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.


What to Do When You're Stuck in the Mud with a Fried Brain

The pressure of homework or rather the pressure of finishing homework for that valuable checkmark is taking away from the point of homework. It used to be that homework was a review of what was learned in school that day, but now often times students are “re”teaching themselves because teachers do not allow enough time for students to process new information.

When students get really focused or feel pressured to get their homework done it is almost like they put blinders on. They are no longer really learning the material they are just trying to get through the assignment. I want to give them credit for persevering but also want them to know that at some point they become less effective and should stop. How many times have you seen your child do a math problem over and over again expecting a different answer? Middle and High School students often have the answer to the math problem and their job is to set up the equation and get that answer. Lots of things can go wrong in this process (calculation error, wrong sign, solved in the wrong order, wrong equation, etc.) but students tend to erase and start again – exactly the same way.

This is called cognitive inflexibility. It happens in kids, teens and adults and is the inability to switch your approach or your thinking to problem solving when what you are doing isn’t working or something changes. It is like getting stuck in mud and not even realizing it. So in the above example, they erase the problem and because they are not 100% tuned in, they could be repeating the same process or same error over again. This can go on and on and that makes homework take longer and longer. Talk to your student about this at a time when they are not stressed about homework and print out the four steps below for them. Help them add to the list.

What to do when you are stuck on your homework:

1. Stop and take a look at what you have done. Check for errors or misunderstandings. If you don’t see anything then go to number 2.

2. Take a non-electronic break (5-15 minutes) and let your subconscious mind work on it and then go back and try it one more time.

3. Stop erasing and use a whiteboard after the first attempt so you can see all of your answers. What is happening?

4. Brainstorm other things you can do. For example you could: Skip it and come back to it, call or text a friend in your class, go back to the text book and reread key information, check your class notes, go in early or stay late for extra help, Google it or use a website like to help.

If you liked this simple, yet powerful strategy, then you’re absolutely going to love all 45 End Homework Hassle strategy lessons in the End Homework Hassle E-Learning Course for students.