Stuck? 12 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Flexibility

The best way to describe the executive function of cognitive flexibility is to think of Einstein’s definition of insanity. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That would be cognitive inflexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to notice when your thinking process is not working or to notice when changes have occurred and to be flexible enough to adapt the thought process and to think differently about it. It may be that the goal of the project changed, something in the environment has changed, or the next step cannot be completed due to outside forces and thus the individual becomes stuck and can’t continue.

On the Behavioral Inventory of Executive Functions (BRIEF) there are two categories that relate to this skill; cognitive shift and behavioral shift. Together they can indicate a student’s ability to try different approaches to something whether it is in their thinking or in actually changing their behavior when they notice it is not working. Solving a math problem is a good example of this. The student knows what the answer should be and solves the problem. When the answer is not right, they erase it and try again. Often they are repeating the same mistakes without realizing it.

In students:

Stuck on a math problem but not realizing they are doing the same thing and are surprised the answer isn’t different.

Difficulty adjusting to changes in plans

Projects have various parts to them and when students get stuck on one piece they are unable to move forward.

Creative writing is a real challenge as they cannot generate new ideas as they get stuck in one frame of thought.

In adults:

Following processes that aren’t effective because “I’ve always done it this way.”

Easily “thrown off course” when conditions change

Difficulty providing multiple solutions or ideas or in synthesizing something new out of given information


  1. Give advance notice of changes with visual and/or verbal reminders (timers too)
  2. When stuck or when you see the frustration start to build, suggest a break to do something active
  3. Leave yourself a note explaining where you left off, so when you return you can pick it back up quickly
  4. Encourage brainstorming and generating multiple ideas before settling on a specific approach
  5. Start with the end in mind and work backwards
  6. Ask for help, Google it or use a website like
  7. Use a whiteboard and don’t erase the previous approach
  8. Use stories of past successful approaches to remind them of other options/approaches
  9. Create a mind map (using colors and different shapes for key ideas)
  10. Have a backwards day where everything is done backwards
  11. Write down the approaches tried and list other options or give choices
  12. If they play video games, you can get them to explain the different strategies they used to advance to the next level and compare that to their school work

Helping your child brainstorm and learn ways to become more flexible in their thinking will help them become better problem solvers, creative thinkers and successful students. The world is not predictable and we all need to learn to adapt to the changes it may throw at us so that it doesn’t throw us off course.


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