S1.14 - Problem-Solving

The Self-Determined Career Development Model is based on problem solving. People who use the model set a goal to achieve something they choose. Problem solving skills help to support the Self-Determined Career Development Model.

Problem-solving can be defined as “determining the most appropriate and efficient response to a given problem” (Agran and Hughes, 1997). It is a skill that includes gathering and organizing information to analyze a situation, identifying a solution, and executing the solution (Agran, Blanchard, Wehmeyer, and Hughes, 2002). While most of us have never had any formal training in problem-solving, there are few that would argue about the usefulness of problem-solving skills. Problem solving skills affect all aspects of life including our work, social situations, and family life. Further, effective problem solving skills are a key element in facilitating self-determination (Wehmeyer, 1996).
Here are some brief suggestions that might be used to facilitate or promote problem solving skills. Problem solving uses four phases or steps:

  1. Identify the problem,
  2. Select a course of action,
  3. Implement a solution, and
  4. Evaluate the solution.

Each step is described below.

Step 1: Identify and Define the Problem

Looking at the difference between the current situation and what is wanted helps to define the problem (Agran and Hughes, 1997). Consider asking the following questions to identify the problem:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What do I have now or what is the current situation?
  3. What is the gap between what I want and the current situation?

Once the first three questions are answered, write a short statement about the gap between what is wanted and the current situation. Does this statement identify and define the problem?

Another way to identify and define a problem is to determine when and where the problem occurs and does not occur. For example, does the problem always occur in certain settings but never in other settings? Is the problem only apparent at certain times of the day and never occurs at other times? If you still have not identified the problem, Agran and Hughes (1997) provide a good review of additional questions that might be asked to clarify things.

Step 2: Select a Course of Action

Next, look at potential solutions to the problem. Agran and Hughes (1997) summarized most of the ways that a solution might be identified. These methods include:

  1. Select a solution from a list of options. Unfortunately, not every problem comes with a list of potential solutions. Even when there is a list of solutions, each would need to be examined to determine the pros and cons.
  2. Pick a solution that sounds like it would work. This method is easy because it does not require any previous knowledge. However, there is no way to know whether a solution that sounds good will work.
  3. Use an analogy from a similar situation. This can be a quick starting point for developing a solution but analogies are not always relevant and the solutions may not be feasible.
  4. Brainstorm to generate a number of potential solutions to the problem. This method of identifying a course of action can be interesting and fun. The effectiveness of the course of action not be determined until later.

Another way of finding a solution is to use the resources around you. For example, the people who serve as natural supports can be extremely helpful when attempting to look for solutions. Asking parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers may produce a useful list of potential solutions to a problem. Once a list of potential solutions is identified, it will be helpful to:

  1. Gather information and identify the pros and cons of each,
  2. Consider all possible resources for each option. Are there natural supports that might make it easier to implement one option?
  3. Consider all possible costs and risks for each option. Include the costs if the solution works and if the solution does not work.
  4. Review each option and select the one that seems to fit best!
    Eventually, you will have to make a decision and select a course of action to address the problem.

Step 3: Implement the solution

Once the plan for solving the problem has been made, there are several final consideration prior to implementing the plan. Consider the following:

  1. Know the solution. The person implementing the solution should be able to discuss it when asked about it.
  2. Have the skills necessary to do the things described. If you are unable to implement the solution, the solution needs to be modified or you will need to learn some additional skills.
  3. Decide when and how to implement the solution. Set a start date. Establish timelines.

Step 4: Evaluate the Effectiveness of the Solution

Did your solution work? Hopefully, it worked and the problem has been solved. If the problem has not been solved, it may be helpful to go back over the steps described above and consider the following questions:

  1. Do I need to redefine the problem? In the course of addressing a problem, it may become apparent that the problem is not as it originally appeared to be.
  2. Do I need to find an alternative solution? Maybe the solution turned out to be more difficult than it originally appeared. Maybe the solution is not difficult but you just do not like it. Adjust your solution to make it a better fit, more appropriate, or more effective and proceed.
  3. Do I need help getting started? You may have the problem identified and know the best solution but you just are not able to implement the solution. You might:
    1. Enlist help from friends and family.
    2. Use environmental supports (reminders) such as notations on the calendars, notes to yourself, or alarms on your scheduler.
    3. Pick a very specific time, day, and/or event as a targeted start time. Make sure you pick something that makes it easy to remember to start.
    4. Go back and adjust the solution to make it easier if none of the suggestions worked.

By now you should be well on your way to developing good problem solving skills. Problem solving skills are one of the many skills that contribute to self-determination. There are several forms at the end of this module will help in the development of problem solving skills. The Self-Determined Career Development Model uses many of the steps of problem solving to assist with goal achievement.


Page updated 10/31/06

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Web Resources

Malouff, J. D. (2001 - 2002). Fifty problem solving stragegies explained. Retrievd May 14, 2005, from University of New England School of Psychology web site: http://www.une.edu.au/psychology/staff/malouff/problem.htm


Agran, M., and Hughes, C. (1997). Problem solving. In M. Agran (Ed.), Student directed learning: Teaching self-determination skills (pages 171-198). Pacific Grove, Ca: Brook/Cole.

Agran, M., Blanchard, C., Wehmeyer, M., and Hughes, C. (2002). Increasing the problem-solving skills of students with development disabilities participating in general education. Remedial and Special Education, 23(5), 279-288.

Agran M., and Wehmeyer, M. (1999). Teaching problem solving to students with mental retardation. In Innovations, (15): Research to practice series. Washington, DC: American Association on Mental Retardation.

Wehmeyer, M. (1996). Self-determination for youth with significant cognitive disabilities: From theory to practice. In L. E. Powers, G. H. S. Singer and J. A. Sowers (Eds.), On The Road to Autonomy: Promoting Self-Competence in Children and Youth with Disabilities (pages 115-133). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Wehmeyer, M. L., Agran, M., and Hughes, C. (1999). Teaching social problem-solving and decision-making skills. In Teaching self-determination to students with disabilities: Basic skills for successful transition (pages 119-138). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.

Supports 1 Index | S1.01 | S1.02 | S1.03 | S2.04 | S2.05 | S1.06 | S1.07 | S1.08 | S1.09 | S1.10 | S1.11 | S1.12 | S1.13 | S1.14 | S1.15 | S1.16 | S1.17 | S1.18

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