Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Shifting Gears Without Tears

How to Support Your Child with Cognitive Flexibility

Filed under:
Executive Functions
Written by:
Carmen Dominguez
Registered Provisional Psychologist
Feb. 9, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that we all have to adapt to change at the drop of a hat - children and adults alike. The ability to adjust to the ever changing demands of our environment is a complex skill that relies on flexible thinking, also known as cognitive flexibility. 

Cognitive flexibility is a core component of executive functioning.  Executive functioning encompasses cognitive skills necessary to complete everyday goal-directed behaviour, from completing a worksheet to cleaning a bedroom. In particular, cognitive flexibility allows us to shift gears, consider multiple pieces of information at a time, and adapt our thinking to reflect changing demands.

What Do Challenges with Cognitive Flexibility Look Like?

  • Does your child have a hard time switching from one activity to the next? Your child just finished a math worksheet on addition. They are now completing a worksheet on subtraction. Your child continues to add the numbers instead of subtracting them. 
  • Does your child struggle with understanding other people’s perspectives during social interactions? At recess, your child has a great idea for a game. A friend suggests making some changes to the rules. Your child has a hard time accepting the changes and withdraws from the game. 
  • Does your child experience difficulties problem solving using new strategies? Your child has learnt a strategy to help them solve single-digit multiplication questions. Now, your child is being asked to solve two-digit multiplication questions. Your child continues to apply the previous strategy even though it is no longer working. 
  • Does your child struggle to cope with unexpected change? You promised your child that they could have their favourite treat as a snack, but you’ve run out. When you explain this to your child, they react strongly. 

If these scenarios sound familiar, your child likely experiences difficulties with cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is needed for everyday problem solving, from schoolwork to social interactions.  

Why is Cognitive Flexibility Difficult for Children?

Brain Development

Cognitive flexibility is a complex ability that depends on several areas of your brain working together. One of these brain regions is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain located right behind your forehead. This brain region continues to develop into your late twenties to early thirties. Because the region of our brain responsible for cognitive flexibility develops into adulthood, so does our ability to think flexibly. Many children struggle with cognitive flexibility because their brains are not fully developed. The prefrontal cortex of children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism, or Learning Disabilities develops more slowly. For this reason, the children with these diagnoses often have difficulties with executive functioning, including cognitive flexibility. 

Emotional Regulation

Different executive functioning skills often interact with one another. Emotional regulation, also considered an executive functioning skill, plays an essential role in children’s ability to engage in flexible thinking. Many children with executive functioning challenges have a hard time regulating their emotions. They are more likely to experience a stronger emotional reaction to stress, change, and unmet expectations. Unfortunately, strong emotions make it even more difficult for people to think flexibly. 

Cognitive flexibility is difficult for many children because their brains are still developing and learning to regulate their emotions. 

How to Support Cognitive Flexibility 

TIP 1: Empathize. Take the opportunity to practice your own cognitive flexibility by understanding your child’s perspective. When children struggle with cognitive flexibility, it is because their brains are still developing. 

Validate your child’s feelings: “That must be hard” or “I can see you are feeling really upset”. These words can help them become more emotionally regulated. Once they feel calmer, it will be easier for them to think flexibly. 

Helping a child with their emotions is important because an emotional brain is not ready to learn or think flexibly.    

TIP 2: Talk About the Brain.  Empower your child by explaining how their brain works. Let them know that their brain is still developing: “Did you know that the part of your brain that helps you with flexible thinking is still growing?”  

Identify what cognitive flexibility difficulties look like for their brain and develop strategies together. For example, “I’ve noticed that it can be hard for your brain to switch between different types of math questions. Let’s see if we can figure out some ways that will make it easier for you.” 

When your child has a hard time with flexible thinking, remind them that their brain is still growing. Identify what they are struggling with and brainstorm some solutions.

TIP 3: Teach Positive Self-Talk. Teach your child vocabulary and scripts that they can use in situations needing cognitive flexibility. Here are some additional scripts you can practice:  

  • “Flexibility means I can change my ideas, do something different from what I thought I would, and keep an open mind.”
  • “I am getting stuck on... How can I get unstuck?”
  • “Being flexible feels better than being stuck.”
  • “How can I compromise?” 
  • If you are familiar with the Social Thinking program, you can use the term “rock brain” to label your child’s inflexible thinking. “I have rock brain right now. It’s making it hard for me to be flexible. What can I do to make it easier?”

Practice flexibility scripts outside of emotionally charged situations. Once the vocabulary becomes automatic, support your child in implementing the scripts when they are faced with a problem requiring flexible thinking.  

TIP 4: Model Cognitive Flexibility. As adults, we frequently encounter situations that require us to use our own cognitive flexibility. However, our children are often unaware of our strategies to adjust to change. Next time you find yourself in a situation where you have to go with the flow or find a solution to an unexpected problem, model what this looks like for your child. Here are some examples:

  • “Uh oh. I wanted to make pasta for dinner, but we are out of noodles. I am going to have to be flexible. What other ingredients do we have? We can have soup instead.”
  • “I’m feeling very frustrated that our usual route to school is closed.  Being flexible is sometimes hard. But I can take a deep breath and figure out another route. We might be a little late, but that’s ok.”

Externalize what is happening in your brain when you encounter unexpected changes by saying your thought processes aloud.

TIP 5: Practice Cognitive Flexibility. 

  • Role playing:
    • Set up a situation that usually results in inflexible behaviours. Before the activity, remind your child that they will be practicing flexible thinking.
    • Work together to grow your child’s flexible thinking by brainstorming possible solutions to the problems they will face while role playing.
      • Praise your child by explaining what they did well:
      • “I could tell you were getting stuck, and you got unstuck. Good job!”
      • “Thank you for compromising by trying to find a different solution to the problem. That was really great!” 
  • Games:
    • Try switching the rules to a game. For example, while playing Monopoly, switch the direction you move around the board. 
    • Jump back and forth between playing similar games. For example, play a game of Uno, then a game of Go Fish, followed by playing Uno again. 

Provide opportunities outside of emotionally charged situations to practice cognitive flexibility skills.

TIP 6: Accommodate for Cognitive Flexibility. Children who struggle with cognitive flexibility will not overcome their challenges overnight. They will benefit from accommodations that support them in this area.

  • Provide advanced warning of changes: Prepare your child for changes in routine or expectations. By providing your child with advanced warnings, you can support them with their emotions before dealing with the change.
  • Separate similar tasks: The demands on cognitive flexibility increase when there is a large overlap between tasks, such as for addition and subtraction. Separating similar tasks with a very different task can help. For example, instead of doing addition and then immediately doing subtraction, have your child read between the two tasks. 

As your child develops cognitive flexibility skills, they may need some accommodations to support their success in adapting to change. 

In summary, cognitive flexibility skills allow us to adapt to change and find new solutions to the problems we encounter in our everyday lives. Many children with neurodevelopmental disorders and Learning Disabilities struggle with cognitive flexibility because their brains are still developing. You can help your child develop their cognitive flexibility by helping them regulate their emotions, modelling flexible thinking, and providing them with opportunities to practice their cognitive flexibility skills.  



Books for parents:

Books for children: To spark discussion about what it means to think flexibly, use books that focus on adapting to change, problem solving, and thinking creatively.