Flexible Thinking: What You Need to Know

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Flexible thinking lets kids shift gears and think about things in different ways.

  • This executive skill is a key part of problem solving.

  • Many kids with learning and thinking differences have trouble with flexible thinking.

Some kids with learning and thinking differences struggle with flexible thinking. This skill is one of three main executive functions that serve as the “command center” of the brain. And it’s key to our ability to solve problems.

Flexible thinking (experts may call it cognitive flexibility) allows us to shift gears and think about something in more than one way. It plays an important role in both learning and daily life.

Learn more about this vital skill and its connection to ADHD and learning differences.

What Is Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking allows us to come up with ways to tackle problems. Being able to see things in different ways helps us develop different strategies. Here’s an example of how a child might use flexible thinking. It’s actually based on one of the types of tests for executive functioning issues.

Imagine a set of 100 flashcards. Each card is either red, blue or green. Each also has an animal on it: a bunny, a dog or a bird.

When asked to sort the cards, a child might do it by color. She might also do it by animal. In other words, she can see different ways to complete the task. Being able to switch gears and change how she sees the cards shows flexible thinking.

Very young kids generally will get “stuck” sorting cards only one way. But as their brains develop based on their experience, they’re able to switch perspectives with increasing speed and ease. When this doesn’t happen at an age-appropriate rate, it may signal a problem with flexible thinking.

Flexible Thinking and Executive Function

Flexible thinking is one of three main executive skills. The other two are working memory and inhibitory control (self-control). Together, these skills allow kids to manage their thoughts, actions and emotions in order to get things done.

Think about what might happen when a child encounters a tough math problem. She uses inhibitory control to stay focused. She uses working memory to keep the formulas in mind so she can use them. And she uses flexible thinking to come up with alternative ways to solve the problem when her first attempt doesn’t work.

Kids who struggle with flexible thinking will likely also struggle with the other key executive skills. But that doesn’t mean a child will have the same degree of weakness in all three skills. She may have more trouble with flexible thinking than with working memory, for instance.

Testing can show exactly where the child is struggling so she can get the right support for her needs.

Flexible Thinking and Learning and Thinking Differences

Kids with all kinds of learning and thinking differences can struggle with flexible thinking. But it’s especially common among kids with ADHD. In fact, some experts view ADHD as an issue with executive function. Trouble with flexible thinking is also common in kids with nonverbal learning disabilities and dyscalculia.

The only way to know what’s causing your child’s difficulties is to have her evaluated. A full evaluation can show if she struggles with flexible thinking and other executive skills. It can also show if other learning differences are at play.

Everyday Signs of Trouble With Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is a skill we use throughout everyday life. So you may spot signs that your child is struggling with flexible thinking in all kinds of situations.

Kids with poor flexible thinking skills can often seem rigid. They may seem fearful of change or easily frustrated by challenges that come their way. That’s because they tend to get “stuck” in one activity or in one way of perceiving things. They also have a hard time coming up with alternative solutions.

Here are some examples of how problems with flexible thinking might play out in everyday situations:

  • Situation: It’s time to stop playing and get ready for school. A child who struggles with cognitive flexibility may find it intolerable to switch from play mode to school mode. She may have a tantrum. Flexible thinking would help her realize she can pick up her game where she left off when she gets home from school. (Get tips for taming tantrums.)

  • Situation: A child misses the bus home after school. A child breaks down in tears and feels stranded because she sees the bus as her only way home. Flexible thinking would help her consider alternatives, like getting a ride home with a friend.

  • Situation: The swim instructor is teaching the “proper” way to do the crawl. A child might stick with her old method of doggie-paddling and declare the new way “impossible.” Flexible thinking would help her see that the new method could work if she gave it a try.

  • Situation: There’s homework in almost every subject tonight. A child gets frustrated when she tries to switch from doing French homework to algebra. Flexible thinking would help her shift gears and consider the skills she needs for algebra. That would help her make the switch more easily.

  • Situation: A game of tag at a birthday party has slightly different rules than usual. A child keeps playing by the rules she knows. She eventually quits and sits on the sidelines. Flexible thinking would help her think quickly, use what she knows, and adapt to the rule changes.

  • Situation: A group of friends are talking about a new TV show at recess. A child who struggles with flexible thinking may have an opinion about the latest plot twist. But when the other kids have a different view of what happens, she keeps restating her point, annoying her friends. Flexible thinking would help her consider their perspective.

Kids need cognitive flexibility to problem-solve both at school and in everyday life. If you think your child has trouble with flexible thinking and other executive skills, discover next steps you can take.

Key Takeaways

  • Flexible thinking is one of three key executive functions.

  • Kids with poor flexible thinking skills may resist learning new ways of doing things.

  • Testing can show whether your child has trouble with flexible thinking and other executive skills.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Philip D. Zelazo, PhD 

is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

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