Program Outcomes for Children

Outcome Component 2: Demonstrates Competence in Problem Solving 


Problem solving is an important ability that contributes to academic and functional literacy for many children and adults.  Successfully solving a problem requires a child to coordinate skills across several different domains.  Children who are competent problem solvers can study a problem in detail and think critically about it, determine what needs to be done, generate strategies, evaluate the success of a given strategy, and persist in the problem-solving process until a solution is successful (Berk, 1996).  Problem solving can be either an individual or a group activity.  Both types require persistence, focused attention, and creativity.  Group problem solving also requires effective communication, peer-interaction skills, and very often the ability to compromise (Vygotsky, 1978).

Children begin to acquire problem-solving skills in early childhood.  By age three, most children have the rudiments of some problem-solving strategies and can apply those skills in specific situations (Shaffer, 1999).  However, the problem-solving skills of very young children are limited by several factors, including a relatively short attention span, difficulty understanding cause-and-effect relationships, and limited experience in solving problems independently.  As children develop, they have opportunities to observe adults solving problems and to practice problem solving for themselves.  As a result of ongoing observation and practice, children’s critical-thinking skills and specific problem-solving strategies become more refined, and they become able to solve problems across a wider range of domains.  Attention span and persistence also increase during early childhood and the elementary years.  By about fourth grade, most children’s problem solving skills are relatively well-developed, as long as the problems are concrete and not abstract.  They have a good understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.  They can also generate, test, and evaluate solutions to concrete problems.  During adolescence, abstract thinking abilities develop, and teens learn to extend their concrete problem-solving skills to abstract problems (Shaffer, 1999).

Even as adults, however, different individuals have different levels of problem-solving skill.  Some individuals are better able to critically assess a problem, generate creative ideas, and apply those ideas to solving the problem than others are.  Problem solving is also related to other positive outcomes, such as school success and success in interpersonal relationships.  Problem solving may also contribute to the resiliency of children and youth at risk.  Children and youth at risk who are skillful problem solvers are more likely to survive and thrive in stressful conditions than children and youth with limited problem solving abilities (Benard, 1996).  Some of this effect is attributed to skillful problem solvers’ increased feelings of control over their lives.  Children who successfully solve problems believe that they can control their circumstances, which lessens their stress levels and increases their resiliency in the face of larger stressors (Benard, 1996).  Fortunately, many components of problem solving can be taught through direct instruction, adult modeling, and guided practice in real-life situations (Skinner, Wellborn, & Connell, 1990; Whitmore & Goodman, 1995). 

Suggested Indicators

The following are some appropriate indicators of positive program outcomes for children in the area of problem solving, based on the NCEO model (Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1993), as adapted for community-based programs by the Children’s Outcome Work Group.  The appropriateness of any given indicator for your program evaluation depends on the age of the children you serve, the setting, and the goals and activities of your particular program.

  • Percent of children who generate, test, and evaluate solutions to concrete problems.
  • Percent of children who demonstrate an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.

Problem solving is a series of abilities that are used throughout life.  Because problem solving has been identified as a protective factor that helps foster resilience in children at risk, State Strengthening projects may be especially invested in helping children learn to solve problems successfully without fear of failing.  Community-based projects can help strengthen children’s problem solving skills by teaching them how to generate and test different strategies, by supplying adult role models of effective problem solving, and by providing opportunities to solve many different types of problems, both individually and in group situations. 

These problem-solving situations do not need to be elaborately-planned “lessons”.  Everyday activities such as taking turns with a favorite toy, building a complex structure with blocks, or working a jigsaw puzzle require children to use their developing problem-solving skills.  The key is to make sure the situations are challenging enough to stimulate children’s thinking, without making them so challenging that children become frustrated immediately.


 Benard, B.  (1996).  Resilience research.  New designs for youth development, 12, 4 -10.

 Berk, L. E.   (1996).  Infants, children, and adolescents. (2nd Ed.).  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon.

 Shaffer, D.  (1999).  Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence (5th Ed.).  Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

 Skinner, E. A., Wellborn, J. G., & Connell, J. P.  (1990).  What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it:  A process model of perceived control and children’s engagement in school.  Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 22 - 32.

 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978).  Mind in society.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

 Whitmore, K. F., & Goodman, Y. M. (1995).  Transforming curriculum in language and literacy.  In S. Bredekamp & T. Rosegrant (Eds.), Reaching potentials:  Transforming early childhood curriculum and assessment (pp. 145-166). Washington, D.C.:  National Association for the Education of Young Children.

 Ysseldyke, J. E., & Thurlow, M. (1993, October). Developing a model of educational outcomes (NCEO Report No. 1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, College of Education, National Center on Educational Outcomes.
MEASURES:   Demonstrates Competence in Problem Solving

The following standardized assessments are provided as examples of measures that may be useful for evaluation of children’s problem-solving skills in community-based programs.  This listing is not comprehensive and is not intended as an endorsement of any particular measure.  Some of the assessment instruments that follow are copyrighted and require specific levels of training to administer.  Prices of measures are subject to change.  In deciding to use any standardized measures or checklists, it is important to review specific items and subscales to decide how well they fit your program.

It is important to recognize that standardized measures, such as the ones listed below, are not the only appropriate ways to assess outcomes for children.  Because problem solving encompasses such a wide variety of specific contents, locally developed checklists and observational measures, assessed over a period of time in a variety of different situations, may provide a more accurate index of children’s developing problem solving skill than a standardized measure administered only once or twice.  Simple checklists completed by classroom teachers and leaders of community-based projects may also provide useful information about children’s problem solving abilities. 

1.  Omnibus Guidelines  J. R. Jablon
Date:   1994
                  Academic Abilities
                  Scientific Thinking
                  Social Studies
                  The Arts
                   Physical Development
                   Personal and Social Development
                   Language and Literacy
                   Mathematical Thinking

Available Through:

 The Work Sampling System
 Rebus Planning Associates, Inc.
 1103 South University Ave.
 Ann Arbor, Michigan  48104
Cost: N/A

Target Audience:

  Preschool through Grade 3
Description and Comments:
This measure is a series of checklists used to assist teachers in observing, recording and evaluating an individual child’s skills, knowledge, behaviors, and accomplishments.  The behaviors and skills assessed are those considered to be developmentally appropriate for most children in this age range.

2.  Test of Nonverbal Intelligence - 3rd Edition (TONI-3)  Brown, Sherbenou, & Johnsen
Date:   1997
Abstract Reasoning
                  Problem Solving

Available Through:

 PAR, Inc.
 PO Box 998
 Odessa, FL  33556
 Phone:  1-800-331-837
Cost:   $225 for a complete TONI-3 kit

Target Audience: 

  Ages 5 years 0 months - adult
Description and Comments:
This measure is useful in evaluating children’s problem solving skills.  This assessment is a language-free measure of problem solving, intelligence, and aptitude.  The examiner pantomimes the instructions and answers only require a nod or  a point.  Because the measure is completely nonverbal, it may be used with children with limited English proficiency or limited reading and writing skills.  The psychometrics of this assessment are considered valid and reliable. 

3.  Child Observation Record (COR) High/Scope
Date:  1992


  Academic Achievement
  Coping Strategies
  Social Skills
  Problem Solving Skills 
Available Through:
  High/Scope Educational Research Foundation
  600 North River Street
  Ypsilanti, MI 48198
  Phone:  (313) 485-2000 
Cost:  $90.00

Target Audience: 

  Ages 2 ½ to 6 years
Description and Comments:
COR is a teacher checklist developed by the High Scope Educational Research Foundation for assessment of preschoolers. This measure has become the assessment of choice for some evaluators of community-based preschool prevention programs because it is behaviorally focused, can be used in parts (subscales), and is not excessively time-consuming for teachers or program staff to administer. The COR has been successfully used with low-income and ethnic minority populations. 

Academic and
Functional Literacy


| Program Outcomes for Children |

| NOWG Home |