he doesn’t like his English teacher. He likes math, but only when he understands the problems. He told me he struggles when the assignments aren’t relevant to real life. Time management and organization become difficult when students are disengaged. This isn’t just true in school — this is true in life.

It only took a few moments of questioning this student before realizing that he loves stories. I decided to introduce him to problem-based learning or PBL. He had already decided to read a book with which I am very familiar. I encouraged him to read a little bit each day and talk about the story. I asked him to identify the problem facing the main character. Then I had him describe plausible scenarios that might solve the identified problem in the book.

Once we had a working solution, I asked him what if this happens in real life? What process can you put in place to prevent this from happening? He’s not only analyzing literature; he’s making real-world connections to his life. You don’t have to be a licensed teacher to help your children develop into strong critical thinkers. Just follow the five steps below to turn any passion into a PBL.

Step 1: Talk to your children. Ask them questions about their latest passions. The key is to get them talking about whatever it is that they care about. The range of topics can be anything from video games, societal issues, media or relationships with their peers.

Step 2: During the conversation have your child identify a problem. It can be a puzzle they are trying to solve in a game, an issue with a friend, something happening in the community, or a drama surrounding their favorite TV character.

Step 3: Encourage your child to map out a solution to the problem they identified. Be sure not to speak for them. It’s important that they come up with a viable solution on their own. You can help guide them by contextualizing the feasibility of their responses. It’s important that growing minds realize that there is no problem too large, or too difficult that can’t be solved one step at a time.

Step 4: Celebrate the process. There will always be problems that need to be solved whether it’s a math problem, a puzzle in a video game, or who they invite to their next birthday party.

Step 5: Begin the conversation all over again. This is an immediately transferable skill that can be used to develop critical thinkers capable of overcoming life’s obstacles.  

Your child doesn’t have to read a book for this strategy to work. Problem-based learning can be found in anything in which your child is passionate. It’s OK to struggle through the identified problem with your children. The most important part of this strategy is for your children to participate in the solution-oriented process. After all, even an elephant-sized problem can be solved one bite at a time.

Chad Beveridge is a current doctoral student earning his PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has extensive experience with literacy strategies, cross-curricular approaches and teaching executive-functioning skills.