The Incredible Flexible Thinking Guide (for Kids!)

As parents, we’ve had the benefit of time and experience to learn why being flexible makes life easier, but if you’ve watched two kids wrangling over the new favorite toy (and who among us hasn’t?), you’ll know that flexible thinking generally does not come easily. In fact, a lot of behaviors, frustrations, and overwhelm stem from our inability to be flexible when presented with everyday challenges. And — surprise! — nowhere is this more apparent than the demands of distance learning. Not only has the pandemic introduced a lot more stress into our households, which our kids sense like the little lightning rods they are, but distance learning — with Zoom classes that are loud and hard to connect with, social isolation, too many transitions on- and offscreen — has also brought many of the stresses, frustrations, and sensitivity points our kids already struggle with into higher relief. 

The famously stretchable, squishable green toy, Gumby, sits in a yoga pose.
The famously stretchable, squishable green toy, Gumby, sits in a yoga pose.

 

What is flexible thinking?

Flexible thinking is one of the three cornerstones of executive functioning. Without flexible thinking, we tend to get stuck on an idea or plan, and have trouble moving forward. One example that parents can all relate to is telling our kid(s) that it’s time to put the iPad or tablet away because (virtual) school is starting. Many of us will try to ease this transition with an offer of continuing the screen time later — for example, “I know you want to keep playing Minecraft, but it’s eleven o’clock and that means it’s time for class. You can have your iPad back later while I’m cooking dinner.” Of course, this doesn’t always work. Why? Because accepting the offer of continuing the game later and transitioning from play time to school time requires flexible thinking. 

Dr. Matthew Biel, Chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital and Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine, has spent his career helping kids deal with stress and adversity. Here, he walks us through some everyday strategies we can use to help our kids develop better flexible thinking skills, which in turn can help them cope a little bit better with each new school day.

 

Why is flexible thinking important?

Physical flexibility allows us to bend and stretch our bodies without breaking. Being flexible in our thinking means that we can change our ideas — we can think of a new solution to a problem we’re having, and keep our cool when things don’t go the way we planned.

Children who struggle with flexible thinking may struggle with:

  • changes in plans
  • rules they disagree with
  • challenges that they were not expecting
  • having to compromise or negotiate
  • trying a new skill.
     

Developing flexible thinking can help our kids:

  • learn how to compromise when they can’t have exactly what they want (and we all know what a hard-won and valuable skill this can be!) 
  • learn how to manage conflict
  • learn how to make friends and get along more easily with siblings 
  • be kind to themselves if things don’t go exactly as they expected
  • improve how they handle stress or disappointment.

 

So pay attention to the trigger points and challenges your child struggles with. How can you use those challenges to increase their ability to think flexibly? 

 

1) Talk about being flexible

Being flexible is not just about bending. It’s also about changing an idea, considering new information, accepting an unexpected change or event, and being able to change what you’re doing.  

One way to model flexibility in action is to play the Plan Z game. It goes something like this:

Come up with a situation, and then take turns coming up with new, funny, and increasingly outrageous plans. For example: Your child wants to have pizza for dinner, but you forgot to buy the ingredients at the store. You can say, “Well, that didn’t go the way I hoped, so I guess I need to be flexible since my first plan for dinner didn’t work out. How can we keep an open mind and come up with a Plan Z?” 

(you) Plan A: Have pizza for dinner

(your child) Plan B: Have spaghetti for dinner

(you) Plan C: Skip dinner, and keep the house awake all night with our rumbling stomachs! 

(your child) Plan D: Eat dinner in our pajamas in bed!

(you) Plan E: Sneak into our neighbor’s house and eat their dinner!

(your child) Plan F: Eat everything in the fridge for dinner!

(you) Plan G: Eat dinner upside down!

And so on, for as long as you can keep it going!
 

2) Take advantage of opportunities for flexibility

  • Compromising with a sibling or friend:

When a child wants to play tag but his sibling wants to play with Legos, help them see that true compromise means that two people each give up part of what they want so that they can reach an agreement, but each person still gets part of what they want, too. You can say:

“How can you be flexible and still have fun? Can you play freeze tag first and then Legos? Then you’ll both get what you want, which is better than not getting what you want at all!” 

  • When something has to wait:

You can say, “I was really hoping we could make cookies this morning, but we don’t have time before we have to leave to go visit your grandma. Instead of getting upset about it, I’m going to be flexible and do it later today.”

 

3) Notice when your child is being flexible and offer praise

Notice the times when you or your child were flexible and good things happened. Help them see the difference between between flexibility and giving in:

“When you shared your game, you were being flexible, and it worked! Good job.”

“Being flexible helps us get some of what we want.”

“Thank you for being flexible with ___________; it made things much easier.”

You can also talk about times when someone in a TV show or a book was flexible and good things happened. For example:


“Did you notice how he was flexible, and could still get what he wanted?”

“What if she hadn’t been flexible then —  what would have happened?”


As we continue to work to give our kids the tools they need to grow and gain executive functioning skills, helping them learn to be flexible thinkers can benefit us as much as it can them. Being flexible helps us to adapt to the ups and downs of change more easily, allowing us to stretch our perceptions and thoughts. By modeling flexibility and teaching the skill to our kids, the ups and downs of life may not have as much of a devastating impact on us because we’re able to accept change and move forward. (And we all know how much we need this now, during the last few months of 2020!)

Do you use flexible thinking to help your kid move through transitions more easily? Do you have a favorite strategy or story to share? We'd love to hear it!

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