Flexible thinking describes our higher-order mental ability to shift our thinking in response to expected and unexpected challenges.

It also describes our mental preparedness to solve tasks and new challenges by using more than only one solution and drawing from past experiences.

Flexible thinking allows the mind to reflect differently because of new and better ideas to our old plans. The need for redesigning our plans is driven by the dynamic nature of our lifestyle and productivity.

Call it Plan B if you may, or the mental ability to move goalposts.

This is how IGI Global defines flexible thinking in a learning environment:

A critical thinking process that is exhibited when the learner remains open to multiple possibilities, ideas, or hypothesis, particularly early during a critical thinking problem when information and evidence is being gathered. Also exhibited when learners incorporate the thinking of others into their own during collaborative critical thinking activities.

IGI Global

Flexible thinking or cognitive flexibility is an important mental factor in the 21st century given the rise of globalism, lifestyle changes, and advancements in technology.

There are new ideas every day, emerging gadgets everywhere, and new opportunities, all of which require the modern-day generations to rewire their thinking accordingly.

Children must develop the correct mental flexibility in order to blend in and become useful in the years to come.

Flexible thinking and other mental skills

Cognitive flexibility is only one of the three branches of mental activities known as executive functioning skills. The other two are self-control and working memory.

The three are important higher-level mental skills necessary for managing, recalling, and controlling tasks, actions, behavior, and emotions.

Children are not born with these skills, but rather, they learn them during childhood and continue to do so as they age.

The experiences they go through in the environment and what they learn from parents, educators, and the community shape the development of executive function skills.

How to cultivate cognitive flexibility in children

Here is something to think about in retrospect:

Have you been asked a question in a group setting and were lost for words because you did not have a ready answer?

Well, it happens to all of us. What actually matters is how we respond to the elusive question.

The answer we give clearly reflects our mental maturity and flexibility in thinking.

Consider what would happen if your child was asked a similar question! What would she do?

Would she run away or stick around and ‘fight‘? Simply put, would she think negatively and storm out, or would she become positive and think out of the box?

Food for thought I guess!

Approaches to perfecting cognitive flexibility are usually practice-based, where parents and teachers experiment with scaffolding strategies to maximize the potentials of the brain.

Children should also be allowed to solve problems on their own, and only receive supportive clues when they fail.

Learning at home starts when parents provide opportunities in varying activities and games:

  • Teach them to use past experiences to solve new challenges.
  • Let them create new ideas for recipes, mealtimes, playtime, outings, etc.
  • Take them outdoors to stimulate the four senses while shifting focus and attention.
  • Encourage unstructured playtime to make them think differently.
  • Try out marshmallow tests to let them shift focus and think differently.
  • Allow them to play video games with unique obstacles, puzzles, such as Finger Physics, The Equator, Prickles, etc.
  • Challenge them to suggest alternatives to items that are missing in recipes, word games, outdoor activities.

At school, children can be tasked to shift their thinking in many ways:

  • Teach them to pay attention to what they are thinking
  • Help them to think flexibly about letters in order to grasp their different sounds.
  • Challenge them to solve mental tasks on their own.
  • Let them write sentences in varying ways to project seriousness, formality, confidence, fun, etc.
  • Use math classes to let them understand that tasks and problems can be solved in more ways than one.
  • Teach them to use one concept to solve multiple challenges.
  • Encourage logic games such as Minesweeper, Sudoku, Chess, Connect the Dots, etc.
  • Encourage quizzes based on school subjects and general information.
  • Task them to present arguments for one side of a debate, and later challenged to switch roles and argue against their first views.
  • Use visual and other forms of creative arts to have them observe and analyze items and the world differently.
  • Expose them to new activities such as role-play, dancing, a new language, etc.
  • Challenge them to read widely including books by Amelia Bedelia and others that play with words.
  • Expose them to idioms and other creative phrases.
  • Encourage them to write.

To cite an example, a child with a flexible mentality will not mind switching seats in the classroom in the event that another child takes his.

Elsewhere, Tom will see a welcome opportunity to mend fences when asked by the teacher to pair with Jerry whom he dislikes. He will not yell or become angry as is usually the case.

In the example of the modern-day teacher, her luck may run out or not, when she enters the classroom only to discover she forgot the teaching notes at home. Typically, she may choose to dash back home, give flimsy excuses, or abandon the lesson completely.

On a positive note, she may access her notes online – that is if she ever bothered to have them saved in the cloud. She may also come up with a related topic of discussion she has been thinking of doing for a while.

Better still, she may choose to take her learners outdoors for a practical and creative escapade based on the topic at hand.

To sum it all up, a child’s thinking is deemed flexible when she:

  • has an open mind and therefore receptive to new challenges and choices
  • tolerates new ideas
  • thinks differently
  • embraces creativity and risk-taking in problem-solving
  • learns from past experiences

Studies have shown that higher levels of cognitive flexibility lead to better reading abilities in children, resilience in adults, and of course, a better quality of life in advanced years.

Varying other activities and games will also facilitate the release of the four happy chemicalsserotonin, oxytocindopamine, and endorphins in the brain. These are known to make children feel happy and dispel anxiety, and certainly, embrace the concept of change. 

The last word

Mental flexibility projects positivity in children and allows them to manage life changes without fear, confusion, and panic. It actually facilitates the rejection of mental rigidity because it teaches them to think outside the box.

It is, however, not bad when children make mistakes in the process of learning cognitive flexibility. They should and will make mistakes along the way, but should not be subject to negative judgment. Positive responses will stimulate the learning curve, just like time and practice.

To make their tasks easier, the learning and tasks should be broken down into smaller chunks, and parents and teachers should refine the learning experiments regularly.

Elsewhere, complications such as autism, depression, ADHD, and anxiety disorders can also impair the development of cognitive flexibility. These should be addressed appropriately by medical practitioners.