At a glance
Flexible thinking allows kids to switch gears and look at things differently.
It includes the ability to “unlearn” old ways of doing things.
Flexible thinking plays a key role in all types of learning.
Imagine you’re driving somewhere, and you discover that a street you were planning to turn onto is blocked off for construction. Your initial plan for reaching your destination obviously isn’t going to work. So you instantly come up with a new way to get there.
That’s what flexible thinking is about — being able to quickly switch gears and find new approaches to solve problems.
Many children with learning and thinking differences struggle with flexible thinking, which plays an important role in how they learn and adapt to new information. Here are six ways kids use this skill for learning.
1. Flexible thinking and real-life learning
Doctors have a term to describe the ability to think about things in a different way. They call it cognitive flexibility. It uses two skills — flexible thinking and set shifting. Flexible thinking is when kids are able to think about something in a new way. Set shifting is when they can let go of the old way of doing something in order to use a new way.
Here’s an example of how those skills work together. Kids often start out learning to tie shoes using the “bunny ears” method (making each lace into a loop). They then often progress to the “squirrel in the tree” method (making one loop and wrapping the other lace around it). Flexible thinking enables kids to consider this new squirrelly approach. Set shifting helps them “unlearn” the old bunny-ears way in order to use the new method.
Kids who are rigid in their thinking have difficulty moving beyond the more basic ways of doing things. When kids have weak flexible thinking skills, taking on new tasks and responsibilities as they get older may be tough.
2. Flexible thinking and reading
Kids use flexible thinking both for learning to read and for reading to learn. When they’re starting out, flexible thinking enables them to understand how the same letter combination can make different sounds (like the “ough” in words like enough and dough). It’s also the skill that helps kids understand how words can be used in more than one way (“Don’t slip on the banana peel” and “Sign the permission slip”).
As kids start reading books to get information, they use flexible thinking to understand what information is important and what details are just used to add to a description. Flexible thinking is also what helps them understand the perspectives of different characters in a story. Flexible thinkers have an easier time understanding idioms (“keep your ear to the ground”) and puns (“the joke about the duck quacked me up”).
When kids are rigid in their thinking, you may see them having trouble identifying the correct pronunciation for words. And they may interpret what they read much too literally.
3. Flexible thinking and writing
Writing is a complicated process for kids. They have to organize their thoughts and choose the words for the sentences. They have to add supporting details while keeping track of the main idea. On top of that, they need to be able to check for grammar and spelling mistakes. All of that requires the use of flexible thinking. Kids who are more rigid thinkers can have a hard time shifting among all these things.
When kids have trouble thinking flexibly, their writing may not have enough supporting details. Or it might have lots of errors.
4. Flexible thinking and language learning
Flexible thinking is the skill kids use to learn the rules of language. It helps them to know, for instance, that the way to put most words into the past tense is to add “-ed” to the end. Flexible thinkers also understand there are exceptions to those rules. It makes sense to them that the past tense of go is went. These kids can easily use both the rules and the exceptions of language.
Flexible thinking also plays a role in learning foreign languages. In other languages, letters can have different sounds. Sentences aren’t put together the way they are in English.
When kids have a hard time thinking flexibly, it may be hard for them to learn the rules and the exceptions that make up languages. They may learn better by listening to how people speak the language than by sitting down and reading the rules in a textbook.
5. Flexible thinking and math
Flexible thinking is a key skill in math. Kids use it to find ways to solve word problems and to understand that a phrase like “how many in all” means that addition is being used. Flexible thinking also helps kids understand that there’s more than one way to solve a math problem. They can see how a new type of problem can be solved using a formula they already know.
Without strong flexible thinking skills, kids may struggle with math that requires them to do more than just solve the equation on the page. “Cheat sheets” that connect words or phrases to math operations can be helpful tools. So can checklists of the different things they need to look at to solve a problem.
6. Flexible thinking and studying
Doing homework and studying for a test require flexible thinking, too. Knowing how to switch between different subjects during homework time becomes increasingly important as kids get older and have more work to juggle. Doing math problems requires a very different strategy than doing a writing assignment. Kids need to be able to change their thinking to handle both.
When it comes to studying, kids use flexible thinking to figure out what kind of information they need to pay the most attention to. Do they need to memorize facts and information for a multiple-choice quiz? Or do they need to learn the basic ideas so they can retell the story for an essay test?
When kids have poor flexible thinking skills, switching strategies will not come naturally. This can make homework time a source of frustration. Teaching kids note-taking strategies and providing homework planners can help ease the stress.
The good news: There are ways to help
Kids who have trouble with flexible thinking often have some problems with learning. There are ways to help, though. Teachers can use strategies in the classroom to teach in ways that make more sense to your child.
You can also play games at home to build your child’s flexible thinking skills and come up with ways to make homework more manageable. One of the best things you can do is to help your child learn to make a list of pros and cons, first on paper and then mentally, to determine the best choice.
Kids with weak flexible thinking skills have trouble knowing when not to use typical grammar and pronunciation rules.
They may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts in math and reading.
There are tools and strategies that can help your child think less rigidly.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.