A young boy runs outside to recess, excited to play soccer with his friends. When he gets there, however, he discovers that the goals are missing and there are no soccer balls on the field. Scanning the field, he sees that his friends are playing kickball instead. But he really wanted to play soccer.
He stands on the edge of the field, full of frustration. With clenched fists he begins to pace, grumbling about wanting to play soccer. This little boy struggles with flexible thinking. In other words, he can’t switch gears quickly and find new solutions to problems when things change without warning.
Cognitive flexibility includes two skills: flexible thinking and set shifting. Kids who are able to think about a problem in a new way engage in flexible thinking, while kids who get stuck in their ways tend to engage in rigid thinking. Set shifting refers to the child’s ability to let go of an old way of doing something to try a new way.
When kids engage in flexible thinking, they are better able to cope with change and new information, both within the classroom and out in the world. Kids with weak flexible thinking skills (kids who are more rigid in their thinking) struggle to take on new tasks and have difficulty solving problems.
In the case of the young boy who only wanted to play soccer at recess, his rigid thought process caused him to caused him to miss out on having fun with his friends. While the other kids assessed the situation and made a new plan, he got stuck in a negative loop and spent his recess period venting his frustration instead of playing.
Weak flexible thinking skills can negatively affect academic development. In the case of reading skills, for example, rigid thinkers can have difficulty understanding the correct pronunciation of words, and they have a tendency to interpret the text literally. Writing can be a difficult task for young children because it requires a number of skills. They need to add details, write supporting sentences and edit for errors. When kids are rigid in their thinking, it can be hard to shift between all of these skills. Even math requires flexible thinking. When kids understand that there is more than one way to solve a problem, they can shift gears and look for different strategies. If they get stuck in a certain thought process and struggle to try a new approach, math can be very frustrating.
Kids are constantly bombarded with new information, and sometimes this can be overwhelming. Some kids engage in rigid thinking because it feels safe; others haven’t developed flexible thinking skills yet.
The good news is that flexible thinking skills can be practiced at home. Try a few of these strategies to help your child move away from rigid thinking.
Bend the rules. Rigid thinkers love rules, and they love to remind other kids about the rules. While rules can certainly come in handy at times, fixating on specific rules can make it hard for kids to get along with others.
Try changing the rules to your favorite board games. Your child might fight this at first, but by making small changes, he will learn that he can bend. My son and I make small changes to the rules to make games more fun, and this has improved his ability to solve problems. When kids learn that rules aren’t always set in stone, they begin to approach problems from new directions.
Teach self-talk. Self-talk is a great way to work through a problem. Teach your child to take a few deep breaths, state the problem, 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.
Tweak the routine. Routines are great because they help kids know what comes next. Young children often thrive when they have specific daily routines in the home, but sometimes the dependence on routine increases rigid thinking. In other words, they struggle to cope with change.
Instead of doing everything exactly the same way each day, make small tweaks to the routine here and there. Even small changes, like taking a bath before dinner some nights, show kids that it’s okay to do things in a different way.
Check in with Amelia Bedelia. Everyone’s favorite literal thinker can actually be a huge help when it comes to flexible thinking. Read some of Amelia Bedelia’s funny adventures together and talk about what she was supposed to do and why she might have made some mistakes.
Get a joke book. Rigid thinkers tend to struggle to understand jokes. They also have trouble making up their own jokes and puns. Joke books can be a great way to talk about the different meanings of words and think about how changing the meaning of a word makes it funny.
When kids develop flexible thinking skills they are better able to solve problems, engage in positive peer interactions and focus in school. When they learn to shift their thoughts in the face of new information, they can work through change and transitions. It takes time to develop this important skill set, but it helps kids thrive for years to come.