I Think Vanilla Ice was on to Something…A Case Study of Problem Solving

Written By Sarah Frampton, MA, BCBA, LBA

Image by Geralt from Pixabay

In the era of a pandemic, I have struggled to navigate the new challenges of supporting remote learning, keeping children engaged at home, while still attempting to do my job and do my own schoolwork. Through juggling these responsibilities, I have learned quite a bit- for today’s purposes I will focus on three observations: 1) Legos © are much come intricate than they used to be, 2) Kindergarten curriculum is no joke, and 3) no member of my household can find anything in our house. These issues, though initially seemingly unrelated, share a common thread. When my son is attempting to complete a 1000-piece structure, when my daughter is trying to finish her virtual worksheets, and when my husband is looking for his keys- the members of my family are facing problems. Their solutions to these problems are also shared, they ask me for help. Being a parent and spouse are the greatest privileges of my life, but in times like these, I am also very glad to be a behavior analyst who can break down these complex events on a conceptual level and ultimately help my family find new solutions.

B.F. Skinner (1984) stated that basically all behavior is related to solving some sort of problem. He described problems as a “state of deprivation or aversive stimulation” (p. 246). In considering my very trivial examples this definition holds up. My children are frustrated (an aversive experience) when they cannot complete their activities. My husband is deprived of his keys which also leads to frustration and angst at the possibility of being late. In the face of a problem, Skinner (1984) explains that behavior that changes a situation such that a solution is produced is known as problem solving. The ways of solving a problem may look different from person to person or situation to situation, but they have a common effect of alleviating the initial problem. Asking for help is a broadly appliable problem solving strategy, but it is heavily dependent on the time and availability of the helper (in this case me). For my sanity and the success of our family unit it was important for us to focus on some new forms of problem solving.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Teaching Problem Solving

My advisor Judah Axe and some wonderful fellow Simmons University students recently wrote a paper where they reviewed empirical demonstrations of problem solving. In the article Axe and colleagues (2018) highlighted some problem solving strategies such as: following steps within a task chain (Grimm et al., 1973; Parsons, 1976), simplifying equations by writing (Neef et al., 2003; Levingston et al., 2009), and visual imagining (Kisamore et al., 2011; Sautter et al, 2011). These strategies proved useful to the individuals’ facing problems in each respective research study and I found they had application in my daily life.

For my son struggling with his massive Lego © set, we worked together to learn how to use the instructions (i.e., a task chain) to support his building skills. We worked on flipping the page, pointing to the instructions to locate what pieces are needed, then pointing to the picture to find the placement, then placing the new piece. When I reminded him to follow these steps, he was able to build the structure on his own, thus solving his problem. For my daughter working through kindergarten word problems, I encouraged her to write out the initial number described in the story, determine the operation, which amount was added or subtracted, then when these figures were written as an equation, she found she could easily solve the problem. For my husband, we worked on the trusty old strategy of “Can you remember where you had the keys last?” which absolutely includes visually imagining and verbally recalling what he was picturing.

Image by Javaistan from Pixabay

By putting an emphasis on teaching problem solving we are empowering individuals to overcome their barriers, frustrations, challenges which may result in greater autonomy. In the empirical articles (see Axe et al., 2018) and the at-home-examples above the individuals learned skills that could be applied to solve many types of problems. By putting an emphasis on teaching problem solving we are not only addressing the current problems we are establishing skills that may be useful over a lifetime. As noted by Axe and colleagues (2018), “problem solving is inherent in countless daily interactions between humans and their environments,” (p. 53). In closing, I hope this discussion of problem solving encourages you to learn more about B. F. Skinner’s (1953; 1984) conceptual approach to understanding both the big and small problems we face and consider some empowering skills that may assist you in solving them.

Sarah Frampton, MA, BCBA, LBA works as the Director of Clinical Services and Training for Children’s Services for the May Institute, Inc. She works with May Institute’s clinical leadership team to use the science and practice of behavior analysis to increase meaningful communication, social interaction, and the development of language with individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is currently enrolled in the doctoral program in Behavior Analysis at Simmons University. Sarah completed her master’s degree in Education from California State University, Sacramento. She serves as adjunct faculty at Simmons University and as the student representative on the ABAI Practice Board. Sarah has published over 20 articles in behavior analytic journals and serves on the editorial board for The Analysis of Verbal Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. She has received awards for her contributions to research and practice from the May Institute, Marcus Autism Center, The Experimental Analysis of Human Behavior Special Interest Group, the Speech Pathology Applied Behavior Analysis Special Interest Group, and the Verbal Behavior Special Interest Group.