How To Build Flexible Thinking Skills

HiRes copy

HiRes copy

Does your child have trouble when his routine changes?  Is it hard for him to adjust when he wants to do something one way and the teacher wants it done a different way? Does your child get upset when playing with friends and they want to alter the rules for the game they are playing? Perhaps your child needs to cultivate flexible thinking skills.

Mental flexibility, or the capacity to shift attention refers to updating or “shifting” cognitive strategies in response to changes in the environment.  There are multiple types of set shifting, but they all require the ability to let go of one idea to consider another.  Successful performance in school (or life) requires the ability to abandon an old strategy and adapt to a new rule.

For example, when a child makes a mistake, is he easily able to find it, correct it, and move on?  If she thought the dress in the story was red, can she look back and change her mental image of the dress from red to blue?  Flexible thinkers can let go of their first thought to allow a correction to be made.  Concrete learners like to memorize what they have read or learned and stick with it.  It is difficult for concrete learners to let go of what they have learned and imagine or follow logical reasoning to devise a new solution.

Some students “get stuck” and can’t shift due to the mental effort it takes to let go of the first concepts. Other students have trouble shifting thoughts because once they have an idea they are done.  “The dress is red and that is that!”  In both cases, the result is the same: they have the wrong answer.

Learning requires set shifting. When we teach a new way to do something we ask students to let go of the old way. Unlearning a habit requires set shifting. Being willing to take a risk on a new way of doing something requires set shifting.  Set shifting requires the ability to be a flexible thinker.

What can you do to build set shifting skills? Games are some of the best ways to build these skills. Remember that if this is an area of weakness for the child, he might not think the games are much fun (though they can be!) Playing these games requires coaching to build and develop flexible thinking skills. Ask questions to help the child find the answer. The child with a set shifting weakness may not know what to attend to in the game, so making a checklist or practicing the questions he should ask himself when he gets stuck, will help him when he doesn’t know what to do.

Flexible thinking means finding more than one way to do something. It means stretching what you know enough to make an educated guess that could be right (and if it’s not, that’s okay). It is about finding out what you need to know and problem solving.  Being a flexible thinker will give your child the tools they need to thrive in school now and in the future.


The Flexible Thinking Program includes many activities to build flexible thinking skills including:

  • Optical Illusions
    • Student explores the multiple illusions within one picture
    • Look at and solve the illusion
    • Discuss what is seen and what is needed to see it differently
  • Stroop material (to practice switching between attending to different aspects of a stimulus; color or word)
  • Tower of Hanoi
  • Infinity Signs (e.g. drawing figures based on different rules),
    • In air, on paper, with foot on rug, walk it, etc.
  •  Maps (finding alternate and quickest routes on a map).
      • Print out maps (street view) and have student estimate shortest distance, then draw and check on Google.


  • Q-bitz : Anyone who has taken the WISC IQ test will recognize this game as the Block Design test. I played it with my two children last night and they had lots of fun. My son who has some mild visual issues was a bit frustrated until I showed him how to “see” the relationship between the individual blocks and the design on the cards. Once he understood that he took off. We allowed a handicap for the youngest player of a four-block head start to even out the skills difference.
  • Blik Blok provides 3-D dimensional puzzles to be solved. Visual imaging skills are important for math, writing and reading comprehension. The ability to mentally rotate and “see” how the pieces go together develops the internal visualizations skills used to imagine how to create and develop novel ideas.
  • Gobblet is a hyped up tic-tac-toe game. The goal is the same as tic-tac-toe, to get four in a row, or three in a row on Gobblet Jr. The twist is that you have 4 (or 3) sizes of pieces that can “gobble” up another piece smaller than it. This game is quick to start playing, but your skills can continue to develop as you discover more strategies to win. I think that Gobblet Jr. is best for 10 year olds and under. Gobblet is a game everyone can have fun playing.
  • Mastermind has been around for a while, but it continues to be a favorite. To win quickly, deductive reasoning skills are needed.
  • Rush Hour is a wonderful one-person game. There are a number of puzzle cards, in increasing order of difficulty, to solve.
  • Connect 4 has become a classic at our office. The challenge of winning depends on the skills of your opponent.
  • Labyrinth is one of my favorites. I love the way paths are changed when players push their cards on the board. The constantly changing mazes challenge players to re-evaluate their plan after each move.
  • Othello’s outcome can change at the last minute of the game. Othello rewards players who can think ahead and gain access to key positions on the board.
  • Pix Mix requires players to quickly see visual options available. It is fun to try to see what objects are in the holders. My family laughed out loud at some of the things we thought we saw!
  • Set requires quick thinking and visual processing. Set builds categorization skills as the players try to get rid of all of their cards by matching them to target cards.
  • Spot it requires you to be quick and fast. When you spot a card with a match you say the name of the pictures that match before anyone else does.


  • I never thought about it, but I like your perspective on mental flexibility as an attention-shifting capacity. Do you think that too much “mental flexibility” could be bad aka attention deficit? How does one strike the balance between attentional regulation and mental flexibility? Nice article!

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      That is a great question. Flexible thinking and/or set shifting skills are often weak in children or adults with ADHD. Flexible thinking and set shifting require the control of thought processes. Flexible thinking is the ability to think of something in a new way while set shifting requires letting go of one rule to incorporate a new rule. Both these activities require controlled mental energy. Therefore, behavior regulation is needed.

      When a child, or adult, with ADHD has a difficult time focusing due to distracting thoughts, that would not be considered flexible thinking. The inability to filter out non-relevant information and losing focus of the task at hand is a result of many factors. The distractions are often due to weak working memory skills.

      Building mental skills, like flexible thinking and set shifting, can increase behavioral regulation and working memory skills. Flexible thinking and set shifting activities are great ways to practice metacognition strategies. Metacognition is what will tie mental/cognitive control to behavioral control.

  • Iqbal Yusaf

    This is a very interesting and useful article. Thank you for publishing it. I am not an expert , but a father of two young boys and curious about your statement that “distractions are often due to weak working memory skills.” Is there some research you can point me to that I can share with my wife and doctor?

    My working model has been that the distracting noise is from very charged emotional memories vying to escape.

    Whatever the cause, it’s good to know that building the mental skills you mention can help with behavioral regulation and working memory skills, and in turn help with flexible thinking and set shifting. We will definitely look closely at the metacognition strategies you mention in the article.

    Thank you!

    • I’m glad you found the article helpful. There is quite a bit of research about the connection between working memory and attention/distractions.

      Here is one reference:

      Here are a few excerpts from the article:

      Based on a study of 84 students divided into four separate experiments, University of Oregon researchers found that students with high memory storage capacity were clearly better able to ignore distractions and stay focused on their assigned tasks

      ….Vogel theorizes that people who are good at staying on focus have a good gatekeeper, much like a bouncer or ticket-taker hired to allow only approved people into a nightclub or concert. Understanding how to improve the gatekeeper component, he said, could lead to therapies that help easily distracted people better process what information is allowed in initially, rather than attempting to teach people how to force more information into their memory banks.

  • Great information, thank you! I will use it in my practice. I have an unusual comment/question….have you ever added Omeg 3 Fish oil, a vitamin to a patient’s treatment plan? At any age? I believe it was the fish oil vitamins that changed my life, allowing me to complete tasks, because I was not distracted any longer. I was in my 50s and doing 3 things at one time, after taking the fish oil for several months I was shocked to put the connect together, I was calm and able to finish something without jumping up in the middle. It totally changed my behavior, like a miracle.
    Nonie L Craige, LCSW
    Baldwin, NY
    PS web site being revamped after many years of world-wide service.

  • Pingback: 14 Ways to Be More Resilient So You Can Bounce Back From Adversity

  • Harris

    I am trying to work out if my 6 year old needs help, or if I am just an anxious parent. Several teachers have asked if I have looked at ADHD for my son. He is constantly distracted by what is hoing on around him as opposed to his given task. What ‘gets me’ is that his Working memory sits in the top 0.1% in the WISC-IV, but his processing speed is average (GAI 146). Not a clear cut ADHD profile? Is it the clinical setting that makes a difference?
    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      The WISC alone is not designed detect ADHD. There needs to be review of the whole child with academic, executive functioning, memory and attention skills assessed. If your son is very smart and fine motor skills are not as developed as his thinking skills he may be getting antsy and fidgety to avoid a non-perferred task when he is required to write or draw. It is important to look at the big picture to make sure that you have a good idea of what could be causing your son difficulty. Then you can address those areas and see if it makes a difference in his attention skills.

Leave a Reply