Helping Kids “Stretch” Their Brains

Imagine that you are on your way to the airport for a much-needed vacation. Although you arrive early, you are informed upon your arrival that your flight has been cancelled and that you have been moved to a different flight.  In the morning rush you did not see the email notifying you of the change, and now you are scheduled to fly in 20 minutes even though you have not even checked in yet!  How would you handle this? Would you succumb to rage and/or panic, or would you start brainstorming ways to solve this problem and get to that (now even more needed) vacation? 

When situations don’t go as expected, the ability to regroup, come up with a new plan, and accept the change is not just important, but often absolutely necessary – and surprisingly difficult! Many kids – especially those with developmental differences, anxiety, and/or mood concerns – struggle to shift gears and identify new ways to solve problems. This often leads to feeling “stuck” when things don’t go as planned, which can lead to host of unhelpful behavioral and emotional reactions. For some, even a seemingly simple change in plans, such as being asked to sit in a different seat than usual, can feel as hard to manage as the airport scenario described above. These children struggle with flexible thinking, which involves two important skills: 1) the ability to think about something in a different way, and 2) the ability to change from one way of doing something to another. It can be even harder to use these skills while under pressure and overwhelmed. 

Luckily, just like our bodies, our brains can be “stretched” and prepared to handle the unexpected more effectively. There are many simple ways that families can practice flexible thinking at home: 

  • Take an ordinary board game and make up new rules to follow. For example, changing Connect 4 to Connect 5 or Connect 6. Discuss if this was challenging, and if the game was still fun.
  • Finding more than one way to do everyday things. For example, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich by spreading the jelly before the peanut butter, or pouring the milk before the cereal at breakfast.
  • Take an ordinary object and see how many different uses your child can find for it. This encourages them to see things in more than one way.
  • Notice examples of flexible thinking in stories or TV shows (people “going with the flow” when things don’t go how they expected), and talk to your child about what they notice. You can also model self-talk to think out loud and then act while solving problems at home, so your child can see examples in action of how you use flexible thinking to solve problems.
  • At dinner (or another family time), have each family member say what the best and worst parts of their day were, and what they did or could have done differently when faced with challenges. 
  • Notice times when your child is able to think flexibly and praise this behavior specifically, so they will be more inclined to try it next time as well.

Like any skill, “stretching” the brain takes practice. With time, this practice can improve your child’s ability to solve problems, while also promoting feelings of competence and confidence when they find that they can handle the unexpected after all.

Kati Ann Leonberger, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist