Asking questions to guide problem solving

Question mark: Asking questions instead of giving advice

The questions that follow are provided to help with the mechanics of mastering the technique of “asking—not telling,” an effective alternative to giving kids advice that encourages independence and problem-solving competence. The questions are in no particular order and will neither be relevant nor appropriate for every child or situation you encounter.

I understand that it will always be easier to jump to, “Well just ignore her,” or “Why don’t you do it like this?” But giving advice also assumes responsibility for the solution, a skill and asset that kids of all ages need throughout their lives.

Read through the list for ideas and to help become more familiar with the process. Use what works for you. Add to this list as you think of other questions or want to note ideas that work.

The purpose of these questions—and this process—is to allow you to put the responsibility for solving a particular problem on the kids, almost like throwing a ball back to them, over and over, even though it will almost always seem easier to just catch the ball (the problem) and run with it yourself.

Remember, you want to get a dialogue going, one in which the kids do most of the talking and you do most of the listening. You want to help them get a better grip on what’s going on in a particular situation, and to determine what they want, explore which options are available (and won’t create additional problems), anticipate the outcomes of each possible approach to the problem, and identify what they’re ultimately going to try to make it better or make it right.

This process is only as good as your ability to listen and respond to what you’re hearing. Be careful that you don’t simply run down this list, bombarding a child with a series of questions. Please do not “drill” the kids or get impatient to ask the next question. This is not a script and the questions are not the issue—the process is!

So next time a child* trusts you enough to come to you with a problem, watch the tendency to offer solutions or advice. Try this process and watch how smart even young children can be!

*This process works equally well with adults! Regardless of who has approached you, the process of listening, reflecting, and using questions to help guide others to their own solution is extremely respectful of their intelligence, and their capacity for solving their problems.

Some Sample Questions

  • What happened?
  • What would you like to happen next?
  • What do you think will (or might) happen next?
  • How do you think you’ll feel later (or afterwards)?
  • How would you feel if that happened to you?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What’s worked for you in the past?
  • What else could you try?
  • What kind of back-up plans do you have if that doesn’t work?
  • What have you tried that’s worked with this person?
  • What have you tried that’s worked in similar situations?
  • What are you risking by doing that?
  • Is it worth it?
  • How can you take care of yourself in this situation?
  • How would you like him/her to treat you?
  • What do you plan to say?
  • What seems to work for the other kids?
  • If you had a magic wand, how would you make this turn out?
  • What do you think the other person wants?
  • What have you just agreed to?
  • Will that create any problems for you?
  • Will that create any problems for anyone?
  • What if you change your mind?
  • What else might you try?
  • What have you learned from this?
  • What are you going to do the next time you’re tempted to do that?
  • How are you going to avoid this problem in the future?
  • How are you going to prevent this problem in the future?
  • Is this helping?
  • How important is it for you to (pass this class, get the part, stay in this relationship, make the team. . .)?
  • What are you willing to do to (pass this class, get the part, stay in this relationship, make the team…)?
  • What will happen if you don’t (pass this class, get the part, stay in this relationship, make the team…)?
  • How will you know if that’s a good choice?
  • What would you have to do differently to make this work?
  • What are you willing to change?
  • How can you find out?
  • What questions do you have?
  • How do you think you might handle this the next time it occurs?
  • What do you wish you could say to this person?
  • Do you want the situation to change?
  • How do you want the situation to change?
  • Are you willing to consider other options?
  • What will you do the next time you run into him/her?
  • What does this person want you to do to make things right?
  • What might you propose as an alternative?
  • What will happen if you get caught?
  • Would you like to talk about it?
  • Would you like to talk to someone else about this?
  • Can you live with that?
  • What are you being blamed for?
  • What parts of this situation are beyond your control?
  • What parts of this situation are within your control (or influence)?
  • What are the limits (or criteria or deadlines) in this situation?
  • How much time do you need to decide?
  • What if you’re OK the way you are?
  • What would that sound like?
  • How are you going to follow up on this?
  • When are you going to follow up on this?
  • What do you wish this other person would do?
  • If the situation doesn’t change, how can you take care of yourself?
  • What bothers you the most about this situation?
  • What do you like best about this person?
  • Do you want to solve this problem?
  • Do you need more time to think about it?
  • Do you want me to leave you alone?

Other questions I might ask:

How I will remember to ASK (or just LISTEN!) the next time I’m tempted to give advice?

Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA.

© 1990, 1999, 2003, 2013, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related links:

Characteristics of a Good Boundary
Dangers of Obedience and People Pleasing
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Magic Sentences for Effective Communication
Motivating Cooperative Behavior
Parenting Teens
Questions, not Answers (benefits)
Ways to be a More Conscious Parent
Ways to build Irresponsibility in Children
Ways to Model Respect with Your Children

Also: Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA tries a new approach to school discipline—suspensions drop 85%. (Note: The punitive component still exists—we are so hesitant to let that go—but the addition of listening and validating is a big step forward.)

See more resources for educators on student behavior issues.


Book: The Book of Article Reprints
Book: Listas Para Padres: Qué Hacer Y Qué No
Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line

Audio: Parent Tapes (mp3 download)

Articles: Individual article reprints for educators, counselors, parents, and general interest.

Free download: “Pads” on the Back Templates in multiple languages


The Choice is Yours with Lynn Collins
Is Control the Goal? with Tammy Cox


Grownups, Kids, and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line
Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line
Positively Positive at Home: Keeping the Focus You Want
“You Can’t Make Me!” Using Boundaries Build Responsibility, Cooperation, and Mutual Respect

Please Note: Some resource include material originally developed for educators with content that is equally applicable for parents and caregivers.

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