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A New Approach to Improving Problem Solving Skills for Kids

When you ask an adult what they do, whether it’s at work, home, or at play, one answer you often hear is some variation of this:

“Well, to tell you the truth, I wear many hats.”

We all know what they mean, because we can all relate. At work, we might be a manager, a subordinate, a disciplinarian, or a friendly, supportive peer. At home, we might be a cook, a chauffeur, and time management expert, or a disciplinarian.

When we say we “wear many hats” it means we have more than one function in life: not quite multiple identities – but multiple roles?

Absolutely. We all have multiple roles to play. When we think of our kids, though, we tend to think of them as one thing: kids. They go to school, they come home and have a snack, do homework, then go play with friends. Or perhaps they go to a sports practice, a music lesson, or something completely different. Throughout all of their activities, we tend to see them as embodying one consistent identity. We don’t think of them as “wearing many hats” or playing multiple roles.

A recent study, however, indicates that we should.


Because it helps kids in a way that no one – seriously – would have thought.

The Roles Kids Play

In a paper published this year called “Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking,” researchers performed an interesting set of experiments. In each one, they asked two groups of six and seven-year-old kids to think of themselves in two specific ways. The first group received prompts to think of themselves as having multiple identities: sibling, friend, student, and more. The second group received prompts to think of their multiple physical characteristics: two feet, a mouth, two legs, and a torso, for example. Next, researchers administered four identical problem-solving tasks to the two groups of children.

Guess what they found?

Compared to the kids prompted to think of their physical characteristic, the kids prompted to think about themselves as having multiple identities displayed:

  • More flexible problem-solving skills
  • More creative problem-solving skills
  • The ability to suggest several solutions to each problem-solving task

In order to confirm their results, the researchers repeated the experiment two more times, each time with a slightly different prompt. While keeping the multiple physical characteristic prompts the same, they asked the second kids to think of slight variations on the multiple-identity concept: in the first, kids were asked to think about the multiple roles of their peers, and in the second, they were asked to think about having multiple preferences. For instance, rather than “You’re a sibling, student, and piano player,” they were prompted with “You like to play soccer? You like to help around the house? You like to do your homework every day?”

The results?

The multiple-identity kids outperformed the other groups of kids on the problem-solving tasks in both follow-up experiments.

Flexible Minds, Flexible Thinking

The results of this study are thought-provoking.

They teach us to consider our children in a different light. We should realize that, much like adults, our children play multiple roles as they go through their days. They’re daughters and sons. They’re students and friends. They’re athletes, artists, and musicians. As they navigate their lives, they transition from one role to another as easily as adults transition between the various roles we play in our lives. We go from parent to professional in less than an hour, and sometimes in less than thirty seconds, and our kids do the same. In the classroom, they may be a mathematician. In the hallway between classes, they may be a friend or prankster. Back in the classroom, they may become a writer or scientist for the better part of an hour.

What’s most interesting is the fact that when they’re reminded of these roles, they perform better on problem-solving tasks. This is novel information, important information, and what makes it so crucial for parents, teachers, or anyone working with kids to understand is that it’s so simple. Remind a child of their multiple roles and identities, and their problem-solving skills improve. It’s not a month-long unit, it’s not even an assignment that takes up a full class period: it’s a verbal prompt that changes how kids think – and we think that’s amazing.

They also teach us something else – or at least imply something else: if consciously thinking of their multiple roles improves problem-solving in kids, then why wouldn’t the same mindset improve problem-solving skills for adults?

That’s an informal experiment we can all perform on ourselves, starting today.

Why not give it a try?

We’re curious what you might learn.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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