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How to help kids build flexible thinking skills

By Julie Rawe

Flexible thinking is a skill that lets kids look at situations in different ways and find solutions to new problems. For some kids, it comes naturally. But others need help building flexible thinking .

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Strategy and logic games can help kids think about different ways to look at and solve problems and puzzles. Encourage kids to think out loud as they play. This helps them see options and strategies.

Try making up new rules for games, too. Start with simple switches in games kids know well, like Chutes and Ladders. Instead of climbing up the ladders and sliding down the chutes, agree to slide down the ladders and walk up the chutes. 

Jokes and wordplay can also boost flexible thinking. Explain that words can have more than one meaning. Read books like Amelia Bedelia, whose main character takes everything literally. For example, when asked to “draw the curtains,” she draws a picture of them. Ask what she should have done instead.

Tell jokes that play with the meanings or sounds of words. Tell a joke like: “Why are fish so smart? Because they live in schools.” Explain how the punch line uses two meanings of the word school. Encourage kids to try, too.

Dive deeper

What inflexible thinking looks like

Inflexible or rigid thinkers have trouble seeing alternatives or doing things in a different order. They often get stuck on an activity or idea. And they probably don’t know why. 

Here’s what trouble with flexible thinking can look like: 

  • Not accepting other people’s ideas

  • Arguing the same point over and over

  • Getting upset when others don’t follow rules

  • Having trouble switching from one activity to another

  • Getting anxious when plans change, or frustrated when small things go wrong

  • Not following new schedules

  • Struggling to take on new, more complicated tasks

  • Repeating the same mistakes

  • Having trouble getting jokes

Explore a day in the life of a child who struggles with flexible thinking.

Next steps

Flexible thinking is part of a group of skills called  . Thinking flexibly plays a key role in all types of learning, including “unlearning” old ways of doing things.

There are many ways to help kids build flexible thinking skills at home and at school. Families and teachers can share ideas and work together to help kids learn different ways to approach problems.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom