Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

What Is Cognitive Flexibility and How Do I Help My Child With It?

Written by:
Mary Makowski, Registered Provisional Psychologist, and Christine MacDonald, Psychology Intern
Dec. 1, 2020

Does your child become stuck thinking about topics in only one way? Do they struggle to ‘switch’ their approach and use a different problem-solving strategy? Is it more challenging for them to do something differently than how they normally do it? Are they rigid in their thinking?

Typically, children who demonstrate challenges like those listed have difficulties with cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt our behaviour and thinking in response to the environment. When children are asked to think about multiple concepts simultaneously or change their approach to solving a problem, they need to demonstrate flexible thinking. Cognitive flexibility is considered a core aspect of executive functioning. Executive functioning includes the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Learning Disabilities/Disorders commonly show challenges with their executive functioning.

Cognitive flexibility occurs in two main ways:

  1. The ability to think about multiple things at the same time
  2. The ability to modify thinking based on a change in expectations and/or demands

Let’s think about a typical example. Imagine the teacher has asked students to see how many ways their class can be sorted into different groups. Your child might say, “they all belong to the same grade!” Does your child also consider that they can be sorted by age, height, gender, favourite animal, sports, number of siblings, hair colour, and so on? Whether the problem is in real-life or an academic task, your child needs to look at situations from multiple perspectives. This is an aspect of cognitive flexibility! Here is another example. If your child is attempting a challenging math question, do they try to solve the problem using different strategies? Students will frequently attempt to solve a problem using the method they know best. If they can’t solve the problem with that strategy, they may state that the problem is impossible.

Why Does Cognitive Flexibility Matter?

Life is full of examples of times when we must examine situations using differing perspectives. To be successful social beings, we need to be flexible. We will have to face social problems, problems in our relationships, work-place conflict, or many other scenarios! Let’s think about an example of this in real life.  Your child might have a playdate arranged at a friend’s home. But, as you are heading out the door, you get a text saying that the friend is sick and they will have to reschedule. For many of us, we would think, “Ok, when does it work for us to reschedule?” Or “What else can we do today that’s fun?”. But for those that struggle with cognitive flexibility, this may not be as easy.  Often kids who struggle with flexible thinking don’t respond the same way to changes. They may freeze and do nothing. They may ruminate on the fact that their playdate was cancelled. Or, they may become emotional and distressed as they struggle to understand that they can reschedule and do something different that day instead.  By practicing being flexible in our thinking with our students and children, we can help them reach their full potential.

How Do We Improve Cognitive Flexibility?

  • Incorporate the concepts of rigidity and flexibility through play. Practice modelling flexible thinking in fun and silly ways to help your child better understand it.
  • Label rigid thinking patterns in a non-judgemental way in yourself and your kids to help them identify them. Helpful talking techniques can include explaining rigidity as a tightly pulled elastic. By contrast, flexible thinking is a loose, flexible elastic. We want to practice flexibility so that we can bend with whatever life throws at us and not break!
  • Talk about scenarios that have multiple ways to solve a problem. For example, if your child needs to get from school to home, what different routes could they take? What modes of transportation could be used?
  • Help your child examine their triggers for rigidity and work to identify them. For example, do they need things done a certain way? Celebrate how those behaviours can help them, but also teach them how to distinguish between helpful versus harmful inflexibility.
  • Read a social story (e.g., Superflex by Social Thinking) that emphasizes flexible thinking patterns. You can also create your own story with your child as the main character. Getting your child involved in creating the story, or incorporating their interests, can support their buy-in towards learning the concept.
  • Emphasize that there are different strategies they can try, especially in math.
  • Model skills for flexibility/frustration tolerance in daily activities, and model how you practice cognitive flexibility.
  • Reflect on your behaviours that may model rigidity. We all demonstrate rigidity at times! Being patient with yourself and practicing looking at other perspectives will model the learning process for your child.
  • Explicitly remind your children of other concepts they should consider. You can do this by supporting them to develop a mind map, asking them leading questions or having them complete the same problem twice, using different strategies each time.
  • Incorporate small changes to help build their tolerance/skills. Some examples include driving a different way home, switching the typical family seats at dinner or watching tv, doing a regular daily routine in backwards order, or making up new rules for a game (e.g., going up the snakes & down the ladders)). Get your children to help choose a way to change their everyday tasks to help give them a sense of control over the situation.
  • Talk out loud and model how you examine scenarios in your daily life by explaining all the points of view to consider. You can even pause a movie or TV show to ask your child to hypothesize what might happen in the next scene.
  • Prepare your child for a situation that may require cognitive flexibility. Remind them that there may be different solutions to solving a problem and that they may have to employ these different strategies.
  • Create a problem-solving wheel that shows your child the alternate strategies they can attempt to solve a problem.
  • Complete a new activity with your child. Learning new things and being adventurous can help you expand your ideas.
  • Recognize that anxiety is a part of rigid thinking styles. You can support your child to deal with their anxiety when they have to change something. For example, they can use deep breathing or other mindfulness techniques. Be empathetic to their challenges.

These strategies are particularly important now during the global pandemic. Children have been forced to adapt their daily living, learn school lessons in a new way, and socialize differently. Practicing the ability to solve problems in new ways, consider multiple concepts at once, and look at the bigger picture will support their cognitive flexibility skills.

In summary, cognitive flexibility skills allow us to switch gears and find new approaches to solve problems in our daily lives.  Many children with ADHD and Learning Disabilities struggle with cognitive flexibility and may require more assistance in developing these skills. There are many ways to help your child develop these skills, including modelling, explicit instruction, and experiential learning. 

For further information:

Trouble With Flexible Thinking: Why Some Kids Only See Things One Way

A Day in the Life of a Child Who Struggles With Flexible Thinking

Flexible Thinking: How to Encourage Kids to Go With the Flow

Activities to promote flexible thinking with kids:

9 Flexible Thinking Activities for Kids

5 Fun Activities for Developing Kids’ Flexibility Skills

Books for Kids:

My Day is Ruined” – A Story Teaching Flexible Thinking by Bryan Smith

“I Just Don’t Like the Sound of No"!” – written by Julia Cook