In an ever-changing world, we know that our ability to be flexible and adapt to new or unexpected situations can help us progress in life. On the other hand, having a rigid mindset where we remain fixed on our own ideas, demands and perception of the situation, can prevent us from growing in our professional and our personal lives. How then do we impart this skill of flexible thinking to our children to better prepare them for life?
Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility is one part of a cluster of brain activities known as executive functioning. Scientists define cognitive flexibility as “the ability to shift gears, by shifting attention, processing new information, and changing our behaviours to fit new problems and pressures in the environment” (2018).
Because children’s brains are growing, their thinking and ability to regulate emotions is limited. However, their brains have a high degree of plasticity which means their capacity to learn and adapt is great. Thus, we can coach our children towards developing flexible thinking despite their limitations.
Ways to Build Flexible Thinking
1. Let your children see you being flexible about things.
Children do what we do, much more than they do what we say. In other words, our behaviour directly informs them about how they can conduct themselves and respond to various life events. You can model flexibility in the way you react to the unexpected in your life. E.g. you are driving the kids home and encounter a roadblock due to construction. Of course, you can express annoyance and frustration as these are normal human reactions to foiled plans. However, the way you recover from the situation, i.e. the attitude with which you problem solve is what will stand out to your kids. Let’s say you turn the GPS on your phone and map out a different way to reach home. Or you call someone who is great at giving directions. You then continue on your way having recovered from your frustration.
The point is that they watched you get frustrated and then be resourceful and change your plans in order to make things work. It helps them know that they can do it too because this is what Mom and Dad do.
2. Allow them to have their feelings when things do not go their way.
When there is a change or the unexpected happens, children may react with anger and even throw tantrums. They may sulk, be grumpy or refuse to accept any other option even if you provide it. Allow them this reaction. Avoid lecturing and reassuring. Many parents try to make their child brush aside the stressor or the frustration in an attempt to make their child resilient, i.e. to get over it quickly and move on. However, this is not effective because bad feelings in children do not simply vanish just because we coax them to get over it. Moreover, dismissing their feelings makes them fixate on their discomfort even more whereas empathy helps them let go and change the focus of their attention to the problem at hand. Being able to shift one’s focus from the adversity to the solution is at the heart of what it means to be flexible.
So instead, acknowledge their feelings as understandable. Be empathic, hug them, comfort them and generally be there for them. This will help them calm down and most importantly, will allow them to shift gears, which is what we want. Allow your child the time to ‘get over it’. Kids feel emotions in a big way. A parent’s understanding helps them learn to tolerate those emotions, which enables them to shift to flexible thinking.
3. Read to your child often. You may wonder what this has to do with flexible thinking. Children practise flexible thinking in reading and learning because a same-sounding word can have two different spellings, e.g. meat and meet and therefore when the child hears the word, she will have to figure out the context in order to know which version of the word is being used (Morin, 2018). Similarly, she learns that one cannot apply the same rule in all situations. E.g. the plural of mouse is mice but the plural of house is not hice. Thus, reading gives your child’s brain lots of good practice in strengthening that flexibility muscle as they constantly have to adapt.
4. Allow your child to make mistakes.
As parents, we find it hard to tolerate seeing our child in distress. It comes naturally to us to anticipate what could go wrong, and intervene so that our child does not have to feel upset or frustrated. Though it’s good to want the best for our children, it’s also important that we allow them to feel discomfort so that they have the opportunity to adapt. In fact, you would be amazed at the ideas your child will come up with given some time to figure out a solution on their own.
5. Be flexible with routines.
Routines help young children feel a sense of security because they’re able to anticipate what’s coming next. They learn to view the world as largely a dependable place which is important in order for them to feel at ease. However, being very rigid and going by the clock can set them up for rigidity (Hurley, 2018). While keeping the overall routine the same, try varying the order of things within the routine, e.g. have reading time in the middle of the afternoon instead of before bed. Do evening baths instead of afternoon baths. Even small changes like these can help your child learn to go with the flow.
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(n.d.). Cognitive Development Lab at UCSD. Cognitive Control and Flexibility in Children | Cognitive Development Lab.Retrieved August 24, 2018, from http://cogdevlab.ucsd.edu/research/executive-functions-in-preschoolers/
Hurley, K. (April 8). PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Flexible Thinking: How to Encourage Kids to Go With the Flow - Expert Tips & Advice. PBS Parents | PBS. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/04/flexible-thinking-encourage-kids-go-flow/
Morin, A. (n.d.). Understood | For Learning and Attention Issues. Kids Use Flexible Thinking to Learn | Executive Functioning Skills. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from http://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/6-ways-kids-use-flexible-thinking-to-learn