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Does your child struggle with flexible thinking? Kids usually find comfort in routines, but sometimes this gets exaggerated. For some kids, change is a reason to panic. Flexible thinking activities are a great way to help your child overcome these anxieties and struggles.
The opposite of flexible thinking is mental rigidity, and is a hallmark symptom of autism and other kinds of executive dysfunction. Here’s what that looks like. Kids who are hyper-resistant to change might feel unable to do schoolwork if they have a blue instead of a yellow pencil. Or they might not want to leave the house without their favorite shirt. Some children might become distressed at bedtime if dad tucks them in instead of mom. The triggers will change from child to child, but the root cause is the same- a lack in mental flexibility.
Flexible thinking activities help in two ways. First, they help children move past their current, particular struggles like those examples above. But second, boosting flexible thinking will help children build their resilience muscle so they can cope with new, unimagined future changes.
Let’s look at a few exercises you can try at home or at school!
Flexible Thinking Activities: Work the Whole Brain
Parts of your child’s brain which are responsible for flexible thinking are also responsible for a variety of other executive functions. Therefore, if you’re trying to help them improve in this one area, it makes sense to work on boosting all their executive functions at the same time. Try helping them with their impulse control, working memory, time management, or planning & prioritization skills, too!
Try New Things Oftens
Going on adventures, trying new foods, and exploring new places are all great for helping your child become a more flexible thinker. Firstly, because they model for your child how to cope with novelty and change. You can have “new thing time” every day if you want, so kids can prepare themselves for something new. Temple Grandin PhD, one of the most successful and well-known autistic adults of our time, has said that she attributes her childhood nanny’s constantly changing repertoire of activities to her not getting stuck in rigid behavior patterns.
Novel experiences also give your child a bank of memories to draw from when assessing new situations. Where before they might have turned up their nose to all green foods, having a positive experience with peas might help them try edamame or broccoli with less fuss.
Sometimes, you can manufacturer this through “planned sabotage,” or purposefully changing small things up on your child and walking them through the new experience together.
Narrate Your Decision-Making Process
Sometimes, children with executive functioning problems struggle to understand the mechanics behind changes. Hearing your own inner dialogue spoken aloud can “pull back the curtain,” so to speak.
That might sound something like this: “Hmm. Do I want to drive to the store on Main St or take the back road? The back road sometimes has potholes, but I like looking at the flowers growing in the garden in the white house. I think I’ll try the back way today.”
How Many Ways?
Part of flexible thinking is getting creative. When you come across a relatively minor problem, invite your child to brainstorm solutions to a problem in as many ways as they can.
Is there no chicken in the house, and so you can’t make tikka masala for dinner? Have your child help you come up with all the possible alternatives, and don’t decide on dinner until you have at least 10 or 20 options.
Flexible Thinking Activities: The Categories Game
I like this activity because it doubles as “clean all the random toys off the floor” day! To play, grab a collection of 10-20 toys of various origins. Then, have your child organize them into different categories. You might try having your child line them up by size, grouping by color, shape, alphabetically, whatever. This is one of the best working memory exercises because your child needs to quickly shift how they think. They might start by thinking about the objects one way (say, by their color), but then they’ll need to immediately discard that system for a new one.
If it seems like too hard a challenge, reduce the number of objects to 3-5, or only do a handful of different organizational methods at a time. You can always build up to higher or more complicated games once they’ve mastered simpler ones!
Use an Editable Schedule
Obviously, the world will never be as predictable as our children would like it to be. However, there are many times when we can help them prepare for changes and get strategies in place to cope with those changes.
Having a posted family calendar with daily activities, lessons, appointments, and meetings on it can help kids anticipate what’s next. And like I’ve talked about in my article on working memory improvement strategies, sometimes all kids need to handle situations appropriately is a little time to process.
For more reading on this topic:
- Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids
- Homeschool ADHD Schedule: 13 Hacks + A Sample Schedule
- 6 Helpful Resources for a Child with Anxiety
- Accommodations for Autism: 21 Best Recommendations for Learning
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.