By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

Read New Post about why I don’t use this lesson anymore!

If you are a parent, or work with kids, you might notice that some kids can have some pretty disproportionate reactions. Think of the kid that melts down when he wanted the blue cup instead of the green cup. Or your student who drops to the floor in a tantrum when she lost a game of chutes and ladders. These are both small problems, but those reactions are disproportionately big. In this post, I’ll share with you one of my favorite, hands on ways to teach a lesson about the size of the problem.

What is a small problem?

A small problem is one in which you can solve it yourself in almost no time at all. You don’t need to ask anyone for help, and usually you don’t even need to tell anyone about this problem. It happens, you have a small (or no) reaction, then you solve it yourself.

Here’s a list of examples for expected small reactions and solutions to small problems:

A colored pencil broke while
you were using it
no reaction, or small
reaction like, “oops!”
Sharpen the pencil or get a different pencil
You didn’t get to go
first in the game
small reaction, or no
reaction, like “okay,
maybe I can go first
the next time”
Be flexible, use your
inner coach to tell you that you can go first next time.
Your mom gave you
goldfish for lunch
instead of pretzels
small reaction, or no
reaction, like “oh well, I’ll ask mom for
pretzels tomorrow”
Eat the goldfish and be flexible. Ask mom
nicely later if she
could pack you
pretzels tomorrow.

What is a medium problem?

A medium problem is one in which you need to ask someone else (usually an adult, like a parent or teacher) for help; and it usually takes a little longer to solve and maybe more than 1 person to solve. It would be expected to have a medium sized reaction to this problem. Here are some examples:

Scraped your kneeA little crying, maybe
saying “ouch!” once
Go to the nurse’s office
for a bandaid
Forgot your
lunch at home
feeling a little
frustrated, you might
cry or whine from
being hungry
Ask your teacher to
call your parents to
drop off your lunch

What is a big problem?

A big problem is rare to come across: it’s when you need help from “big helpers” like a Doctor, a firefighter, or a policeman. These problems take quite some time to solve and it would be expected and okay to have a big reaction.

Broke your legScreaming and crying in painYou need to go to the
emergency room to get an X-ray and a cast. It will take weeks to heal
House fireScreaming, crying,
Call 911 and the police and firemen need to
come and try to save
your house

Materials Needed:

How to teach the size of the problem lesson to kids.
materials needed: small, medium and big cup with a small, medium and big ball.


First I demonstrate how there is a small, medium and big cup and small, medium and big balls that fit inside each of them.

Demonstrate how each ball fits in the corresponding container.

Then, I explain how to tell the difference between a small, medium and big problem and hold up the corresponding size cup. We share some examples of each kind of problem.

While holding up one of each of the different sized balls, I talk about how there are also different sizes of reactions, and we practice role-playing what small, medium and big reactions look like.

Then comes the important part: explicitly stating that it’s expected to have the same size reaction to the size of the problem. I state this a couple times, have them repeat it, and demonstrate it by dropping the proper size ball into each cup.

Finally, we talk about why it’s unexpected to have a big reaction to a small problem (as I put a large ball and try to force it into a small cup). The answer is: it looks funny, people feel uncomfortable, it doesn’t fit, it’s not right.

A big reaction to a small problem

One important note about this lesson:

It’s important to note that this lesson is helpful in developing social emotional skills in little ones, but it should not be used as a strategy in the moment to try to stop a big reaction.

For example, if your child is in the middle of a full on, ‘hulk-mode’ melt down, looking at him and saying, “Johnny, you’re having a big reaction to a small problem” will not only not help the situation, but there’s a good chance it might escalate.

Save the lessons and discussion about the size of the problem when your child is calm and regulated. I like to introduce the lesson once or twice, and then use a reminder discussion as a preparatory statement before going into an activity that might trigger big reactions.

For example, maybe it’s before playing a competitive game of connect 4, I might say something like “Before we start, let’s remember what size problem is it if you lose?”

You could also use this discussion as a reflection discussion after the child has calmed down from a tantrum/melt down, and discuss what the trigger was, and whether it was a small, medium or big problem and if their reaction matched it. Use this as an opportunity to problem solve for future scenarios that might come up.

Where to go to learn more?

If you’re looking for more information on Size of the Problem lessons and other social thinking curriculum, please visit the Social Thinking website.

Read New Post about why I don’t use this lesson anymore!

Looking for a hands on creative way to teach the size of the problem lesson to your students? Check this lesson out!


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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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4 Responses

  1. Hello
    Thank you for the small, medium and big problem lesson idea with ball and cups. I was wondering if you have any other activities to teach small, medium and big problems please.

    1. Hi Faye! Thanks for your commment, I’m glad you enjoyed the lesson idea. There are a few other activities you can do to illustrate this concept with children, there’s actually a book that talks about it with small, medium and big dinosaurs and you can recreate it with dinosaurs or other stuffed animals too, it’s so cute. The book is called Size of the Problem and it’s by the Social Thinking Curriculum.

  2. This is EXACTLY the type of activity I was looking for!!! As an early intervention teacher, I have a number of students who need assistance with self regulation. This is a wonderful activity. THANK YOU!!