Frontline Initiative Change

The Problem Solving Life Manual

A major part of the Direct Support Professional’s job is to help people with disabilities build community connections. One of the difficulties faced by both DSPs and consumers is the dependency that has been built as many people receiving supports have learned to rely on DSPs to make decisions for them. In order to be safe and enjoy the community fully, people need skills in how to use their own judgment. 

The Problem Solving for Life Manual, developed by the Learning for Life training project at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provides session-by-session instructions on teaching problem-solving in a group format. The program was designed to teach individuals with developmental disabilities how to handle common problem situations. The sessions focus on five easy problem-solving steps that are taught primarily with roleplay and visual aides. The sessions include lots of repetition and participatory activities to help individuals at various levels of cognitive functioning to learn the concepts.


One of the main premises of the curriculum is that problem-solving skills are essential for community living. Recent interest in mental health issues in persons with mental retardation has called attention to difficulties in daily problem solving. Controlling anger and frustration in social or interpersonal situations is important for social adjustment at home and work. For many people with developmental disabilities, the lack of problem-solving and social skills poses serious obstacles for job success and community living. Acquiring interpersonal skills enables people to choose appropriate solutions in frustrating, anger-arousing, and puzzling social situations.

The Problem Solving for Life Manual uses a format that allows individuals with disabilities to participate. Active learning methods involve the participants and provide opportunities to run parts of each session. Visual aids and role-play help students with limited language skills understand the problem-solving concepts. The role-play situations are taken from real life, the scenarios are very simple, and they can include as much or as little dialogue as the participants wish to use. The sessions include plenty of repetition to help participants learn and remember the information. 

The manual delineates five problem-solving steps —

  1. Relax and take a deep breath.
  2. Use a positive self statement (say something nice to yourself).
  3. Identify the problem.
  4. Think of solutions.
  5. Choose and use a solution.

 These steps are presented one at a time, with several sessions for practicing each step before a new one is added. The manual provides directions to help instructors explain each step in a simple way.

The problem-solving manual is meant to be adapted to meet individual instructor’s needs. Past instructors have added their own creative touches (which have been noted in the manual as additional ideas). The program can be easily integrated into other curricula, and once the basic problem-solving steps are mastered, this modified format can be used for teaching more specific problem-solving skills (e.g., using public transportation, cooking, buying groceries, budgeting, etc.). The manual is currently in a draft form and not available for distribution, but it is possible to pilot it at different site.