The executive skill of flexibility is the ability to think about and move from one situation and task to the next in order to respond appropriately and achieve goals. It also allows your child to deal with unexpected situations and integrate new information into existing knowledge.
Children with rigid thinking are unable to adapt to changing situations and demands. They tend to get frustrated when something different is expected of them. They have problems adapting to a new routine, class, school, or teacher. They only feel “safe” when they know what will happen and when they can stick with one activity or situation until they are comfortable.
Children with good flexibility readily adjust to new situations such as different teachers, new environments, routines, and classroom setups. She is able to adjust according to a social interaction and is willing to accept a friend or sibling’s choices. Life is full of changing and unexpected demands, which only get more unpredictable with age. With all the rapid changes, the ability to adapt has increasingly become a basic requirement of life. It is extremely useful to acquire and develop this ability as soon as possible in childhood.
What do I do to help my child improve her/his flexibility skill?
Select one or two issues that you teen seems to experience involving flexibility. These can be related to problems to adapt to new situations or changes, difficulty to get used to a new routine or demands, not responding well to surprises, and getting upset or frustrated having to switch to another task. Define the issues that need improvement as specific as possible, noting the frequency, severity, and consequences. Also, consider whether there is a common antecedent or trigger, what the typical situation is and who is involved. Formulate a goal for each issue. Break it up into smaller goals if possible.
Before you start with the intervention, sit down with your child and explain the problem, process, and importance of achieving the goals that you have set. Ask your child for input in setting goals and plans for improvement. Make her feel empowered in the process. In order to improve your child’s flexibility skills, a structured approach works best. By setting guidelines, identify strategies to handle a new situation or change, and making supportive environmental changes, improvements will be quickly noticeable. As a result, your child will have less stress and be more adaptive.
The following steps are proposed to help your child improve her flexibility skills:
- Identify a specific problem area or type of situation where the most problems (e.g. distress, inappropriate behavior) occur.
- Formulate a specific behavioral objective and measurable goal.
- Decide whether any environmental changes can be made to support the goal.
- Discuss a typical situation with your child and set rules and guidelines, e.g. how/whether to communicate, ask permission, advance notice.
- Schedule a weekly meeting to evaluate progress, discuss problems, and make adjustments.
- Set rewards and incentives when objectives are achieved.
For example, Emily is a 14-year-old who freezes or acts inappropriately when she faces unexpected changes. Unfortunately, she often makes decisions and plans without checking with her parents, which causes unnecessary problems. Her executive skills assessment highlighted flexibility as a development area, and her parents set an objective to minimize unexpected events by (1) having her ask permission before participating in activities not previously agreed on, (2) giving her advance notice of new/stressful events, (3) giving her a cell phone to assist in the process, and (4) telling a story about a situation that highlight others’ feelings and reactions and appropriate responses.
As before, remember to monitor, and provide encouraging feedback to your child.