6 Ways to Encourage Flexible Thinking

When was the last time you were driving, going about your day, and all of a sudden a jolt hits you?  You wonder how did I get here?  Or when did I pass that store I was planning on going to?  There are times we become so entrenched in our routines.  As we are comforted by the ritual of our daily routines.  When the jolt hits how do you feel?  Startled?  Angry?  Dazed?  Our thinking isn’t so rigid that we can’t handle those jolts when we are entrenched in our routine.  But, what happens when our thinking is so rigid we can’t get past that one misstep in our day.

Imagine a school-age child who is so excited to play soccer at recess.  He runs out to the playground only to realize that goals are missing, no soccer ball, and his friends are no playing kickball.  This child is now frustrated with his fists clenched grumbling about how he wanted to play soccer.  He says, “It’s not fair!” and spent the rest of recess fixated on the fact that he could not play soccer.  Routines provide consistency and regularity to the day.  The child cannot accept the change in routine.  He is fixated on one point.  The cycle of rigid thinking freezes the child.  Panic and anxiety can swirl around the child.  

How can we help this rigid thinking child and other children like him?  Here is what we know about rigid thinkers. Routines and rules are important.  Self-talk can be negative.  Misunderstandings about social situations can happen daily.  Unable to make quick decisions.  Switching from activity to activity is difficult.  Here are a few ideas on how to encourage flexible thinking.

  1. Use a calendar–Appointments, therapy, visits, tutoring, lessons can all be written down throughout the week.  You and your child know what is coming up and what is to be expected.  However, things happen people get sick or have to cancel.  Here is the important piece leave a space for the unexpected.  Sometimes we get a surprise visit from Grandma and Grandpa.  (yea!) Or sometimes the therapist is out sick.  (boo!) This is an important teaching lesson.  That routine changes can happen and sometimes we can have fun with them.
  2. Bend the rules–Maybe if your child always dresses with pants-shirt-socks ask him to do shirt-socks-pants.  Or if during bedtime routine your child reads a book, gets a drink, and brushes teeth.  Ask him to think of a different way to do that.  Switch seats at the supper table.  
  3. Check in with Amelia Bedelia–do you remember the quirky maid for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers who does everything as she is told. Dressing the chicken?  Dusting the furniture?  These are great books to explore with our rigid thinking children to discuss the misunderstandings that can happen in social situations.
  4. Practice positive self-talk–positive self-talk helps to work through problems using learned strategies.
  5. Play games–one of my favorites we learned from a speech therapist is Pack My Bag.  I like to say, “Pack My Bag for a trip to the pool.”  The child then can either go fetch items to pack or just tell you what should be in the bag.  (swimming suit, towel, sunscreen, toys, hat, etc.)  Ask the child to play car repair or restaurant to simulate real-life experiences that may happen for the child.  Or if the child is a bit older play board games.  Once the child is familiar with the rules, change the rules slightly to encourage flexible thinking.
  6. Get a joke book–Rigid thinkers tend to struggle to understand jokes. They also have trouble making up their own jokes and puns. Joke books can be a great way to talk about the different meanings of words and think about how changing the meaning of a word makes it funny.

It is not so easy to understand just go with the flow or chill out. With a little coaching from caring adults, rigid thinkers can learn how to harness their ability to develop positive habits, including the ability to be a flexible thinker.  

All my best to you,



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