How to Teach Flexibility Using a Pipe Cleaner

A Practical Idea for Teaching The Skill of Flexibility

Plans change. Life changes. And suddenly your sweet child who doesn’t get to have tomato soup is melting down on your kitchen floor. Or maybe rain canceled your walk to the park. Whatever it was, the chaos that ensues tests the most patient parents. Teaching flexibility to a child is NOT easy.

For some kids, flexibility when plans change (something we call “set shifting”) is really hard. You’re not at all alone in the struggle.

Helping kids sort out their frustrations is a challenge anyway. But then throw in the blood-curdling cries of a tantrum? Yeah, teaching flexibility is hard, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that hard. Maybe your child just needs a practical visualization of rigidity and flexibility.

What is flexible thinking?

Flexible thinking is the ability to change how you think about something. Giving hugs and handshakes used to be a nice thing to do. During a pandemic, not so much. Grasping this requires a mental shift that kids and grownups struggle with.

Many children particularly struggle with set shifting. Set shifting is the ability to change tasks, based on changed goals and circumstances. Kids who struggle with perfectionism often also struggle with set shifting.

For example, your goal was to make chocolate chip cookies. But then you went to the cupboard and discovered you were out of chocolate chips. Healthy set shifting allows you (and your child) to make a new goal of making brownies instead. A child with rigid thinking may not be able to do this. Their inability to shift sets leads to enormous waves of emotion—a.k.a. the meltdown.

The meltdown is miserable for everyone, the child included.

An object lesson to teach flexibility

Kids need visuals. They need to be able to see their behaviors in something they can understand. That’s where simple object lessons are extraordinarily helpful.

We received this idea from Jen and her son, Jonah. Jen had tried everything to stop her son’s meltdowns, but everything she did seemed to make things worse.  She decided to take a more proactive role, instead of waiting for those inevitable outbursts. Jen worked with one of our parent coaches during a parent coaching session on a new plan. This is her story:

Unexpected changes were very difficult for Jonah,

He once screamed for 45 minutes due to an unexpected reprimand! Mealtimes were particularly tough. If we said we were having chicken for supper, he might think it was chicken nuggets.  Then when he came to the table and saw chicken breast, he would scream “That’s not what I wanted! I wanted chicken nuggets!” and get so upset he’d refuse to eat.

Jen’s Popsicle stick and pipe cleaner lesson:

Jen says, “One day we tried this hands-on learning activity with a popsicle stick and a pipe cleaner to teach Jonah about the value of flexibility.”

Materials Needed:

  • 1 Popsicle stick
  • 1 pipe cleaner

Instructions:

  1. Show your child the Popsicle stick.
    • Talk about how sometimes people want things to go their way, or according to their plan. If plans change, they explode.
    • Tell your child, “That’s being rigid, like this Popsicle stick.”
    • As you press on the Popsicle stick, continue: “When rigid people don’t get what they want or what they expect, they keep trying to go back to the original plan. Until they, BOOM, explode.”
    • Snap the Popsicle stick.
  2. Show your child the pipe cleaner.
    • Talk about how other people can bend and adjust as situations change. Give examples of how people change:
      • Eating a different cereal in the morning, when your favorite runs out
      • Sharing a favorite toy when a friend comes over
      • Finding other fun things to do when rain cancels a field trip to the zoo
    • Say to your child, “That’s being flexible like this pipe cleaner. It can bend when it needs to and then straighten back out again like it was. A person that can do that is flexible.”
    • Share examples of times when your child has been flexible. Jen focused with Jonah on a family vacation, where Jonah had “he tolerated all sorts of schedule changes and travel stress like a trooper.” She encouraged him, “You were so flexible, and that helped everyone have a great time!”

Jonah learned flexibility

Jonah took this lesson to heart! This simple object lesson continued to reap benefits for their family for a long time,

That night at dinner Jonah used the pipe cleaner and another stick to teach the rest of the family about being flexible or rigid, repeating his story about his vacation flexibility.

Later we watched for other little times when he was flexible and reminded him of how helpful and grown up it was when he did that. We also would sometimes give him a heads up before an unexpected change or challenge and say, “Now this is gonna be an opportunity to be flexible. Do you think you can do that?” His own prediction of success helped him to be flexible.

Over time it got easier and easier… We often say, “Wow, Jonah, thanks for being so flexible about this!” He says, “Yeah, it’s no big deal. I can do that.” It’s so fun to see Jonah be so grown up about things that he literally had no idea how to cope with before (and neither did we for that matter!).

Kids don’t know how to be flexible

What a beautiful story! Jen used creativity to teach her son flexible thinking and set shifting.

If this object lesson feels too contrived for an older child you can just tell the story. Or talk about the difference between rigid and flexible objects, and compare to rigid and flexible behavior.

Always look for chances to affirm your child’s flexibility.

Sometimes children misbehave because they lack the skills to behave appropriately.

But, like Jonah’s mom, as a parent, you get to break down and teach these important life skills. Doing so empowers kids to make wise choices that will help them thrive in life.

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