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Flexible Thinking: When It’s Hard to Adapt

December 9, 2014

flexible thinkingWhat is Flexible Thinking?

Flexible thinking is the ability to shift thinking or attention in response to a switch in rules, or to new or unexpected situations. Flexible thinking is also referred to as mental flexibility or cognitive flexibility.

Why is Flexible Thinking important?

Imagine driving without your GPS and you reach a “road closed” sign; you have no idea where you are or where to go next. You might get angry and consider taking the closed road regardless. You might panic about what to do next and call someone for help. Or you might simply sit there flummoxed. That’s the feeling of a child with a flexible thinking weakness when asked to find another way to solve a problem or move to a new, unfamiliar situation—a combination of confusion, anger at the injustice, and panic. The specific response is very dependent on the child’s personality. A parent or teacher may simply think a child is being stubborn or difficult when in reality he is desperately struggling to cope with things not going as expected.

What are the signs of a flexible thinking challenge?   

Most children have trouble with flexible thinking at times. How they cope with those troubles will determine if flexible thinking becomes a limitation. Adults need to be patient and allow children to mature and improve at their own pace. Give children opportunities out of school in a risk-free environment to problem solve on their own.Many factors can influence a child’s reactions at a given moment. However, if the child repeatedly has more difficulty than his peers with new beginnings, struggles with changes in directions, or simply cannot see the points of view of others there could be a problem.

In school, a child with weak flexible thinking can often learn concrete information, such as math facts. However, they might have challenges as they progress and need to apply the information in a different context, such as using math facts to solve a word problems. These students also might do well on vocabulary tests, but struggle with reading in context. In general, you may notice inconsistent performance. The child may have difficulty in one subject but not another. It depends on how the teacher presents the material, how abstract the content is, and even how much interest and background knowledge the student has in the subject.

How do I know if my student needs help with Flexible Thinking?

If you suspect your child is struggling with flexible thinking you should discuss your concerns with a school counselor or your pediatrician. Since difficulties with reasoning, anxiety, or other emotions could look like flexible thinking challenges, make sure they use an objective test, not just observation. If you are uncomfortable talking to someone but have concerns, try a flexible thinking test at home and then make a decision if you need to speak with a professional.

How to help a student with flexible thinking

The best way to help is to provide opportunities to see situations from multiple perspectives. Before a child jumps into a project, discuss the approach. Allow your child to decide how to solve the problem but discuss the pros and cons of the alternatives. Always encourage this child to reflect on experiences and how they might improve the next time. Open their eyes to seeing multiple points of view wherever possible. Perhaps most of all, allow them to make mistakes free from judgment. Building self-awareness about the need to be flexible is key. Simple positive reinforcement from an early age pointing out good flexibility is a great way to start.

Check out our flexible thinking test!

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