Thinking Skills: Flexibility

What is Flexibility?

Flexibility is the Thinking Skill that focuses on a child’s ability to adapt to new situations, improvise, and shift strategies to meet different types of challenges.

For example, when taking a test that contains both multiple choice and essay questions, a child with good Flexibility skills will be able to switch easily between the two formats, while a child who struggles with Flexibility skills may get stuck and become frustrated each time the format changes.

Video games can help improve Flexibility by allowing kids to practice their Flexibility skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive game experience. Many games require players to shift their thinking and gameplay strategies with each new level, in order to advance and “beat the game.” Video games provide a great opportunity for children to learn from their mistakes, shift their approach, handle frustration, and think creatively about new ways to solve problems.

Watch the video to learn more about how video games can help your child improve their Flexibility thinking skill.

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How does Flexibility work?

Flexibility is not only an important skill for academic success, it is vital to a healthy social and family life. Because it involves the capacity to improvise, shift approaches, and adapt to new situations, Flexibility is often utilized in social and peer interactions. When a child needs to deal with disappointments, shifting expectations, and unexpected changes in events and routines, they are utilizing Flexibility skills.

Kids with good Flexibility skills:

  • Are able to think on their feet and adapt readily to new situations.
  • Do well with transitions, such as leaving gameplay to sit down at dinnertime.
  • Are able to wait their turn so that a younger child can have a first opportunity to do something.
  • Are able to deal with disappointment when they lose a game.
  • Are able to view situations from others’ perspectives.

Kids with underdeveloped Flexibility skills:

  • Experience significant problems with changes, transitions, and new situations.
  • Become inappropriately insistent and indignant in new situations.
  • Become angry when they receive negative feedback.
  • Have difficulty understanding the differing expectations of parents and teachers.
  • Continue to dwell on something that was said to them in the past.
  • Cannot change their plans readily.

Flexibility Activities

Video games by their very nature demand cognitive flexibility. Your child gets the most out of the flexibility practice they get while using apps and games when you get involved. Talking about and playing video games with your kids not only gives them validation and support, it offers you opportunities to help them reflect on and make connections between the skills they use in the game and the skills they use in the real world. You can help them take in-game flexibility practice to the next level by working on one or more of these activities together.

Trial and error. Learning through trying and failing is a key component of video gaming and a necessary skill for all of your child’s academic pursuits. In real-world situations, children are often more reluctant to learn the directions and expectations of a task by making mistakes and trying out something new than they would be in playing a game. Learning how to cook a favorite meal, learning a musical instrument or taking a new route to school are all valuable examples of ways to practice applying trial and error learning in appropriate situations. Make sure to talk about these efforts and experiences in light of the positive and negative aspects of the process.

Make mistakes. Showing your child that you are not afraid of making mistakes and that you can laugh at yourself might allow them to laugh at their own errors. Show that you are able to learn from making a mistake. You can make a mistake by going the wrong way to an event or activity, mixing up ingredients in a recipe, making a hole in the wall while you are trying to hang a picture, or making an error when trying to complete a crossword puzzle or Sudoku. Play a game like Social Chess together and be vocal about the times you make a move you wish you hadn’t. Encourage your child to talk about how they can learn from making mistakes.

Gadgets and gizmos. Encourage your child to use common household items in different and unusual ways. Ask your child to come up with ten ways to use a fork, book, pen, or piece of clothing and discuss how being flexible can help to solve problems. Flexible problem solving often uses the materials on hand in the house to fill a variety of different purposes. Talk to your child about ways to apply this approach in his own life.

One step at a time. Gradually and steadily expose a child to new situations, starting with familiar areas in which they already feels comfortable. For example, help them get over separation anxiety by spending some time away from you with other close family members. Attempting a sleepover at a relative’s house might be a good first step in being able to encourage your child to attend a sleepover at a friend’s house. You can also try introducing your child to group activities such as Scouts, a karate class or a sports team. An MMORPG like Guild Wars 2 can be a good step toward trying something new and interacting with new people.

Flexibility and Academic Skills

There is convincing research demonstrating how early training in thinking, executive, and learning skills improves long-term academic performance. The choice to teach thinking skills rather than academics to kindergarteners results in improved performance in mathematics and reading for middle school students and beyond. In other words, for children to become accomplished readers and mathematicians, more time should be spent teaching Thinking Skills to kindergarteners and first graders.

Flexibility is an important skill when learning new information. This is particularly true when learning complex material in which making mistakes and trial-and-error learning may be the best way to achieve mastery. Flexibility also plays a very important role in long-term projects as well as in any assignments, such as writing tasks, for which revising and editing play an important role.


  • Flexibility helps kids to manipulate and correct sound patterns when decoding words.
  • Flexibility is an essential skill for making inferences that require guessing and conjecture in reading comprehension.


  • Flexibility helps kids while shifting between different groups of problems, such as between word problems and equations.
  • Flexibility skills are important for your child to be able to shift strategies or approaches when they are unable to obtain the correct answer.
  • Flexibility aids in shifting between modes of representation, such as vertical or horizontally presented problems, written sentences, charts or graphs, or equations.


  • Flexibility is helpful for writing a first draft that will need to be modified.
  • Flexibility skills are vital when kids are editing and rewriting, as these tasks require a willingness to make changes and see mistakes.

Flexibility and Digital Play

Playing video games, searching the Internet, trying out the newest app, or Facebooking a friend demands a variety of Thinking Skills. Proficiency with any of these digital tools requires the ability to apply skills such as PlanningOrganizationWorking Memory, or Self-Awareness. For children, the attraction of video games and technologies makes them an ideal teaching tool for practicing game-based skills and learning to apply them to school and daily activities.

How do video games and interactive digital media practice and improve Flexibility?

Flexibility is a core Thinking Skill necessary for learning how to master video games and other interactive digital media. Part of what makes video games interesting are shifting challenges and increasing complexity as one advances to higher and higher levels. This requires flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Similarly, individuals must use Flexibility when mastering an app or a program on the computer. When people can’t figure something out on their new cell phones, they usually “play” with them, flexibly trying out new approaches to see what works. While you can read the directions if you want, most often the best way to learn how to master interactive digital media is to try a variety of approaches and see what suits your particular need.

Digital play can help kids improve Flexibility skills by helping them to:

  • Get to the level of the “boss” battle, where they need new and flexible strategies to beat a super-hard foe and are likely to make a number of mistakes initially.
  • Quickly identify when a previously useful skill needs to be discarded for a new strategy.
  • Learn about the functionality of a new cell phone or other digital device by pushing buttons, making mistakes, and discovering new applications.

Flexibility and Executive Functions

Flexibility is a commonly-identified executive function in many theories. It is typically defined as the capacity to adapt to new situations and deal with changes in routine. It is a core component of Dawson and Guare’s theory of executive functions, after which we have patterned our thinking skills at LearningWorks for Kids.

As an executive function, flexibility often refers to a cognitive skill that allows one to learn from one’s mistakes and to change one’s approach to a task. It helps individuals to deal with novel situations and to adjust to situations that do not go they way they expect. For children, we often observe flexibility in the capacity to deal with disappointment or changes in plans. Flexibility skills support problem solving and are often combined with planning and time-management skills in accomplishing goals.

Assessing the executive function of flexibility in children involves determining how well they adapt to changing situations, transitions, and impediments in reaching their goals. The LearningWorks for Kids Thinking Skills Assessment is based on the Executive Skills Questionnaire (ESQ) which measures flexibility primarily by how one adjusts to changes in daily routines, the ability to adapt when one does not get what one wants, and how effectively one changes one’s behavior in response to environmental conditions.

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