Being a flexible thinker is part of emotional regulation and is essential to social success. Flexibility of thought means being able to adapt to new situations, understand and accept another person’s perspective, and “go with the flow” as unexpected challenges or obstacles arise. Here are some tips from my book Make Social Learning Stick! to help children learn and practice the art of flexible thinking:
1. Plan of the Day: Discuss or write out a list of events coming up that day and how you expect your child to behave during these events. Describe events that might be challenging, such as waiting in line at the grocery store or not being able to go to the park if it is raining. Try to include a backup plan in case of a change, like going to the movies instead of the park if it rains.
2. Can’t Always Get What You Want: Help your child develop flexibility by following someone else’s plan. For example, family members can take turns deciding on a destination for the family’s Sunday outing. And, when your child has a friend over to play, they can take turns selecting the game and choosing who will be the leader.
3. Hidden Rules Change Depending on the Situation: Take your child to different locations like the library, the grocery store, and the park, and observe how people act in each place. Talk about how rules are different depending on the setting, and ask the child to predict some of the rules for each place.
4. Same But Different: Use “priming” or explaining in advance to help your child adapt to a new situation. For example, if you’re going to a play, let the child know that “real” actors will be on the stage and that the audience is expected to stay quiet during the performance. Explain how the event is similar but different from something the child is already familiar with, such as a movie. If your child can create a mental image of what to expect, this will lessen anxiety and help create flexibility about the fact that the new event, the play, is the same but different from a movie.
5. Life Happens: Talk with your child about how things don’t always go as planned, even when we do our best to create a certain plan. Share examples from your day about a situation in which you had to make a change and come up with a Plan B, even though it was difficult or less fun than the original plan.
6. Toolbox of Calming Strategies: Use an old toolbox or bin to represent a toolbox, and fill it with “tools” or strategies to help your child respond more calmly and flexibly to challenges. With the child, select the items that should go into the box, such as a favorite stuffed animal, photos of certain people or places, fidgets to squeeze, and visual reminders about deep breathing. The child can turn to this box when feeling anxious, angry, or inflexible.
7. Go-with-the-flow bucket: Ask your child to help create a family “go-with-the-flow bucket” in which all members try to be aware of times when a member of the family compromises, adapts, or goes with the flow. When a person notices this behavior, they put a marble in a bucket or jar. When the jar is halfway filled up, the family celebrates, and when it is full they can celebrate again. Make up your own visual reward system that works for your family, and see how this strategy can be fun and motivating for everyone.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of flexible thinking. Things are constantly shifting, and life is full of curve balls. Being able to adapt and compromise at school, at work, and with friends, family, and neighbors is essential for social regulation. There is a lot that we can do to help children understand their emotions and learn how to use tools to manage both emotions and behavior. This type of support can be mapped out or planned in advance and provided through teachable moments that come up throughout the day. When caregivers have the tools to help a child through difficult situations, it can put everyone at ease. Refer to my book or other resources to find tools and strategies that will fit your child and family. As you help your child learn to be a more flexible thinker, it will become easier for the child to interact and communicate with others and to handle the many ups and downs that arise each day.
Elizabeth Sautter, M.A. CCC-SLP, is co-director and co-owner of Communication Works (cwtherapy.com), a private practice in Oakland, California, offering speech, language, social, and occupational therapy. She is the co-author of the Whole Body Listening Larry (socialthinking.com) books. Her most recent book is Make Social Learning Stick! How to Guide and Nurture Social Competence Through Everyday Routines and Activities (aapcpublishing.net). She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her: website; Facebook; Pinterest; Twitter.