Flexible Thinking and How It Effects Students

On this website I speak about executive functioning. The inability to think flexibly is one way executive function deficits can manifest. Basically, a student who has a weakness in his or her flexible thinking will have difficulty "shifting gears." They will stay stuck in the same routine, or the same procedure, unable to change their thought process for how to release themselves from the hamster wheel in which they find themselves.

Students will have difficulties with spur of the moment shifts in plans, last minute assignments that they haven't thought out ahead of time, and rearrangement of the usual routine. For example,

[i]magine going to the movies and finding out the one you want to see is sold out. Most likely, you’d stop and think through your options. You could stay and see a different movie, buy tickets for a later show and come back, or do something else entirely.

Children without difficulty with flexible thinking could react in a number of ways: buy a ticket for a later show; choose a different movie; change plans totally and go bowling. Children who struggle with flexible thinking would not know how to get out of the movie theater. Of course they know where the door is, but they couldn't shift their minds from seeing the planned movie to a different plan.

I mentioned children being stuck in the hamster wheel because this is partly how their thinking gets stuck. If they entered the situation with plan A and plan A wasn't possible or failed the student would be unable to take that information and reformulate a plan B or possibly a plan C. Other ways a weakness in flexible thinking might show up can be:

  • Not accepting other people’s ideas

  • Arguing the same point over and over

  • Getting frustrated when even small things go wrong

  • Repeating the same mistakes

  • Not following new schedules

  • Getting anxious when plans change

  • Struggling to take on new, more complicated tasks

  • Having trouble switching from one activity to another

  • Getting upset when others don’t follow rules

Predictability is one of the first methods that should be tried with students struggling in this aspect of executive functioning. By giving a heads up, or a preview, of what is coming the child will be able to work through, in their mind, or with the help of someone, how to proceed through what is coming. Also, by breaking large tasks into smaller bits children weak in flexible thinking will be able to see a path through a multi-step project. They will either notice, on their own, or be helped to see, many commonalities between the different steps in the project. This will help the student more smoothly move between steps.

For ideas of how to build up flexible thinking skills check out this post from www.understood.org.

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