Your Flexible Brain
Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed
What does it mean to have a flexible brain? I introduce this to my younger clients through an experiment. First, I set out an assortment of objects such as a stone drink coaster, a pencil, a spiky roller fidget, a pipe cleaner, a tissue, and a tangle fidget. I then have the child investigate each object and decide if it is flexible or not. We decide together that the stone drink coaster, the pencil, and the spiky roller fidget are not flexible, but that the pipe cleaner, tissue, and tangle fidget are flexible. Why? Because the second group of objects can bend and change shape without breaking. This hands on experiment helps children understand the properties that make something flexible and inflexible. Then we move on to deciding whether our bodies are flexible or not. We bend to touch our toes, reach to the sky with our arms, bend our elbows and knees, and finally we make a teapot with our right arm as the handle and left arm as the spout and, yep you guessed it, bend to the left to pour it out. Are our bodies flexible? YES! Finally, we move to our brain. How in the world do we know if our brain is flexible? We can't take our brain out and feel it to see if it can bend or change shape. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think about something in a new or different way. This is also known as flexible thinking. Stephanie Madrigal and Michelle Garcia Winner, authors of Superflex: A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum, use the term Superflex Thinking. Superflex Thinking is defined as, “a flexible thinking pattern in which a person is able to consider different points of view or ways to do something” (Kuypers, 2011, p. 14). Inflexible thinking means being rigid or not being willing to listen to other points of view (Basso, n.d.).
Time for another experiment! This time you take the pipe cleaner and a popsicle stick. Have the child pick which object is flexible and which is inflexible or rigid. I then explain that when we are rigid or inflexible we do not consider different points of view or ways to do something. We want it done our way and our way only. This is like the rigid popsicle stick that snaps in half when bent. Then take the pipe cleaner and explain that when we are flexible, like the pipe cleaner, we can bend and change depending on the situation instead of trying to make it go our way only! (Jackson & Jackson, 2013). Flexible thinking allows us to problem solve by trying out new ways of doing something, to learn in new ways, and to tolerate when things do not go our way. Acknowledging and rewarding flexible thinking will help to teach and reinforce flexible thinking in your child. Examples of flexible thinking are when your child makes an effort to deal with a change in their day by taking a break or asking for help instead of getting upset, when your child stays calm after losing a game, when your child willingly takes turns, or when your child helps to problem solve a situation. Modeling flexible thinking is another excellent way to teach and encourage flexible thinking!
A few more ways to teach and encourage flexible thinking are as follows:
1) Change the rules: have a family game night and make small changes to the rules to encourage problem solving.
2) Don’t throw out the missing Lego sets: If you have a set of Legos with missing pieces, encourage your child to problem solve by finding different color pieces or different pieces altogether that will work.
3) Change up the routine: Routines in your child’s life create structure and consistency, however making small changes to the routine like bath time before dinner or sitting at different spots at the table can help encourage flexible thinking and help your child cope when other unexpected changes occur.
Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed,
Rachel is a counselor at Heights Family Counseling. She believes that counseling should be for everyone as everyone could use extra support, a place to define purpose and values, and tools to use to tackle life’s everyday problems, as well as someone to support your successes in life. Rachel specializes in working with children, adolescents, young adults, and couples. Learn more about Rachel's counseling approach by visiting https://heightsfamilycounseling.com/amy-rollo/
Basso, C. (n.d.). Flexible thinking [web log comment]. Retrieved from
Jackson, J., & Jackson, L. (2013). How a pipe cleaner can stop your child’s meltdowns!: A
practical idea for teaching the skill of flexibility [web log comment]. Retrieved from http://connectedfamilies.org/2013/03/12/how-a-pipe-cleaner-can-stop-your-childs-meltdowns/
Kuypers, L. (2011). The zones of regulation. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.