BrainSTARS: Mental Flexibility

Jeanne E. Dise-Lewis, PhD, Margaret Lohr Calvery, PhD, and Hal C. Lewis, PhD, BrainSTARS
BrainSTARS: Mental Flexibility

Use everyday activities:

  1. Develop a daily routine, which is maximally functional. Practice routines for such activities as getting ready for school, doing homework, and going to bed until they are familiar and automatic.
  2. Anticipate and plan for situations which require mental flexibility and thinking on one’s feet (unfamiliar social surroundings, unfamiliar tasks).
  3. Behaviors learned and practiced in one setting may not be appropriate in others. A child who has difficulty with mental flexibility may not understand this.  A new situation and its required behaviors must be anticipated and practiced. For example, Scott has practiced and rehearsed appropriate social interactions to be used at family get-togethers with relatives and grandparents. However, he has difficulty recognizing that the same kind of chatty informality is not appropriate when speaking to customers at his cash register when he is at work.

Change the environment:

  1. School may become increasingly difficult at higher grade levels (beyond fifth grade)  because academic and social problem solving require a high degree of mental flexibility.   Be prepared to watch for and monitor these difficulties, and make necessary and appropriate adjustments to curriculum, instruction, IEP, and social expectations.
  2. A child who has difficulty thinking flexibly finds it hard to self-evaluate and self-correct her own work.  For example, if Kim solved a math word problem by multiplying, she may be unable to “shift gears,” rethink her strategy, and realize that the problem actually requires division.  This child requires a high degree of explicit instruction and adult assistance in learning to analyze directions and problems and to self-check and self-correct competently.
  3. A child with mental inflexibility may appear to be non-compliant or oppositional. The adult task is to recognize that lack of compliance is actually mental inflexibility, and to explain, model or assist the child in following directions or completing the task.

Teach new skills:

  1. Anticipate that your child may have difficulty understanding and responding to changes in routine and prepare for them whenever possible by rehearsing and practicing the behaviors required for successful functioning in the new situation or environment.
    • Example:  Every day after school, Pete came home, had a snack, and went to play in the yard for a half hour before watching his favorite TV program.  Because his brother had a make-up soccer game, this routine would be disrupted on the upcoming Thursday. His mom prepared him for this change by preparing a set of activities for him to do at the game.
  2. Help your child or student learn to be flexible and persistent despite mental rigidity. Ask him to anticipate possible outcomes of his actions, and help to generate more than one solution. Practice and role-play several scenarios before anticipated events.
Posted on BrainLine February 1, 2013.

From BrainSTARS, Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams And Re-education for Students, © 2002 Jeanne Dise-Lewis, PhD. Used with permission. The manual is available in English and Spanish. For more information or to order copies, call 720.777.5470 or A short video on how to use the BrainSTARS manual is available at