What to Do When They Won’t Change Their Mind

I once had a student that was having difficulty turning in his homework. He would do it, but when it came time to pass it in, he could not find it. He had a “homework folder” where all of his finished work was supposed to go, but his work was not there. When asked, “Where else did you look?” He was unable to answer. In his mind (we later discovered), if it wasn’t in the homework folder there was nowhere else to look. Does this sound familiar?

This is an example of cognitive inflexibility – difficulty changing or shifting your mindset when the most logical answer does not bring results. Needless to say, upon further searching, other homework papers were found at the bottom of the backpack, stuffed inside a text book and also on his desk at home. All papers exactly where he had left them, yet he had no recollection.

Cognitive inflexibility is real. It is one of the Executive Function skills that develop in the pre-cortex of the brain. It can be measured on certain IQ tests and on the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functions. It has two components: a cognitive shift and a behavioral shift. Simply put, if your child cannot change their thoughts or their behavior when they realize something is not working, then it may be from cognitive inflexibility.  You may have seen it when they get “stuck” on their math, or they don’t know what to do, but won’t accept your help because you, “don’t do it like the teacher.” Or have you ever noticed their perspective of what happened, does not quite agree with the other person’s perspective? All related to cognitive inflexibility.

As an Executive Function skill, cognitive flexibility will continue to develop but, in the meantime, it can cause some issues. Try to help your child see other people’s perspectives. You can explain how things are not always “black and white” (another sign of this underdeveloped skill and often related to ADHD), and that there are always other possibilities. They can help themselves by starting with some simple questions.  A research study indicated that there was a close relationship between cognitive flexibility and inner speech among both children and adults.  It appears as though inner speech may increase top-down control during shifting of thoughts (i.e. flexibility). https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/07/26/7-ways-to-increase-your-cognitive-flexibility/

Try having your child ask themselves these questions:

Before starting:

“What do I already know that will help me?

“What should this look like when it is done?”

“What should I do first, second and third?”

During: “How am I doing?”

“Am I on the right track?”

“Is there another or better way?”

“What do I do if I get stuck?”

After: “What strategies did I use?”

“Did I get stuck or have to change my thinking?”

“What did I learn from this?”

Developing this ability to shift thinking or shift behavior can also be improved through games and activities. Games to encourage the development of cognitive flexibility include: Set, Othello, Connect 4, Mastermind, and Gobblet. Activities include: Stroop (where color words are written in different colors and they must say the color they are printed in), optical illusions, maps with multiple ways to the destination and Tower of Hanoi. Other activities include changing up routines, learning a new skill, exercise, getting out in nature, and video games that have multiple streams of information that have to be manipulated simultaneously.

For more strategies: Check out our blog, Stuck? 12 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Flexibility



Stuck? 12 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Flexibility

Brain on fireThe 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 www.khanacademy.org
  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.