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How To Build Flexible Thinking Skills

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 friends change 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. Successful performance in school (or life) requires the ability to abandon an old strategy and adapt to a new rule.

When your child makes a mistake, is she easily able to find it, correct it, and move on?  If she thinks the dress in the story is red, can she look back and change her mental image of the dress from red to blue?  Flexible thinkers let go of their first thought to make a correction.  Concrete learners like to memorize what they read or learn and stick with it.  It is difficult for concrete learners to let go of what they learn 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. While other students have trouble shifting thoughts because once they have an idea they are unwilling to continue searching for additional solutions.  “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 teaching a new way to do something we are asking 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. Make a checklist or practice metacognitive questions to help guide the child to alternative solutions.

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.

The Flexible Thinking Program includes many activities to build flexible thinking skills including:

  1. Optical Illusions

  2. Student explores the multiple illusions within one picture

  3. Look at and solve the illusion

  4. Discuss what is seen and what to focus on to see it differently

  5. Stroop material (to practice switching between attending to different aspects of a stimulus; color or word)

  6. Tower of Hanoi

  7. Infinity Signs (e.g. drawing figures based on different rules),

  8. In air, on paper, with foot on rug, walk it, etc.

  9.  Maps (finding alternate and quickest routes on a map).

    1. Print out maps (street view) and have student estimate shortest distance, then draw and check on Google.


:Anyone who has taken the WISC IQ test will recognize this game as the Block Design test. I played Q-bitz with my two children last night and we had lots of fun. My son was a bit frustrated until I showed him how to “see” the relationship between the individual blocks and the design on the cards. Once he understood that he took off. We allowed a handicap for the youngest player of a four-block head start to even out the skills difference.

provides 3-D dimensional puzzles to be solved. Visual imaging skills are important for math, writing and reading comprehension. The ability to mentally rotate and “see” how the pieces go together develops the internal visualizations skills used to imagine how to create and develop novel ideas.

is a hyped up tic-tac-toe game. The goal is the same as tic-tac-toe, to get four in a row, or three in a row on Gobblet Jr. The twist is that you have 4 (or 3) sizes of pieces that can “gobble” up another piece smaller than it. This game is quick to start playing, but your skills can continue to develop as you discover more strategies to win. I think that Gobblet Jr. is best for 10 year olds and under. Gobblet is a game everyone can have fun playing.

has been around for a while, but it continues to be a favorite. To win quickly use deductive reasoning skills.

is a wonderful one-person game. There are a number of puzzle cards, in increasing order of difficulty, to solve.

has become a classic at our office. The challenge of winning depends on the skills of your opponent.

I love the way paths change when players push their cards on the board. The constantly changing mazes challenge players to re-evaluate their plan after each move.

outcome can change at the last minute of the game. Othello rewards players who can think ahead and gain access to key positions on the board.

requires players to quickly see visual options available. It is fun to try to see what objects are in the holders. My family laughed out loud at some of the things we thought we saw!

requires quick thinking and visual processing. Set builds categorization skills as the players try to get rid of all of their cards by matching them to target cards.

requires you to be quick and fast. When you spot a card with a match you say the name of the pictures that match before anyone else does.

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