Does your child have trouble when his routine changes? Is it hard for him to adjust when he wants to do something one way and the teacher wants it done a different way? Does your child get upset when playing with friends and they want to alter the rules for the game they are playing? Perhaps your child needs to cultivate flexible thinking skills.
Mental flexibility, or the capacity to shift attention refers to updating or "shifting" cognitive strategies in response to changes in the environment. There are multiple types of set shifting, but they all require the ability to let go of one idea to consider another. Successful performance in school (or life) requires the ability to abandon an old strategy and adapt to a new rule.
For example, when a child makes a mistake, is he easily able to find it, correct it, and move on? If she thought the dress in the story was red, can she look back and change her mental image of the dress from red to blue? Flexible thinkers can let go of their first thought to allow a correction to be made. Concrete learners like to memorize what they have read or learned and stick with it. It is difficult for concrete learners to let go of what they have learned and imagine or follow logical reasoning to devise a new solution.
Some students “get stuck” and can’t shift due to the mental effort it takes to let go of the first concepts. Other students have trouble shifting thoughts because once they have an idea they are done. “The dress is red and that is that!” In both cases, the result is the same: they have the wrong answer.
Learning requires set shifting. When we teach a new way to do something we ask students to let go of the old way. Unlearning a habit requires set shifting. Being willing to take a risk on a new way of doing something requires set shifting. Set shifting requires the ability to be a flexible thinker.
What can you do to build set shifting skills? Games are some of the best ways to build these skills. Remember that if this is an area of weakness for the child, he might not think the games are much fun (though they can be!) Playing these games requires coaching to build and develop flexible thinking skills. Ask questions to help the child find the answer. The child with a set shifting weakness may not know what to attend to in the game, so making a checklist or practicing the questions he should ask himself when he gets stuck, will help him when he doesn’t know what to do.
Flexible thinking means finding more than one way to do something. It means stretching what you know enough to make an educated guess that could be right (and if it’s not, that’s okay). It is about finding out what you need to know and problem solving. Being a flexible thinker will give your child the tools they need to thrive in school now and in the future.
Activities to build flexible thinking skills
Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.
As the Director of the K&M Center, Inc for over 15 years I have been helping children with learning differences reach their potential. Visit our web site at www.kandmcenter.com.