Tips to Develop Flexible Thinking Skills

Flexible thinking

“I can’t do it! It’s wrong!” Nicole announces loudly. Tears are followed by the declaration that the book is wrong. Nicole is adamant that this is not the way the teacher showed her how to do the problem. Nicole has weak flexible thinking skills that lead to frustration when she faces unexpected events. Nicole resists trying alternate approaches to solve problems.

To discover Nicole’s learning style her parents requested an educational evaluation. The results of the evaluation revealed Nicole’s strong verbal skills, and excellent reading ability. Auditory and visual memory skills were strong. However, her math and writing skills are weak. An assessment of her executive functioning skills discovered that her ability to set-shift was very weak. Set-shifting impacts a student’s ability to shift attention from one task or idea to another.

Teaching Nicole strategies to help her update or “shift” her viewpoint when faced with a problem will reduce her frustration. For example, when Nicole realizes she got the wrong answer on her math homework, she can, with good set-shifting skills, realize her way of approaching the math problem is not working, and “shift” to a new approach to solve the problem. There are multiple types of set-shifting, which all require the ability to let go of one idea to consider another.

The ability to abandon an old strategy and adapt to a new rule is a key life skill. Children with set-shifting difficulty have trouble being flexible. It is challenging for these children to deal with change, be it routines, rules or integrating new information. A child with set-shifting weakness becomes stuck when she makes a mistake, making it hard for her to find the error, correct it, and move on.

Cognitive flexibility, an essential executive functioning skill, requires the ability to inhibit our previous perspective and to consider or explore a new perspective. It allows us to think creatively, to see things from a different perspective, and to quickly adapt to changes around us.

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How to build cognitive flexibility skills

The first skill to consider is inhibition. The ability to inhibit thoughts and actions allows students to change and choose how they will react. While impulse control is difficult to develop, without it Nicole is at the mercy of her habits. Building a self-awareness of her thought patterns and reactions to problems will allow Nicole to realize that change can be good for her.

  • Discuss what currently occurs and how learning a new approach will help.
    • Nicole can get her math homework done faster, without getting frustrated and upset, by learning to find more than one way to solve a problem.
  • Talk about how the brain works. The brain builds pathways to process information. The more you use a pathway the faster and better the pathway becomes.
  • Explain that you are going to use games to help build new pathways.
  • The games will provide the opportunity for the child to build new habits and pathways that will make learning easier.

Guiding students out of their comfort zone may cause some anxiety and frustration. Use metacognitive conversations and careful scaffolding to gently guide students toward new learning opportunities. Playing flexible thinking games and slowly increasing the level of challenge provides opportunities to stop and talk about alternative strategies that can be used.

scfoljThe games and activities in the Flexible Thinking Program require set-shifting and flexible thinking. Each activity provides an opportunity for students to go through the cognitive flexibility cycle.


Steps for successful scaffolding:

  • The selection of the task is important – The task needs to be at the correct level so that the student is developing new skills while staying in his learning zone. The task should be engaging and fun.
  • Anticipate errors – After choosing the task, the teacher needs to anticipate errors the learners are likely to make so they can properly guide the learner through the errors and on to mastery.
  • Move at the pace of the child’s mastery – Once the child has mastered a skill, move to thlearn zoneje next level. Guided learning moves in an organized step-by-step sequence to ensure the child stays in the learning zone.
  • Be prepared for emotions as they arise – Stop and discuss feelings and frustrations as they arise. Use scaffolding techniques for the emotions as well as the cognitive task.

Teach Metacognition Skills: Taking control of your thinking skills will help build inhibition skills

  • Teach the STOP, THINK, PLAN, DO strategy for approaching a problem.
    • STOP:
      • Stopping allows the child to consider the situation
      • What is this task asking me to do?
    • THINK:
      • What is the best way to approach the task?
      • Is there another way to do it?
    • PLAN:
      • Which option looks like the best one?
    • DO
      • Start with the plan you think will work.
      • If it doesn’t work try the next one.
      • If that doesn’t work try the next one until you solve the problem.

Play Flexible Thinking games and activities

  • Explain that there can be more than one right answer and more than one right way to get to an answer.
    • Mirta the Superfly (free) is fun to watch and discuss how Mirta could do things differently.
  • Build frustration tolerance by taking the time to work through possible options.
  • Build cognitive flexibility by modeling the metacognitive process as you play the games. Talk out loud about what you are considering as you make your choices.
    • Use the STOP, THINK, PLAN, DO strategy to break down the games and activities to figure out new ways to solve the problems.


Have fun playing flexible thinking games. Relax and enjoy the time with your child.




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