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  • Writer's pictureKelly Priest

Teaching Flexible Thinking

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

The first thing to know about flexible thinking as a social skill is that children who get through a a whole day with a great working set of flexible thinking skills only appear to sail along. In reality, they are smoothly and consistently deploying a sophisticated set of learned cognitive strategies. It’s a lot of work.

Even young children use cognitive set shifting to transition from one task or setting to another. They update mental representations when they revise a drawing or rephrase a question.

They process multiple dimensions of meaning simultaneously as they play around with puns, jokes, or new languages, or assert their own idea while incorporating a friend’s in imaginative play or conversation. They use pattern recognition to detect and incorporate exceptions to rules, in grammar, friendships, or P.E. games.

Good social support around Flexible Thinking should make the process of learning these skill sets more conscious, explicit, and useful in a variety of settings. Over time, by both building in and taking advantage of in-the-moment learning opportunities, we can scaffold children’s growing metacognitive abilities, helping them build an internal infrastructure for thoughtful and adaptive flexibility over time.

Flexible Thinking shouldn’t be used to get students to do whatever we want them to do. Let’s avoid imploring children to “Be a flexible thinker” or asking rhetorical questions like, “Can you please just be flexible?” when we really need them to follow basic expectations like buckling up their seatbelt or moving over to let a grandparent sit down.

By the time we feel the urge to tell a child to be flexible, they are likely to be flooded with prefrontal cortex-impairing cortisol, and sometime so are we. So if we do make the choice to use the moment to teach flexible thinking (knowing that coming back to it later is always an option), we must remember that in a tense moment, many children will need help with a couple of ideas of how to be flexible. It is not something they can just be. Under stress, just about everyone’s capacity for cognitive flexibility is diminished (Goldfarb, 2016). With all of this in mind, our approach might sound like this:

  • “I wonder if any of the Ways of Flexible Thinking from our drawing might help you get unstuck. Take a look and I’ll check with you in a minute to see if any of them would work in this situation.”

  • “I remember how you were able to shift your brain so quickly from focusing on your TV show to getting your shoes on yesterday. See if you can remember how you did that.”

  • “Yesterday on my way home, I thought of a way I could have been more flexible about __________. Sometimes it takes me a little time to figure out how to use “both/and” thinking. We can try it today and see if it works.”

In my social learning groups, I remind children of previous successes and draw out their strategies, provide visuals and language that prompt them to recall and apply specific lessons and practices, and model my own flexible thinking strengths and stretches in an authentic way.

Finally, let’s be cautious about inadvertently teaching students that inflexible, rigid thinking is a prerogative of people who have power by virtue of age, education, or other favored positions of culture or authority. We know from experience and common sense that neglecting to be careful with this leads to power struggles with some children and teens, who will predictably try to assert their own use of this “privilege” by attempting to assume a dominant role and bulldozing us right back!

So instead of telling kids, “No, I can’t be flexible about that,” when they protest that we are not being flexible, we can respond that we already discussed the time limit for the computer, or this is an important safety rule, or this is our plan for dinner, but they don’t have to eat it. Don’t throw Flexible Thinking under the bus when you really need to set a limit.

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