Executive Function Strategies Blog

Same, But Different: 4 Tips to Build Flexible Thinking Skills

The previous several months have required all of us to wrap our minds around necessary changesFlexible thinking helps students cope with change that have been essential to public health and our general well-being. Between mandated social distancing, stay at home executive orders, working remotely and virtual schooling, our understanding of the world we live in had to ultimately shift. Many of these changes have required that we do the same things a bit differently. Instead of using Chromebooks at their desks in school, students are using tablets at their kitchen tables at home. Instead of attending meetings in a conference room at work, parents are scheduling Zoom calls in their living rooms. Instead of using SmartBoards to teach lessons in their classrooms, teachers are using Google Classroom to send videos and assignments from their dining room. Same, but different.

Somehow, we are doing it. We make these shifts. We get through the chaos. We are able to shift our thinking in order to do what was necessary. Here, I’d like to build upon our last blog article that emphasized flexible thinking as one way to help meet our current demands in extraordinary circumstances. Cognitive flexibility can be defined as the brain’s ability to switch back and forth between two different ideas, while synthesizing multiple thoughts about new information. This is a skill; it takes learned practice and application over time to develop a system of fluid perspective. It's normal for children to have some challenges in thinking flexibly.

As a teacher and Executive Function coach who now works remotely, I spend a lot of time online with students and clients. As we prepared for the new school year, and all of its unknowns, I heard a common question: “How am I supposed to say hi to my friends, when it’s safe to see them again?” My answer? “The same way you always have, just differently. The "same" part is that you'll still be able to greet your friends. The "different" part is that you need to come up with a way to do it that doesn't involve touching."

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a fun video graphic below titled, “Alternatives to Handshakes, Hugs, and High Fives”. It's a great visual starting point for these social concerns that students are voicing. Students often respond with, "I can think of some other ways, too!" This helps them practice their flexible thinking along with preparing them to be safe when they are allowed to see their friends.


What Parents Can Do To Help Build Cognitive Flexibility

Here are 4 easy, practical examples of how you, as parents, can begin to foster initial skills for cognitive flexibility at home:

  1. Encourage your child to think about the following day. Talk about what challenges they might face, and how they might practice dealing with those challenges. In other words, creating a "Plan B" can help children develop flexible thinking skills. For example, “If it’s too hot to play outside tomorrow, you might not be able to see your friends. How else could you see your friends for a playdate?”
  2. When we set goals, we typically think about the process of completion from beginning to end. Instead, begin with the end in mind. Think about the finish line and what that goal ultimately looks like once it’s completed. Have your children work their way backwards to find their way to the beginning. They may discover there are a number of ways they can reach their end goal. For example, if their goal is to coordinate a socially distanced birthday party, help them think of different ways this could be accomplished.
  3. Set aside time to express gratitude as a family, and discuss how being grateful differs from being thankful. Grateful means appreciating what we have, whereas thankful means appreciating things others have given us. You might be surprised to learn about what each individual person in your family is grateful for.
  4. Consider completing a virtual Escape Room as a family. Escape Rooms require quick and flexible thinking to solve clues. Country Living shares some great websites that are appropriate for children and adults. Likewise, completing jigsaw puzzles as a family activity allows you to narrate and model your own cognitive flexibility: "Hmmm, this piece looks like it should fit on an edge but it just as easily can fit near this center portion because of its color."

Like any new skill, developing cognitive flexibility takes a mindful and patient approach. Students with learning differences can find it extra challenging to consider new ideas and perspectives but with our support, they can thrive and be successful in our ever-changing world.

Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash


Elissa KingsleyElissa Kingsley is a certified Reading Specialist and English teacher with over 10 years of public and private classroom experience. Elissa studied English and Education at SUNY Oneonta and obtained her Masters in Literacy through the College of New Rochelle. At Beyond BookSmart, Elissa is a Coaching Coordinator, Executive Function Coach, and is a member of the Hiring Team. She currently resides in New Jersey with her husband and son.


3 Shifts to Reduce FrictionDownload our newest infographic with tips for parents on how to shift language, approaches, and measuring success in order to reduce friction at home.

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