Size of the Problem

Do students’ reactions match the size of the problems they experience?

Introducing “Size of the Problem” at the elementary level is a great way to help students problem solve independently and strengthen social skills. As students learn to identify emotions in themselves and others, it is a good idea to start the conversation about how we respond to situations when we are upset. Sometimes students have difficulty determining the appropriate response to big and small problems especially if they’ve had big reactions modelled for them for all types of problems.

Asking if it is a “big deal”or a “small deal” is a good start in getting students to think of the size of an issue or conflict.

Size of the Problem helps students identify the appropriate reaction to match the severity of a problem. When students have a common language to describe their problems and reactions, they can better identify solutions.

Before You Begin:

Decide on what model you are using for your “Size of Problem” lesson. Some educators use the stop light model, others have more options. You will want to choose and then keep your language consistent.

  • Computer and screen to watch videos
  • 5-10 small, medium, and large problems written on paper that kids can role play or simply decide what size problem they are
  • slips of paper for students to write problems on
Other Considerations:
  • Appropriate scaffolding or accommodations should be put in place to support ELL and IEPd students
  • Lessons can be adapted to suit varying ages

The goal of this lesson is to increase student awareness of the following concepts, which ultimately contribute to them learning better self-regulation:

  • Problems come in different sizes
  • Emotions and reactions come in different sizes
  • Reactions come from emotions
  • It’s expected that the size of the emotion and related reaction matches the size of the problem.

Watch this clip from “The Incredibles” to start a discussion about problem size vs reaction size.

Ask students if they think he was overreacting?

Introduce the idea that problems come in different sizes and that how we react should match the size of the problem.

Continue with the “Big Problems and Small Problems” Video (K-2)

You may want to take some time to go over the following concepts with your students (if you haven’t in previous lessons):


A problem is something that happens that was not part of the plan and negatively influences it. Problems make people feel uncomfortable.

Size of the Problem

Problems come in different sizes. Small problems can be taken care of quickly and can be solved on our own or with the help of another person. Kids can help other kids solve small problems. Medium problems take more time to solve and require more help. Usually adults help solve medium problems. However, it’s expected that kids help solve medium problems with the adults. Finally, big problems take a lot of time to take care of and require a lot of help from others. When big problems happen, even adults need help from other adults.


Feelings are what happen on the inside of our bodies. To help us talk about our feelings we use words such as happy, mad, sad, and scared. When problems happen, we have different feelings of different sizes or intensities. Because problems make people feel uncomfortable, we usually use words such as frustrated, stressed, sad, upset, disappointed, nervous, worried, and afraid.


Reactions come from our feelings. A reaction is what we show on the outside by what we say and do. Just as problems and feelings come in different sizes, so do our reactions. It’s expected that the size of the reaction on the outside should match the size of the problem.

(excerpt from We Thinkers! Volume 2: Social Problem Solvers)

Activity Option 1:

Examining real life problems and talking about their impacts can really help students understand the size of the problem and how their reactions can match.
To keep things simple, you can start with the analogy of a traffic light to represent various problem sizes. After watching the intro videos, you could have students write down a problem they’re dealing with right now.

Green Light:

Green means go! Green light problems are no big deal at all. Kids can solve on their own with little effort or by ignoring.


  • Someone accidentally bumps into you.
  • I didn’t get to be partners with my best friend.
  • I didn’t get picked when my hand was up.
Yellow Light:

Yellow means slow down. Yellow light problems aren’t a huge deal, but kids need to slow down and think about these before they solve them. These are problems that kids can solve on their own or with support and shouldn’t be ignored.


  • My friend said something mean about me.
  • I don’t have the supplies I need.
  • Someone is cheating in the game we’re playing.
Red Light:

Red means stop! Red light problems are a big deal and require adult guidance to solve them. These are problems that kids shouldn’t try to solve on their own and can’t be ignored.


  • Two people are fighting on the playground.
  • There’s someone trying to clog the toilet.
  • Someone is hurting me.
Matching Reactions:

Once students are able to differentiate the size of the problem, you can talk about matching our reactions to the problems. A big scream doesn’t quite fit with a slight bump of the shoulder the same way ignoring a fire isn’t a good match.

To practice, students can work together in groups to role play a situation (provided to them on a slip of paper) and then identify whether the reaction matches the size of the problem.

A next step lesson can be on calming strategies or mindfulness.

Activity 2:

Play the Big Deal/ Little Deal Game (2 versions; can play twice)

Activity 3: Trashketball

Help students identify the Size of the Problem by playing trashketball and shooting the scenarios into different buckets. You can use 5 buckets (tiny, small, medium, big, huge) or 3 buckets (small, medium, big). Write example problems on strips of paper and have the students wad them up and try to throw them into the corresponding bucket.


Small Problem: You forgot today was dress up day at school.

Medium Problem: Your best friend doesn’t want to play with you anymore.

Big Problem: Your parents are getting a divorce.



(How Big is my Problem? Students discuss examples of different sized problems and appropriate reactions)


Learner Reflection: What is a problem you have had and how did you react? Did the size of your problem match your reaction? What is a problem you have now? What size is your problem? What is an appropriate way to solve it?

Teacher Reflection: Do you know your own emotional triggers (your internal responses) and do you strive to ensure that your reaction (your behavioural response) demonstrates appropriate emotional regulation?

(Third Path, Regulation Educator Strategy Guide, pp.22)