The Benefits of Taking a Break in Problem Solving | exSTEMsions

The Benefits of Taking a Break in Problem Solving

Taking a break so we can move forward

We all get frustrated. As adults, we’ve learned to handle frustration productively (mostly). For learners, the many ways to effectively deal with frustration are still being learned. As a mom with two kids who aren’t yet school age, in my house we see a lot of examples of unproductive ways to deal with frustration, but we’re working on some alternatives. Right now we’re working on a strategy that also comes in handy when working through problems like our current Problem of the Week: walking away.

Walk away?! Yes. Yes. Yes. We all do it. As adults, we’ve all gotten to the point where we know working on something more just isn’t helpful (I’ve actually walked away from this post three times…). We know that leaving what we’re working on can help. This is a key lesson to apply when problem solving. We have to learn that it’s totally okay to stop, stand up, move away and go do something else for a while, especially when progress is stalled. And actually, it’s even a little more complex than that, right? Because we also have to come back. When I walk away from a task, like this post, I do so with the intention and knowledge that I’ll be coming back to it when my head is a bit clearer. This is something that I have LEARNED to do, and it’s something that I have to teach my children as a part of helping them to deal with frustration.  

Helping our kids take a break

Walking away is something my daughter is struggling with right now. She loves jigsaw puzzles, and sometimes when she gets stuck because she can’t find the piece she needs, I may suggest she walk away. Typically, this is followed by her totally freaking out. She freaks out (and yes, that’s the technical term) because she doesn’t think she’s going to get to come back and finish the puzzle - and she is nothing if not driven to finish. Some of that is because she worries that Mom will put it away before she has a chance (which may have happened at some point…), but also because she just can’t bear to leave things undone. You may have heard it in your own homes: “but Mom, I have to finish this!”  But it’s important for her, and learners in general, to be able to pause their work. Walking away teaches kids that not everything has to be, or even can be, finished in one sitting. Often, and this is my favorite part, the solver learns that returning to something with fresh eyes can be a help - like when my daughter returns to the puzzle and immediately finds the piece that was eluding her.

So, how do you help a solver walk away? First, be clear with them about why you are suggesting a break. Then, as you suggest a break, help them remember what they have accomplished so far.  When a problem is finished, that’s an accomplishment. But making headway, any headway at all, is also an accomplishment.  There are many parts of the thinking process that the solver can be proud of, apart from the final answer. Next, encourage them to actually go do something else. Sometimes, just working on a different task is enough, but for this to really work, focus needs to shift somewhere else to give the brain a break from the problem that was creating frustration. For me, when I’m stuck, I try to move to a different room, or go outside, and do something totally different (fold laundry... walk the dogs... clean…), so that I really do get a break from my frustration before I head back and start fresh.

When the break is over...

Once the break is over, and it’s time to get back to thinking, help the solver restart. You might ask them about where they left off, and why they were frustrated. You might make a suggestion about how they might proceed in a different way than they were trying before. The goal is simply to help them restart with a positive feeling, so that they can overcome their frustration, and continue forward. Making headway in a problem is an accomplishment, yes, but most of us aren’t really satisfied until the problem is actually finished!

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Habits of Mind
Learning with Children