Flexible Thinking: Teaching Kids to Go With the Flow

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Imagine that you are commuting somewhere and when you arrive at your subway station, the subway line is no longer running due to a track problem. Your initial plan for reaching your destination obviously is not going to work, so you instantly come up with an alternative way to get where you need to go. 

That's what flexible thinking is about - the ability to switch gears and find new ways to solve problems. 

Many children with learning or attention issues struggle with flexible thinking, also called "cognitive flexibility" by many doctors. Flexible thinking plays a crucial role in how kids learn to adapt to new information in many areas.

This skill, cognitive flexibility actually involves two skills: flexible thinking and set shifting. Kids who are able to think about a problem in a new or different way engage in flexible thinking, while kids who get stuck in their ways tend to engage in rigid thinking. Set shifting refers to a child’s ability to let go of an old, possibly unsuccessful way of doing something to try a new solution.

Check out these tips to help your child practice flexible thinking, which is essential for learning and everyday life.

 Find more than one way to do everyday things.

Your child may be use to doing things in a specific order, so making minor tweaks to a common, every day process can show him or her that there are different options. For example, ask your child to help you map a new route from school to home. 

Teach self-talk. 

Self-talk can be a very useful way to work through a problem. Teach your child to first take a couple of deep breaths, state the problem aloud, consider at least three solutions and choose one. When kids learn to talk their way through problems, they experience less frustration and are better able to cope with unexpected change.

Bend the rules.

Rigid thinkers love rules; rules bring a sense of comfort and they often like to remind other kids about the rules. While rules can certainly come in handy sometimes, zeroing in on specific rules can make it hard for kids to get along with others. 

Try changing the rules to your family's favorite games. Your child might be opposed to this at first, but by making small changes, he will learn that he can bend. When kids learn that rules aren’t always set in stone, they begin to approach problems from new directions.

When kids develop flexible thinking skills they are more successful at solving problems, engaging in positive friendships and focusing in school. It takes time to develop this impactful skill set, but it helps kids thrive for years to come.


Every student has a different learning style. For an individualized plan customized to your child's needs, please contact Dana Aussenberg at danaaussenberg.com or email dana@danaaussenberg.com.