Trouble With Flexible Thinking: Why Some Kids Only See Things One Way
The Understood Team
At a Glance
Flexible thinking is the ability to quickly switch gears and find new ways to solve problems.
Kids who struggle with flexible thinking often have trouble coping with change.
They often get stuck and don’t understand why.
Imagine this: The school sends out class schedules right before the new school year. But after the first week of classes, schedules change. Students have to adjust to new periods and classrooms.
Some kids take it in stride. They can picture where their new rooms are and how they’ll get from one to the next. They ask around to see who has lunch the same period they do. In other words, they have little or no trouble seeing a different way of doing things.
But some kids have trouble switching gears. Schedule changes make them anxious or angry. They struggle to cope with change because they can only see one possible schedule or solution.
These kids struggle with a skill called flexible thinking. And their challenges with finding different approaches to problems has a big impact on learning and everyday living.
Find out more about trouble with flexible thinking and what can help at home and at school.
What Trouble With Flexible Thinking Looks Like
Kids who struggle with flexible thinking might have trouble at home and at school. The situations are different. But the challenge is the same: not yet being able to see things from different angles or use different strategies to solve problems.
Imagine going to the movies and finding out the one you want to see is sold out. Most likely, you’d stop and think through your options. You could stay and see a different movie, buy tickets for a later show and come back, or do something else entirely.
Kids who struggle with flexible thinking don’t respond that way to problems. Instead, they might freeze and do nothing. Or try the same strategy over and over, even if it’s not working. And often, they get frustrated and upset.
This rigid way of thinking can show up when they have conversations and when they do homework. For example, kids may not understand that some words have two meanings. Or see that a strategy they used for one type of math problem can work with another.
Kids who have trouble with flexible thinking often get stuck on an activity or idea. And they probably don’t know why.
Here are some behaviors you might see at home and at school.
Not accepting other people’s ideas
Arguing the same point over and over
Getting frustrated when even small things go wrong
Repeating the same mistakes
Not following new schedules
Getting anxious when plans change
Struggling to take on new, more complicated tasks
Having trouble switching from one activity to another
Getting upset when others don’t follow rules
What Causes Trouble With Flexible Thinking
Flexible thinking is part of a group of skills called executive function. Trouble with these skills is common in kids with ADHD. But other kids who learn and think differently can also struggle with flexible thinking and executive function.
There are many ways to help kids who have trouble with flexible thinking, at home and at school.
One is to break down tasks into smaller chunks. Giving them this information in advance can help kids know what to expect. It can also give them specific steps to follow.
Another is to help kids plan out how they’re going to approach tasks or problems. Ask them to think about what else they could try if their first strategy doesn’t work. You can offer ideas, too. This shows them there are options and can cut down on anxiety.
Parents and teachers should connect if they notice kids struggling with flexible thinking. Together you can find ways to help. You can also talk about whether to do a free evaluation at school. An evaluation can lead to supports for kids who struggle with flexible thinking and other executive skills. The testing can also show exactly where kids are struggling and where they’re doing well.