By: Meghan Matusiak, MS OTR/L

Imagine having an entire day planned for your children with activities that require you to be outside, such as spending time on the beach, going to the zoo, or playing at the park, to soon find out that it is down-pouring outside. Your initial plan for participating in those activities will most likely not happen. So what do you do? You immediately come up with a new plan.

The example above is what we call flexible thinking. This refers to the ability to adapt to new situations and find solutions to overcome unexpected problems. Many children with sensory processing disorders, attention difficulties, or learning disabilities may have a difficult time applying this concept. Throughout the day, children are required to “be flexible” in order to manage friendships, scheduling, and learning.  

Here are a couple of tips to use to help your child manage his/her flexibility.   

Be a Good Role Model

Children watch and do what they see, whether it’s a parent, teacher, or therapist modeling the behavior. In our everyday lives, we are required to think and perform in a flexible way. Communicating and sharing our experiences with children when problems/situations arise is a great learning experience. Discussing how you changed the plans, changed an idea, or were able to change your point of view shows them that things can work out, even if it is unexpected.

Create a Plan A/Plan B of the Day:

Have a discussion with your child/children to create a schedule of activities or events that are in the plan for the following day (Plan A). Describe and talk about specific activities in the schedule that might bring a challenge or create an unexpected change. The goal is to help your child find solutions and work through the problems so that they can ultimately determine the final solution on their own. Following the discussion, create a Plan B to help children ease into learning the concept of flexible thinking. Explain what it means to have a Plan B and why it might be necessary. Making your child a part of the Plan B discussion helps manage your child’s expectations and helps prepare them so that if a change in routine occurs, it isn’t as much of a surprise.

Play a Game Together That Requires Flexible Thinking:

Choose a topic with your child/children. Once a topic is chosen, work together to come up with as many ideas or options as possible to teach your child about flexibility.  The goal for the parent/adult is to provide positive feedback to show the child they can be flexible. The more they hear they are capable of using flexible thinking, the more they will understand.

  • Below are some topics to discuss. It can also be helpful to choose favorite items from the categories below. By choosing different items as your favorites, your child will begin to learn about different perspectives and that part of being flexible is recognizing others’ points of view.
    • Things to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner/dessert/snacks
    • Animals at the zoo
    • Different types of transportation/ways to get from one point to another
    • Types of animals to have as pets
    • Activities to do outdoors
    • Sports
  • Rush Hour/Rush Hour Jr. or Connect 4: While playing these games, players have an initial plan on how they want or think they will win. Throughout the entire game, the players are required to come up with an alternative plan/solution based on the moves of the other player. Occasionally point out and discuss times during the game when a new plan is required.

Calming/Coping Strategies

Children who struggle with self-regulation often display difficulty with transitioning and flexible thinking, and experience meltdowns/tantrums when things do not go as planned. Try incorporating a couple of these different strategies throughout the day (especially in the morning, afternoon, and evening) to help keep them regulated to respond to changes happening in their environment.

Breathing Techniques

Repeat several times

  • Take a deep breathe through your nose and exhale while making a hissing (snake) sound.
  • Take a deep breathe through your nose and pretend you smell a flower. Follow this up with a slow exhale through your mouth pretending to gently blow out birthday candles.
  • 5-second breathing: Inhale through your nose for a count of 5 seconds. Hold for 1-2 seconds before exhaling through your mouth for a count of 5 seconds.

Tactile input

To help with releasing dopamine (calming neurochemical)

  • Sand, rice, or bean sensory beans
  • Deep touch massage/lotion massage/deep squeezes: slowly and rhythmically squeeze or massage the child’s arms, hands, shoulders, legs, and feet to help decrease anxiety.

For more information about flexible thinking, sensory integration therapy, or other services provided by our therapists, please contact us!