January 22, 2015

Flexibility: more than just “going with the flow”

Flexibility is one of the more subtle and lesser known facets of executive function. While difficulties with planning and organization often have obvious signs like messy backpacks or forgotten assignments, difficulties with transitioning and flexibility can manifest in ways that seem more attitudinal than skills-based. For example, does your child stubbornly try the same strategies again and again, even when they don’t work? Does she struggle to move fluidly from one task to the next? Does she get upset when things go differently than planned?


Even though each of these circumstances suggests an obstinate or temperamental personality, these examples may actually be signs that your child needs help learning flexibility. Luckily, flexibility can be taught, because it is a skill set as well as an attitude or outlook. Flexibility encompasses a wide range of skills that go far beyond “going with the flow.” A flexible student can shift between main ideas and specific details, acknowledge and attempt multiple problem-solving strategies, and adapt to changes in information or circumstance. They can also consider alternative meanings and multiple viewpoints, analyze their own instincts, transition between one activity and the next, and view challenges as opportunities for growth, rather than insurmountable obstacles.

How to Spot the Signs of Inflexibility

When your child is experiencing trouble with flexibility, you may need to look past her emotional reactions to see what is really happening with her schoolwork. When a student becomes upset or adamant about a particular approach to their work, it may be because she is not equipped with alternative strategies. Look out for the following reactions from your child if you suspect she is struggling with flexibility:

  • Use of the same ineffective strategies over and over.
  • Getting stuck on one detail.
  • Difficulty trying a new approach.
  • Can’t move fluidly between one activity and the next or one idea and another.
  • Significant problems with changes, transitions, and new situations.
  • Difficulty ending one activity or subject and moving to another.
  • Becoming upset when something unexpected happens.
  • Becoming upset when given feedback that they are wrong.

Each of these examples happen to everyone from time to time. When plans go astray, or when a student receives negative feedback, it can be difficult to bounce back immediately and good-naturedly. As parents, we also frequently experience moments when we have to be flexible, even when we dislike the idea of transitioning or abandoning our original plan. However, if these circumstances happen to your child with more-than-incidental frequency, and your student’s schoolwork is affected, it may be time to seek out some strategies to help.

How Modeling Can Help Your Child Overcome Inflexibility

One of the best ways to help your child learn flexibility is to model flexibility at home and in the classroom. Engaging Minds tutors always develop an agenda with the student at the beginning of each session, and make special efforts to show flexibility if and when those plans cannot be fully met. For example, what happens when an assignment takes longer than planned? EM tutors work with students to rearrange the agenda to accommodate the added time. This equips each student with an appropriate “plan B,” and teaches the student how to develop her own alternate plans when similar circumstances arise.

Executive function coaches also practice flexible transitions between ideas and viewpoints, using visual tools, like graphic organizers and diagrams, to help students learn to flexibly order, categorize, connect, and differentiate between concepts. Tutors consistently ask their students to consider whether there are other ways to solve a particular problem, or whether they could find more efficient strategies to use. They also invite students to take control of their own process, by making active choices between problem-solving options, and referring to their “toolbox” of skills when the need to transition arises.

At home, you can model similar flexibility: Did your family camping trip get rained out? Show your child that you can flexibly rearrange the plans, without getting upset at having to transition unexpectedly. Did your child get into an argument with a friend? Invite her to see both her own and her friend’s perspectives. Or, help her to adjust to upcoming changes in her schedule by previewing daily agendas and plans ahead of time.

With the right guidance from parents, teachers, and executive function coaches, students can learn to approach tasks with the ability to solve and think in a flexible and dynamic manner. With appropriate planning skills and problem-solving strategies, your child can develop strong “back-up” plans when changes to her original plan arise. With more control over the situation, and the ability to adjust to change, your child won’t feel so upset or adverse to new strategies; instead, she’ll feel empowered and ready to take on new challenges.