This month our focus is on building cognitive flexibility . What will cognitive flexibility do for my
Life doesn’t always follow a predictable pattern; cognitive flexibility helps our children navigate
this uncertainty and feel like they have more options when faced with challenges. As things change
around them, they need to change in order to maintain their wellbeing.
With cognitive flexibility your child will be better able to change strategies when faced with new
and unexpected situations, make sense of the unfamiliar and thrive in uncertainty. Cognitive
flexibility is important for innovating, coming up with new ideas and solving problems, and is
essential to creativity. It will also help them understand people and situations that are different
from theirs and improve their relationships.
This month we can’t wait to walk you through this cool skill and help you find ways to flex this
part of your child’s brain.
Success isn’t all about getting serious
Positive mood has been found to enhance creative problem solving and focus at school. How does
this happen? Cognitive flexibility! The handy dandy skill can be increased just by using a little
humour. Use this month to focus on having some good family laughs before getting started on
homework or trying new things. It’s easy to get really serious about our child’s future success and
what they need to accomplish in order to get there. Unfortunately, the stress of this approach can
actually move them in the opposite direction of the success they were hoping for.
This month, laugh a little more as you help your child through the struggles of picky eating,
examtime or learning a new skill. Try telling a few jokes back and forth to set the tone for learning.
You may find this approach makes everybody more flexible.
Mix up your routine for a more flexible brain
Does your child thrive on routine? Do you and the school go out of your way to make the world
predictable for them? While I’m all for a good bedtime routine, sometimes we can take this too far
and prevent our children minds from building the confidence to deal with uncertainty.
I see many kids in my practice who struggle with stepping outside their comfort zones and the
natural tendency is to alleviate anxiety by keeping things the same and creating routines that the
childs’ brain can predict. While this may work to reduce anxiety in the short term, it doesn’t help
them navigate the inevitable uncertainty waiting for them in the future.
To overcome this, start a brain training program. Much like upping the weights at the gym, start
with small manageable changes to the routine that make them flex this part of their brain. Move
the furniture around more often, drive to school a different way, send them to a new summer
camp or generally just shake things up. The more times your child sees that different is safe, the
more new pathways they will build and the more flexible their brain will get.
Let your kids in on the plan. It’s more fun when they can see their successes and these should be
celebrated. Even if your child isn’t struggling with anxiety now, help them proactively build this
skill in advance of needing it. There’s nothing wrong with liking routine but make sure it is a point
of pride in your family to be ok with the unfamiliar too.
Use picky eating to build cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is all about having an open mind and being able to shift our perception of
something. Nothing could be better practice for this than eating. Kids are notoriously stubborn
when it comes to ruling foods in or out in a very black and white fashion. Instead of accepting
these decisions as the food rules you will obey, instead help them think flexibly about food.
There are millions of ways to prepare each food. In fact, there is an entire industry built around
new ways to prepare the same foods. Even the foods we love can be prepared in ways we don’t
like and likewise you can find preparations of most foods that can shift your child’s perception of a
food from black and white to grey.
Here’s an example in my house: my kids will often profess to disliking zucchini. While they don’t
like it stir-fried, they love the zucchini chocolate chip muffins we make. When they try to rule out
zucchini forever, I remind them that they just don’t like zucchini prepared that way but they do
like zucchini in our muffins (i.e.: it’s about preparation, not the food itself). This way when we
encounter a new preparation of zucchini they are much more likely to put it in the grey category
and open-mindedly give the new dish a try.
The best part is the more new things they try, the more cognitive flexibility they will build and
then the more new things they will be willing to try, and the cycle continues. You just have to start
the snowball rolling and it will gain it’s own momentum even when you step out of the equation.
The eventual goal of parenting is to create adults that can make good decisions for themselves and
this is a great place to start when it comes to food and flexibility.
See this blog for a more detailed look at coaching children through the challenges of building
cognitive flexibility:
Health and happiness,
Dr. Jen Forristal
Founder of the Umbrella Project