How to Help Kids Think More Flexibly

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 02, 2022
5 min read

We all experience uncertainty in life. As we navigate our way through daily experiences, not everything goes according to plan. But how well we adapt to unforeseen changes or unexpected circumstances depends on our cognitive flexibility or ability to think flexibly. 

While most people will learn to do this by early adulthood, promoting cognitive flexibility from preschool to early adolescence can dramatically impact a child’s development and even help avoid potential psychological pitfalls. 

Here, we’ll look at cognitive flexibility, why it’s so important, and how to teach your kids to think more flexibly.

Flexible thinking is one of our executive functions, skills and mental processes we use every day to get things done and organize our lives. Executive functions allow us to remember information, set priorities, make plans, think flexibly, and stay on top of tasks by managing our time.  

The executive function of flexible thinking lets us think about things in new ways and consider different alternatives. In other words, cognitive flexibility helps us adapt our behavior and thinking to changing circumstances. Some flexible thinking examples include the abilities to:

  • Multitask
  • Be creative
  • Pay attention
  • Problem-solve 
  • Change opinions
  • Regulate feelings
  • Handle big emotions
  • Deal with uncertainty
  • Consider new information

Practical examples of flexible (or inflexible) thinking are easiest to observe in children. For example, imagine you had plans to take your child on a playdate with their friend, but you’ve just discovered that the friend in question is sick, and you need to reschedule. A child who hasn’t yet developed cognitive flexibility might be confused, throw a tantrum, or vow never to want to see their friend again. On the other hand, children who learn to think flexibly earlier would be more easily convinced to switch to a different activity given the change in circumstances.

Besides being a crucial function that helps us deal with personal, social, and workplace conflicts, the inability to think flexibly can lead to several developmental issues. 

For example, children who struggle with cognitive flexibility may become more rigid or "black and white" thinkers later in life. They might find it more difficult to socialize or connect with different people, try new things, or integrate into an environment different than what they’re used to.

No one is born with the ability to think flexibly. It’s something we learn and develop throughout childhood. But those born or diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — a common neurodevelopmental disorder in children — are at higher risk of having trouble with flexible thinking. Similarly, children with learning disabilities or on the autism spectrum may also have difficulty developing cognitive flexibility.

Here are some easy things you can do every day to help your kids develop flexible thinking: 

Validate your children’s emotions. It can be difficult for kids to manage disappointment or uncertainty. That’s why it’s important to take the time to listen to your children, talk to them, and validate their feelings, no matter how illogical or outlandish. When children feel heard and understood, they’re more open to finding solutions and are less likely to dwell on negative emotions.

Involve them in decisions. Involving your kids in decisions will instill a greater sense of autonomy and control, helping them focus on decision-making instead of the disappointment of not getting what they want. Instead of simply saying no and closing the subject, including your kids in coming up with alternative solutions will give them a chance to practice thinking flexibly.

Give them reminders. Even adults benefit from the occasional reminder, but children need to be reminded to develop their cognitive flexibility. Parents who regularly remind their kids about their choices or inform them of alternative options help them practice and improve flexible thinking. Reminders also promote a child’s engagement, motivation, and mood. Making your kids aware of the different roles they play and reminding them of this — for example, that they are someone’s child, friend, and student — also helps with cognitive flexibility, allows them to become aware of their place in the world, and promotes problem-solving and social skills.  

Model the behavior you want to see. Modeling flexible thinking for your kids is one of the most important and effective ways you can teach them to be more flexible in their thinking. Children often take behavioral cues from their parents, so regularly being a role model for how you want your kids to act goes a long way in their cognitive development. For example, sharing your thoughts about alternative options or letting your kids see you cope with an unwanted situation will teach them to model their behavior after yours. 

Provide cognitive flexibility exercises. Various cognitive flexibility games and activities are also available to help kids develop this crucial function. Video games that involve strategic thinking or logic/reasoning skill games like puzzles, Scrabble, Jenga, or Pictionary can all promote flexible thinking. Creating a coping strategy wheel is another example of an exercise that will help kids regulate their emotions by focusing on alternative strategies to different problems.

If you think your child’s flexible thinking may be underdeveloped, their doctor might recommend a cognitive flexibility test. Various types of tests can gauge a child’s ability to think flexibly. Some of the more common ones include:

Verbal fluency. Semantic fluency — or recognizing meaning in language — tests a child’s ability to differentiate between different sets of items and their relational association. For example, a child would be presented with a list of items and asked to determine which of them could be found at the supermarket.

Verbal exclusion. Similar to the above, a verbal exclusion test measures a child’s ability to distinguish (and reason) why a particular item doesn't fit within a set. For example, a child might be given four abstract geometric shapes to then determine which one does not belong to the others. Verbalizing the reasoning for their choices helps measure a child’s cognitive flexibility function.

Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS). The DCCS, a variation of the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, is another cognitive flexibility test. Here, kids are provided with cards with two distinct dimensions, for example, shape and color. They are then asked to sort the cards by one dimension and then repeat the task with the other. How easily they can change their sorting parameters from one to another is a test of cognitive flexibility.

Your children’s early childhood learning and cognitive development are essential to becoming happy, healthy, social adults. While you can foster children's cognitive flexibility at home and school, some parents may not be able to gauge their kids’ flexible thinking. If you suspect your child might lack development in this area — or you don’t feel equipped to help — talk to your doctor to determine the best course of action.