Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

August 14, 2011

Coming Unhinged and The Frontal Lobe – A Problem Solving Tool

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 6:04 pm
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Coming out of the shower, I slid the glass door open and it came off its track in my hands.  Holding what seemed to be 50 pounds of glass in slippery, wet hands, I called for my husband.  Try as we might, we couldn’t get both the top and bottom of the door back on track.  We tried brute force (as much as one safely forces glass).  We tried subtle angling and coaxing, but nothing worked.  My husband suggested we investigate other shower doors in the house to see how this one should work.  He examined the bottom of the recalcitrant door and discovered a metal piece attached with two screws.  “Maybe” he offered “you unscrew this piece, reattach it to the track and the door, and retighten the screws”.    A few turns of the screw later – voila – shower back on track!

Although a Phillips head screwdriver was critical for this repair, much more critical was my husband’s white matter!  Particularly, that part of the human brain referred to as the frontal lobe, the seat of reasoning and higher order cognition, really saved the day.  Interestingly, I’m the handyman (handywoman) in the family, more spatial and knowledgeable about fixing stuff, largely thanks to my Dad who blessed me genetically with ability in that area, and shared his talents with me in his shop and in the projects he completed  throughout our home.  But it wasn’t the spatial analysis region of the brain that was needed for our runaway shower door – it was the executive functioning region that is highly involved with problem solving.

My husband’s brain demonstrated superb problem solving skills as we approached this repair challenge.  These are skills all parents and educators would love to promote in their young charges (and spouses love to see them in their mates, as well).  Problem solving and other higher order cognitive skills can be broken into teachable components.  Revisiting my husband’s problem solving steps offers some hints for how to building problem solving in children.  First, he did what experts in any field do . . . he looked for patterns, asking – how do other shower doors work?  Exploring patterns allows us to discover the similarities and differences in situations.  Parents and educators promote the development of pattern seeking abilities with games and guided questions.  The Sesame Street segment . . . “one of these things is not like the other” is a prime example.

Next my husband utilized a variant of brainstorming – generating as many ideas as possible to try to find a solution that will work.  While I was stuck on trying to get the door to fit, he opened his mind to the possibility that a piece of the door could or should be removed to get it back on track.  Brainstorming is also a teachable skill, but one that runs counter to what so many children are accustomed to doing.  Adults communicate in subtle and not so subtle ways that children are to give one and only one right answer.  This is the absolute opposite of brainstorming, and stunts the growth of the free-wheeling consideration of multiple options so crucial to good problem solving.  Parents and educators can strengthen children’s brainstorming muscles by asking for five possible reasons that . . . or three ways you could . . . .

Another  component of successful problem solving that helped us fix our shower door was my husband’s value of trial and error – his willingness to try something, assess if it works, and if necessary, try again.  His simple statement – “maybe you unscrew this piece . . . “ was a combination of experimental or scientific thinking, acceptance of possible failure, and perseverance to keep trying.   These are critical attitudes and habits to build in our children and students, both directly and indirectly.  Directly by telling them to think of problems as experiments, chances to wonder about what will work, and to understand that not everything will.  Directly, by making mistakes and failures as important learning activities as “correct answers”.  Indirectly we communicate the benefits of the scientific method when we congratulate all attempts, even those we suspect will not lead to solutions, when we create opportunities to try many options, and when we applaud “stick-to-it-iveness” as much as correctness.

I credit my husband with one more masterful accomplishment in this home repair dilemma.  While I was getting frustrated, and might have taken my anger out on the rather fragile glass door, he stayed calm, suggesting much needed breaks, and return to the problem with fresh, more reasoned eyes.   Emotional regulation is another talent of the human frontal lobes, helping us manage the frustration that can derail problem solving.  This, too, we can build in youngsters, although it is certainly challenging.  Partly it requires exposing them to frustration, not providing easy answers or rescuing them from distress.  Starting in small doses, giving children the opportunity to struggle is critical.

Eventually, my husband and I needed to take out our toolbox to solve our shower door problem.  A simple screwdriver seemingly providing the answer to our prayers.  In fact, the tool that solved the problem was far from simple.  The complex connections of the human frontal lobe, allowing us to reason, stay calm, try and try again, really saved the day.  In a world where children can google anything, find all answers on Wikipedia, or “chacha” their way to the truth, adults need to work extra hard to ensure this incredible tool growing inside little heads doesn’t atrophy.   Parents
and educators need to do all they can to help children’s personal problem solving tool boxes are well oiled and ready to go to work on all life’s challenges.



  1. Thank you for keeping our brains well oiled throughout the summer season. Wonderful modeling for us to share with parents and teachers.

    Comment by sharona — August 17, 2011 @ 3:12 pm |Reply

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