How to Hand Your Students Their Problems Right Back to Them

Dear Kid Whisperer,

What are some strategies for when students shrug their shoulders and refuse to solve problems on their own? I have a student who, when I ask, “What do you think you should do next?” or, “How can we fix this?” will just shrug and  stare. – Cathy, Solon, Ohio


My advice may seem counterintuitive to you since teachers are given a big, fat lie by the ivory tower intelligentsia class that is supposed to teach us how to manage the behaviors of our students (but doesn’t). It is the same lie that makes raising children much more difficult than it has to be. The lie is this:

Adults are supposed to solve kids’ problems.

The fact is that we usually can’t solve kids’ problems if they don’t want to solve them, and even if we could, we shouldn’t.

Why not? Human beings will generally solve their own problems. If they see a problem as someone else’s, they will almost never solve it.

If they don’t solve it, that’s fine. Why?


When we solve problems that can be solved by a kid, we take away an opportunity for growth and we reveal a profound underestimation about what kids are capable of.

Your wording reveals the problem in your approach: “How can we fix this?” gives exactly the wrong message. Once a kid hears “we” and “fix” in the same sentence, he becomes far less likely to feel the need to solve the problem.

The only exception to this is when a kid has caused a problem for someone else and then refuses to solve it. In this case, we create air-tight consequences for training the child to solve this kind of problem next time. Other than that, we should never solve kids’ problems unless failure to do so could result in dangerous or life-threatening situations (if a shelf is about to fall on your student, solve that problem for them if you can).

Since teachers generally have to teach 25 to 35 kids at a time, you would think that one of the first things that teachers would learn in teacher school is to not solve kids’ problems and how to guide them to do so if and when it is convenient for the teacher. If teachers knew how to do this, it would be easier for them to be able to actually get to their content.

So here is how I have dealt with this situation in my classroom:

Kid Whisperer: How can you fix this?

Kid shrugs as if I asked him what Fermat’s last theorem is.

Kid Whisperer: Would you like to know what other kids in your position have tried?

Kid shrugs as if I asked him to prove Fermat’s last theorem.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. This is sad. Good luck!

Kid Whisperer walks away and goes on living his life, teaching kids as best he can.

Next time you find yourself in your classroom, try this strategy in order to take better care of yourself, and to give your students the opportunity to become better problem solvers.