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5 Ways to Practice Problem Solving Skills in Middle School

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Use these problem solving skills for middle schoolers to help your kiddos tackle the challenges of junior high no matter the subject.


If you’ve been teaching or around middle schoolers very long then it will not surprise you to hear that their brains are still developing. I’m not talking about being an on-going learner, I’m talking about the actual function of their brains is still in development. Because our middle schoolers are now “big kids” and independent, it is easy to forget that they are not done growing and developing. One area that our students are still developing is problem solving skills.

Critical thinking, analytical thinking, and deductive thinking will continue to develop over the next decade. But we don’t have to wait for our tweens to become early 20-somethings before tackling problem solving skills. We can help them begin to tap into this new level of thinking now. Whether it is problem solving in math class or helping them figure their way through middle school social drama, teaching and practicing problem solving skills is important.

Today, I’m thrilled to share with you five strategies I use with my middle schoolers to develop problem solving skills they can use in and out of the classroom.

Why Are Problem Solving Skills Important?

Life is filled with challenges, unexpected problems, and sticky situations we have to be able to think through. From a mult-step, multi-concept story problem in math class to navigating social situations, problem solving skills are key. That’s why I want to take a minute to chat about why problem solving skills can be one of the strongest tools our middle schoolers can have in their toolbox as they navigate the chaos of middle school!

Problem solving skills are important for your students because they help them tackle challenges with confidence instead of fear.

If you think about it, middle school is their training ground for the real situations that take place where they might feel stuck or not motivated to keep going. It’s where they learn to juggle homework, navigate the social circus, and face unexpected challenges. In this crazy adventure called life, problem-solving skills can swoop in to save the day.

But here’s the plot twist: this isn’t just about making it through middle school, it’s about gearing up for success beyond the classroom. We know that the “real world” is full of job hunts, budgeting, time management, and adulting. What’s going to help them succeed? You’ve got it right- the ability to tackle problems like seasoned pros. Whether it’s negotiating a job offer, smoothing out conflicts, or fixing a leaky sink, those middle school honed problem solving skills guide them through the twists and turns of adulthood.

5 Problem Solving Skills for Middle Schoolers

One of the best ways for our middle schoolers to learn how to problem solve is through relevant activities or strategies. Not only relevant but also relatable. It’s that engagement and buy-in that makes them go, “Yeah, this makes total sense!” Incorporating relatable situations with you, the teacher, there to guide them through it creates a safety net for them. They get to witness the thinking process, see the actions in play, and hear the behind-the-scenes reasoning on how to tackle challenges.

1. Practice Critical Thinking Skills

Middle schoolers are like little detectives in the making, always asking all the questions before you can even get the whole scenario out! Use that to your advantage! Ask open-ended questions that get them thinking. Not every question or situation they encounter will be answered with a yes, no, or straightforward answer. They’ll need to think about the situation from different perspectives and consider various factors. Give them time to think and then {this is the hardest for most of us} wait and let them explain their thinking. Don’t just get an answer and move on. Even if there is uncomfortable silence – just wait. Give them the time to think so that you can take a deep dive into the thinking process.

Help your students practice critical thinking and problem solving skills by presenting your students with problems that don't have an easy solution.

We dive into scenarios, whether they are social or math-based, that require more than just a glance. For example, we will dissect word problems together or a math problem they may not have seen just yet to introduce the concept. We’ll explore various possibilities on how we could start off solving the math problem.

If a social concern about friend drama pops up, I will put a scenario together for us to work through by discussing the perspectives of who is included in the made-up scenario version. Why did they make the choices they did? What could they have done differently? Because they did one thing, what did that cause? It’s not about being in the know 100%, but more about becoming a thoughtful problem-solver.

As they navigate through these challenges, they’re not just finding solutions. They’re developing a knack for analyzing information, considering different angles, and crafting well-thought-out responses.

2. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Middle school is undoubtedly a social whirlwind. It’s a mix of laughter, friendship dramas, and a dash of chaotic energy. So, why not use that energy for some problem-solving skill-building? Group projects can be a great way for students to learn to work together, listen to others, and share their thoughts. They have to assimilate information, process it with understanding, and figure out how to apply the group knowledge to find a consensus.

Group projects allow you to weave in problem solving with academics with the opportunity to develop social problem solving skills too. It’s about weaving a web of skills that extend beyond the assignment. While tackling an academic problem, students will learn to listen to others and analyze what is being said. Through these group endeavors, they learn to appreciate different perspectives. They can start to understand each team member’s strengths and, most importantly, navigate the beautiful chaos of teamwork. There’s going to be disagreements and standstill, so they’ll begin to figure out how to talk through those moments.

But the magic happens when it all comes together. A group solution to an academic problem is usually arrived at after putting those social problem solving skills to the test.

3. Real-Life Problems, Real-Life Solutions

Let’s shift our gears to the world of math. One way to bring math to life is by looking at the focused math skills in real-life math challenges or scenarios. Textbooks have their charm and can be helpful with some practice problems. There’s an unmatched thrill in solving problems that sync with what is happening or what could happen in the real world. Having my students look at real-life scenarios when studying math helps them to see that math is relevant and impactful.

When the time is available, I love challenging my students with a scenario that requires their math skills to solve. Whether it’s crafting solutions for a community-based math puzzle or planning a party while staying on budget, these challenges are the heart of the adventure of mathematical problem-solving. But why stop there? Dive deeper into your scenario for even more problem-solving fun.

You can go as deep as you see fit with your students. They can brainstorm an initial solution or go further. They can then think about the resources they will need, how much those will cost, and where to get them. What about time constraints? They’ll then have to think about a timeline for them to put their hypothetical plan into action to get to their end goal. Suddenly, problem-solving isn’t a mundane task. It fills your classroom with excitement, engaged conversations, and a sense of purpose!

Resources to Help You Get Started

This practice comes in handy as students work through word problems during classwork as well! Help remind them of the strategies you worked through with a visual aid such as these problem-solving bookmarks.

And. . . if you are not sure where to start, I have some free Problem of the Week resources are the perfect starting place. All of the Problem of the Week resources are in the Free Math Resource Center. You can get access by signing up here.

4. ABC’s of Problem Solving Skills – Analyze, Brainstorm, Choose

ABC is a popular acronym that has many variations to it. You can easily make it your own, but what works in my classroom is to analyze, brainstorm, and choose. I’ll walk you through how I explain each letter in my room and how it helps my students’ problem-solving skills.

A – Analyze

Use the ABS's of problem solving to help students tackle challenges by analyzing, brainstorming, and choosing the correct answers.

The first letter of our problem-solving alphabet is A for Analyze. It’s one thing to just glance at the problem. It’s a whole other thing to dissect it and understand the ins and outs. What happened? Why did it happen? What is being asked? What do I need to figure out? All of these are questions that help students analyze a problem. This is a great first step whether you are solving a math problem or a social problem.

After presenting the problem I like to have my students share some of the questions they are asking themselves during the analyze phase. Depending on the question it might sound like this: Did a peer take your snack, because they don’t have much food at home or because they were being mean? Did your friend snap at you because they didn’t get enough sleep or because they were mad at you? Do I need all of the numbers provided in the problem or was there unnecessary extra information?

It’s so important for middle schoolers to learn to ask these analysis questions. It helps them take a more objective view of the problem. In social settings, it helps them to widen their awareness of themselves to those around them.

B – Brainstorm

Next, B for brainstorming! We brainstorm possible methods of solving the problem, reasons for why words are said or actions are taken, and possible solutions. Then, we look at possible ways actions and words from all involved could impact others. This is the time that we focus on possible solutions.

In math, that will include identifying the math skills needed to solve the problem, recalling formulas, and applying strategies. In real life, this might include how can we fix or make this situation better now and in the future.

C – Choose

The C for Choose. It’s decision time. We evaluate our all of brainstormed ideas and possible solutions. Then it is time to put them into action. During this step, students may choose different things and that is okay. But don’t miss the learning opportunity that comes with that. As students are developing problem solving skills it is important to give them time to share their thinking. Here students can learn from each other as they hear about things they didn’t think about or see situations or problems from a different perspective. This process is a fun and in-depth way to practice problem solving skills with students!

5. Power of Perseverance in Middle School

I purposely saved this one for last because, without this skill or trait, it will be tricky for your middle schoolers to do the previous four. Problem solving is hard. It can get messy before it starts smoothing out into a solution. Your students will become defensive, moan, groan, or just go off and do their own thing. In those moments, I take a step back, take a deep breath, and work with them to learn perseverance. It’s a complete mindset shift, but once it happens it changes how our students approach any situation.

I make sure my students understand that setbacks aren’t roadblocks but rather detours on the path to success or achievement. I emphasize the importance of grit and resilience. We talk about how mistakes are still good to make because it shows that they are trying. The key to those mistakes or roadblocks is to not stop but to keep trying by trying to do something different.

To drive this point home, I weave in tales of legends who faced adversity head-on and emerged victorious. Whether it’s Thomas Edison’s journey to invent the lightbulb or J.K. Rowling’s story of persistence in getting Harry Potter published, these narratives become the fuel for their perseverance engine. I share some of my own stories with them about times I have had to persevere. I then turn the table and have them reflect on times they struggled but persevered until they had succeeded. Most of the time, they surprise themselves!

Give Your Middle Schoolers Problem Solving Skills to Succeed

And there you have the ultimate toolbox of my top five problem-solving skills tailored for your middle schoolers. This toolbox of skills will never go out of style. These skills are the building blocks for shaping the future for our middle schoolers.

Enhance your student's confidence as they tackle challenges with problem solving skills.

As they master the art of critical thinking, through academic and social challenges, they’re becoming equipped with the skills to construct creative solutions and tackle whatever hurdles the future may throw their way. These aren’t just skills for the present. They’re the transformative forces that pave the way for a future filled with confident, creative problem-solvers ready to leave their mark on the world. The adventure begins in your classroom!

Interested in problem solving skills through a math lens? Read Help Middle School Math Students Improve Problem Solving Skills to learn more!

Save for Later

Remember to save this post to your favorite math or teacher Pinterest board to return to for your middle schoolers’ problem-solving skills!

Ellie

Welcome to Cognitive Cardio Math! I’m Ellie, a wife, mom, grandma, and dog ‘mom,’ and I’ve spent just about my whole life in school! With nearly 30 years in education, I’ve taught:

  • All subject areas in 4th and 5th grades
  • Math, ELA, and science in 6th grade (middle school)

I’ve been creating resources for teachers since 2012 and have worked in the elearning industry for about five years as well!

If you’re looking for ideas and resources to help you teach math (and a little ELA), I can help you out!

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