Cognitive Flexibility in Action: Solving Real-Life Problems

Cognitive Flexibility in Action: Solving Real-Life Problems

Executive function strategies that help students think flexibly are essential for success in and out of school. As teachers, we often spend time teaching strategies to help students understand how to shift perspectives when reading, understanding test questions, or navigating a social situation; however, cognitive flexibility is essential in many activities.

To help students make the connection between flexible thinking and accomplishing goals, the Institute for Learning and Development (our sister organization) uses a “Flexible Thinking” bulletin board.

The bulletin board, which is posted in the office waiting area, features a picture of a hiking trail winding up a mountain, with six obstacles along the route. For each obstacle, we asked our educational therapy students to brainstorm a solution, which required them to think flexibly about ways they could overcome the problems.

Students’ solutions ranged from safe and practical to complicated and wildly impractical, even dangerous, but showed a great deal of flexible thinking! Here are a few of our favorites:

You forgot your water bottle!


  • Ask your friends if you can share some of their water.
  • Go buy one.
  • Drink from a lake.
  • Suffer.

You fell and skinned your knee!


  • Put a band-aid on it.
  • Tape a leaf to your knee.
  • Walk it off.

A tree has fallen across the path…


  • Hire a beaver!
  • Blow it up.
  • Go around it, or go over it.

The creek has flooded across the trail.


  • Make a bridge with a log.
  • Swim across.
  • Take the long way.
  • Make your friend carry you.

Yikes – a snake is asleep on the path!


  • Distract it.
  • Run away.
  • Chop off its head.
  • Take another trail.

I am toooo tired to go on!


  • Take a break.
  • Drink some water.
  • Have some coffee.
  • Tell yourself you can do it!

Not only are these solutions hilarious, they help students understand that, to accomplish our goals (e.g., climbing a mountain or completing a project), we must think flexibly.

Fun activities, like a bulletin board, a good board game or a theater exercise, can help students think about cognitive flexibility in a stress-free way and open the door to learning flexible-thinking strategies for their academic work.

  • Nancy Trautman, M.A.T., Learning and Educational Specialist


h/t The Pathways to Success Blog at ILD