Is your child a flexible thinker? Are you, in your classroom, promoting flexible thinking?

With acknowledgements to Amanda Morin and the ‘Understood’ team.

 Key points:

  1. Children with weak flexible thinking skills have trouble knowing when not to use typical grammar and pronunciation rules.
  2. They may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts in maths and reading
  3. There are tools and strategies that can help your child or learner in the classroom think less rigidly.

Flexible thinking is something we use every day. For instance, when a plan goes wrong, you need to be able to think of an alternative. For instance, if your usual route to work is blocked, you’ll visualise an alternative to get to your office.  We need to be able to quickly switch gears and find new solutions to problems.

Many children with learning and thinking differences struggle with flexible thinking, which plays an important role in how they learn and adapt to new information. Here are six ways kids use this skill for learning.

  1. Flexible thinking and real-life learning

The term ‘cognitive flexibility’ includes flexible thinking and set changing.  Flexible thinking  is when children are able to think about something in a new way.  Set changing is when they can let go of ‘old ways’ of doing and adopt new ways.  For instance, when learning to lie shoelaces, children start out with the ‘bunny ears’ method of making each lace into a loop.  Then they often progress to the ‘squirrel in the tree’ method of making one loop and wrapping the other lace around it.  Flexible thinking enables children to consider the new squirrel approach. Set shifting helps them ‘unlearn’ the bunny ears way in order to use the new method.

Kids who are rigid in their thinking have difficulty moving beyond the more basic ways of doing things. When kids have weak flexible thinking skills, taking on new tasks and responsibilities as they get older may be tough.

  1. Flexible thinking and reading

Children use flexible thinking both for learning to read and for reading to learn.  At first, flexible thinking enables them to understand how the same letter combination can make different sounds. (For example, the combination of ‘ough’ in words like enough and dough.) It also helps understanding of how words can be used in more than one way (We slip on the banana peel and also sign the permission slip.)

When children begin learning from books, they need flexible thinking to understand what information is important and what details are used merely to add to a description.  It also helps them understand the perspectives of different characters.

  1. Flexible thinking and language learning

Flexible thinking allows children to understand idioms (‘keep your ear to the ground’) and puns (‘the joke about the duck quacked me up’).

It helps them to learn the rules of language, for example, knowing that the way to put most words into the past tense involves adding ‘-ed’ to the root word. It also helps them come to terms with the exceptions to the rules so that it makes sense that the past tense of ‘go’ is ‘went.’  When learning a second language, it helps to understand that the same letters have different sounds.

  1. Flexible thinking and writing

Writing is complicated for children.  When they struggle with flexible thinking, their writing may not have enough supporting details, or have lots of language errors.  They may find it easier to learn by listening to how people speak the language rather than trying to learn the rules from a textbook.

  1. Flexible thinking and maths

Flexible thinking is a key skill in maths.  It is used to find ways to solve word problems and to understand that, for example, a phrase like ‘how many in all’ means that addition needs to be used.  It helps them realise that there’s more than one way to solve a maths problem and also how a new type of problem can be solved using a formula they already know.

  1. Flexible thinking and studying

Doing homework and studying for a test needs flexible thinking too.  Knowing how to switch between different subjects during homework time becomes increasingly important as children grow older and have more work to juggle.  Answering maths problems need different strategies than a writing assignment.  Flexible thinking allows youngsters to change their thinking to handle both.

Studying requires this skill too.  They need to work out to what kind of information they need to pay the most attention.  Which facts need to be memorised and which need to be understood in order to cope with a multiple-choice format.

The good news is that there are ways to help. Teachers can use strategies in the classroom to teach in ways that make more sense to a child.  Parents can play games at home to build children’s flexible thinking skills.

Visit the Understood website to find suggestions of ways that you can help. They are a valuable source of information relating to children’s learning problems and can be recommended.

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