What are Shifting and Flexibility in Childhood?
Shifting in childhood means changing from one activity to another or from one approach to the next.
Flexibility in childhood refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities and problem-solving approaches. Flexible people do not insist on things going exactly as planned. As a result, flexible people tend to be well-adjusted and less anxious.
The skill of shifting attention is involved with flexibility. Shifting attention refers to the ability to change from one focus to another. For example, center time in kindergarten might require flexibility. If the child is doing iPad time and has to put that activity away to go to the reading center, an inflexible child may become very upset.
A popular author on cognitive flexibility, Michelle Garcia Winner, refers to this challenge as having ‘rock brain.’ ‘Rock brain’ is when the child is so stuck in one activity that he cannot fluidly shift to another. 
Symptoms of Lack of Shift and Flexibility in Childhood
- Unable to transition: your child is unable to smoothly shift from one activity to the next
- 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 to your child
- Asks constantly about what’s next: your child is very concerned about what is happening during the day and what is coming next
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.
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 is the most challenging executive function for children on the Autism Spectrum
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 challenge 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 Lack of Shift and Flexibility in Childhood
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.
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.
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.
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 go back to normal after the company goes home.
When to Seek Help for Lack of Shift and 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 Shift and 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 they act or stopping oneself when upset could be related to cognitive flexibility issues
- Rigid behavior: problems with getting ‘stuck’ on having own way or adherence to routines is often due to poor cognitive flexibility
- Behavior problems: poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression can be related to problems with 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.
Lewis, Jeanne; Calvery, Margaret; & Lewis, Hal (2002). Brainstars — Brain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.
Kreiser, Nicole (2016). ‘Intolerance of Uncertainty: IMFAR conference (May, 2016: Baltimore). Conference notes.