What is Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood?
Cognitive flexibility in childhood refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities and problem-solving approaches.
Kids who are flexible in their thinking can stop doing one thing and start doing something else without getting upset. They can try a task one way; if that doesn’t work, they try it another way.
Picture this concept like a tree branch in a big storm. When a heavy storm rolls through, the more rigid tree branch will break. However, even in high winds, the soft and more flexible branches remain unharmed.
People are the same way. The more rigid we are, the more vulnerable we are to the storms of life.
Symptoms of Lack of Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood
Below are some signs that cognitive flexibility is an issue for your child. Keep in mind that if your child is having trouble with flexible thinking, you will likely see challenges in many areas of life. They may have difficulty in school, friendships, or overall well-being and mental health. Scan through the list below and see if any of these are a fit for your child.
- Hard to get out the door: your child has a hard time getting out the door in the morning. They get stuck in doing something else fun like playing video games and are very resistant to getting their shoes on and grabbing their backpack for school
- Unable to transition: your child is unable to smoothly shift from one activity to the next
- Gets stuck: your child gets stuck in one idea and is unable to consider different concepts. They get upset at school when the other kids do not agree with their way of solving a problem or approaching a project
- Has meltdowns: your child starts to cry, scream, or yell with sudden changes
- Unable to change approach: your child is unable to try new ways of doing something, even if the new way is more beneficial
- Intolerance of uncertainty: your child gets overly concerned about what is happening during the day and what is coming next. When plans are changed, your child is instantly on guard or upset
- Erratic or impulsive behavior: your child gets upset often and some behaviors seem to come out of nowhere. In psychology we say they are ‘unable to inhibit their responses’
3 Benefits of Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood
Cognitive flexibility is important for learning, mental health, and social skills development.
1. Cognitive flexibility for learning
Kids with learning problems or learning disabilities may have difficulties with flexible thinking. It may be hard for them to respond to teacher feedback or adjust their approach to solving problems in school.
For example, if your child got a lot of corrective feedback on a writing assignment, they may crinkle the paper up and throw it away. The child may not be able to consider the feedback because they insist that they did it right the first time.
Throughout typical development, we should see kids and young adults growing in their abilities to accept mistakes, learn from feedback, and give the task another try. These are all signs of cognitive flexibility, also known as a growth mindset.
2. Cognitive flexibility for mental health
Kids with mental health challenges often will have rigid thinking patterns. If this is the case, the child may say always and never a lot. You may hear, “I never get my way!” “You always say no to everything I want!” They get very frustrated when plans are changed or expectations go unmet. Kids with this pattern tend to be anxious and may melt down frequently.
For example, imagine your child got a lead role in the school play. After reflection, the director decides to change your child’s role to a smaller part. Of course, it is natural to be disappointed. However, if your child is very rigid, this incident may result in a colossal meltdown. The emotional upset may go on for days or weeks.
Your child may say, “Well, obviously the director hates me,” or “Clearly, I am the worst actor in the play.” These phrases are also known as cognitive distortions because the child is resorting to black-and-white thinking and personalization.
Throughout their lifespan, we expect kids to become more flexible and adaptable when things don’t go as planned. In the absence of that flexibility, you will often see anxiety, depression, and behavioral outbursts.
3. Cognitive flexibility for social skills
Kids with social skills challenges may have issues with cognitive rigidity. Many times in life, kids have to be flexible to develop friendships and healthy social relationships. They have to be willing to consider a friend’s idea for what to play on the playground. They have to be open to allowing a new friend to join the social circle. They have to allow other kids to think differently than they do.
For example, you may notice your child getting into a disagreement with a peer. It may be that the kids in this social group have different points of view, political beliefs, or interests. If your child wants to be a part of that group, it will be a prerequisite that they either accept that they all disagree, or decide to avoid talking about certain topics.
When kids are rigid in their thinking, they have a hard time allowing for these differing points of view. This challenge may get in the way of making friends, especially as kids get older and the social norms become more sophisticated.
Cognitive flexibility and soft drinks story
In clinical practice, I remember a time when rigid thinking really got in the way socially. There was a young man I worked with who disliked Coca-Cola. There was a group of girls he was interested in sitting with at lunch. Those girls were open and friendly towards him, but there was one problem. The girls drank Coke at the lunch table.
My client was somewhat tormented by this and unsure what to do. The challenge here is that he is ruling out people as friends based on rigid adherence to a certain belief system. If my client wants to stop sitting alone at lunch, he will need to be less rigid about people’s choice of soft drinks and willing to put his focus on making friends.
Cognitive flexibility is key for social development
For all of these reasons, it is important for kids to learn to be more cognitively flexible. Cognitive flexibility improves learning, mental health, and social skills.
Kids do not all develop at the same rate. Your child may fall anywhere along the developmental continuum in terms of their cognitive flexibility. The more flexible they are, the higher the likelihood of doing better in school, having a healthy mental state, and making friends.
In this next section, we will learn how you can help. But first, let’s consider some of the terms psychologists use to describe typical cognitive development in terms of flexible thinking.
Cognitive Flexibility Terms to Know
Listed below are some terms psychologists and neuroscientists use to describe cognitive flexibility. The reason you may want these in your back pocket is so that you can share your concerns with your child’s teacher, pediatrician, or therapist. Sometimes having the language to use makes the process of getting help much easier and faster.
- Attentional flexibility: your child’s capacity to pay attention to different aspects of the environment. For example, your child may be looking down at the paper and the teacher asks him to look up at the whiteboard
- Executive processes: your child’s cognitive capacity to regulate their responses. For example, your child may experience something upsetting and decide to take some deep breaths, rather than running away. The brain regions that handle executive processes enable the child to stop-and-think, plan, and consider the consequences before taking action
- Flexible switching: your child’s capacity to switch from one activity or objective to another. For example, the coach may tell the team to stop using one offense strategy and switch to an entirely different approach
- Executive control network: your child’s capacity to make decisions, use judgment, plan, and execute goal directed behaviors. The ‘executive control network’ is the part of the brain that organizes and manages our behavior
- Task switching performance: your child’s capacity to switch between tasks. Psychologists use executive functioning tests like the ‘trails’ ‘stroop’ ‘card sort’ ‘tower’ ‘peg board’ to measure this capacity. The examinee is asked to solve a maze one way (connect the dots from A to B to C) and then switch to connecting the dots another way (connect the dots from 1A to 2B to 3C). A child’s performance on these tests is measured by response time and accuracy.
- Divergent thinking: your child’s capacity to think like others and different from others. For example, when working on a group project, four kids may have the same idea about how to solve a problem. This may be a traditional way to solve it. Divergent thinkers may come up with different, perhaps more creative solutions. Gifted kids and other neurodiverse kids may tend toward divergent thinking. Of course, the best solutions come from a combination of ideas. Cognitive flexibility comes in when your child can accept and adapt to multiple viewpoints without getting rattled
- Response inhibition: your child’s ability to ‘stop-and-think’ before taking action. Kids with good response inhibition consider the consequences of their actions and have the ability to stop themselves in the face of a risky or unwise decision. For example, imagine your child gets mad and really wants to yell at the teacher. If they have good response inhibition, they are able to stop themselves from making a poor choice
- Fluid intelligence: your child’s capacity to learn and think in new ways. Kids with strong fluid intelligence are able to effectively approach novel situations and problems without the benefit of practice or experience. On intelligence tests, kids are presented with new patterns and puzzles that they have never seen before. Fluid intelligence is a measure of their performance on these novel tasks
Causes of Lack of Shift and Flexibility in Childhood
Anxiety in childhood can cause children to become inflexible due to uncertainty and the need for predictability. People who struggle with change and uncertainty tend to worry a lot. They may worry that something terrible will happen when the plans suddenly change.
They desire some level of control over future events to protect themselves from potential harm. They may become nervous or upset in the face of new experiences, preferring instead for experiences to be familiar and reliable.
Intolerance for uncertainty
Intolerance of uncertainty is a term that is defined just as it sounds. Some individuals struggle when plans are changed or when they do not know what to expect. New research reveals that intolerance of uncertainty may be an inherited trait .
Children with this ‘intolerance’ do not adapt well when introduced to new situations, new teachers, or changing plans. A strong link is present between intolerance of uncertainty and anxiety.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autistic children tend to be more rigid and less flexible with change and transitions. They are more comfortable doing things their own way. It can be hard for children with ASD to take other’s perspectives.
It can also take a longer time for them to shift attention from one task to the next. ‘Shift’ (an aspect of cognitive flexibility) is the most challenging executive function for children on the Autism Spectrum. Cognitive flexibility is often one of the core deficits seen in ASD.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may prevent a child from getting started, being able to focus, and completing tasks. Children with ADHD may get immersed in one task and have trouble shifting to something new, especially if the new task is nonpreferred.
This is why morning routines can be so hard. They require shifting from one activity to the next quickly when really playing with toys would be more fun.
What to Do About Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood
In this segment, Dr. Anna and Dr. Marcy will walk you through some of the strategies that can be helpful if your child is struggling with rigidity. If you are more of a visual learner, we provide this playlist of cognitive flexibility videos that explain how to do these techniques with your child.
When you work with your child, keep in mind that kids often need explicit instructions and practice in using these strategies. It often does not work the first time. As a parent, if you are consistent and persistent, things will get better.
Often, when adults are chronically inflexible or nervous, their kids tend to be the same way. Downshifting  and modeling positive coping skills can help in that case. Downshifting is the parenting skill of helping your child calm down while also allowing them to negotiate a solution to the problem.
A great example of ‘downshifting’ is offered in “Llama Llama Mad at Mama” . In this children’s book, the little llama throws a tantrum because he wants to leave the shopping mall. The ‘mama’ shows empathy for her little llama, indicating that they are on the same team.
She requires that they clean up his mess together. She promises that they will go for a treat afterward if he can hold it together until they finish shopping. Then, she follows through on that promise and takes him out for ice cream.
See this video by Dr. Anna Kroncke that walks you through the concept of downshifting, as shown with Llama Llama.
This example illustrates how a parent’s calm and kind reaction can lead to a better outcome. Even though the child is still required to calm down and clean his mess, the parent did not resort to threats, yelling, and an unyielding, inflexible demeanor. Instead, she partnered with the child, and they solved the problem together.
Parental modeling involves showing your child how to handle situations with greater flexibility. For example, “Oops, I made a mistake. I thought we had to drive that way, but it’s this way. That’s okay. We will find it.
See this video by Dr. Marcy Willard on ‘the power of oops’ to help restore some peace in your home after a mistake is made.
Give preparation for transitions
Allowing time for your child to transition calmly, rather than the harried rush to another activity, can help prevent meltdowns. Warn your child gently, “In fifteen minutes, you will need to put that away.” We are leaving when the big hand reaches the 12.
Do not expect your child to keep track of time on their own. Some children need explicit instruction in time management and frequent reminders in order to handle transitions.
Practice coping skills in advance
One of the mistakes parents make with an inflexible child is to expect them to use coping skills that have not been practiced. When your child has to transition and starts to melt down, it is often too late to teach a coping skill.
Instead, do this. At a calm time, practice skills like deep breathing, active visualization, and counting to 10. Then, when the temper runs hot, your child will already know how to cool off. See this transitions video by Dr. Anna Kroncke to see how to do this.
Extend your morning routine by a half-hour
Allowing your child more time to transition in the morning may help reduce the stress and tension of getting to daycare or school. It may also help create a morning chart with your child’s routine that your child can follow in the morning.
The more time you have as a parent, the less likely you will be to jump in and do the tasks for your child. You may also have a more pleasant morning as more time will reduce the time pressure for the whole family.
Create a daily schedule for your child
Hanging a whiteboard in your child’s room can be a great way to communicate the family’s schedule. The night before, review the schedule for the next day. You can also list changes to the schedule a few days beforehand to help your child cope.
For example, if the grandparents will be visiting in two days, let your child know what this will look like in advance. Prepare your child for any major schedule changes while you have company in town, and remind them that things will return to normal after the company goes home.
When to Seek Help for Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood
If you have tried the strategies above and your child continues to throw tantrums, it may be best to get some help. If your child can not participate in school or everyday activities due to inflexibility, it may be time to consult a professional.
Professional Resources for Lack of Cognitive Flexibility in Childhood
- School psychologist: for learning problems or emotional issues at school. This professional can help your child in the classroom and collaborate with the teacher, family, and other school team members to put a plan in place that will encourage flexibility and reward shifting and transitioning
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: for symptoms of anxiety, autism, and attention. This professional can offer a diagnostic evaluation as well as consultation and support for families
- ABA therapy: for young children who are more rigid in their behaviors and thinking patterns. ABA in-home therapy can work with your child on rewarding positive behaviors and practicing skills like making transitions. Often this therapy is covered by insurance for children who are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum
Similar Conditions to Lack of Shift and Flexibility in Childhood
If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.
- Inhibiting: trouble thinking before taking action can be related to cognitive flexibility issues
- Rigid behavior: stubborn behaviors can be associated with cognitive flexibility
- Behavior problems: poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression can be related to problems with cognitive flexibility
- Conduct problems: a tendency to get in trouble or break the law can be related to cognitive flexibility
- Emotional regulation: consistent problems with crying and meltdowns when plans are changed may be due to poor cognitive flexibility
- Social problems: friendship problems are often associated with cognitive flexibility problems
Resources for Lack of Shift and Flexibility in Childhood
 Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum. Think Social Publishing. San Jose.
 Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.
 Dewdney, Anna (2007). Llama Llama mad at mama.
Books about cognitive flexibility in childhood
Kreiser, Nicole (2016). ‘Intolerance of Uncertainty: IMFAR conference (May, 2016: Baltimore). Conference notes.
Lewis, Jeanne; Calvery, Margaret; & Lewis, Hal (2002). Brainstars — Brain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.