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Response by Laurie Faith, OCT, Ph.D. Candidate

Firstly, a big HELLO to the LD@School community, and thanks for including me in your conversation. I’m pleased to offer a few thoughts about building student flexibility. My perspective on this question is based on my own classroom work, my Ph.D. studies at OISE, and my collaborations with teachers in Ontario school boards.

You’re completely right to focus on student flexibility. It affects so much of the school day. For example, it will be called upon when students need to:

  • let go of perfection and bang out a first draft in Language Arts
  • try a newfangled, alternate problem-solving approach in Mathematics
  • appreciate unfamiliar perspectives in Social Studies
  • finish a poster project with a partner, despite artistic differences
  • remain optimistic and engaged when (gasp!) Phys Ed is moved outside

To tackle these challenges, you are looking for strategy ideas and you are in good company. Almost every time I step outside my door, I am approached for specific strategies to support a whole range of different executive functions. If you were to google “strategy ideas for cognitive flexibility” right now, you would find more than 49 million results from reputable sources including three different Harvard research labs (Health, Business, and the Centre on the Developing Child). When I mention this to teachers seeking strategy ideas, they pause for a moment and then ask if I might, however, have just one more, better, strategy that might actually work. They find me at conferences, email me, and invite me to their schools to press for ideas. I completely understand – the approaches that we research and try often do not work.

So, how do we find the strategies that students will use? THIS, I can help you with.

Much of the time, flexibility problems persist less because of a lack of objectively good strategies and more because of a lack of the motivation, engagement, and interest to get behind a strategy and apply it. Think about your own life. You probably know darn well what you should be doing to get yourself to the gym, drink 8 glasses of water a day, or submit your reports on time. In fact, you’ve probably been told a million times. Calendars, deadlines, partners, alarms, and reminders could help. Also, you could pack your gym clothes the night before, use flavoring to make your water taste better, and, delay logging in to social media until you’ve done at least fifteen minutes of report writing. Similarly, your students may already know that to be flexible they should take three deep breaths, just try a friend’s idea, or listen for a full minute before arguing. If they don’t know any of those, you can bet they know some other kind of strategy that would help if they actually tried it. Does this sound familiar? Usually the problem isn’t a lack of strategy.

To build a culture in which good strategies are found and used, I recommend you tap into the motivation that comes from a sense of belonging, competence, and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2000). If flexibility is a challenge for one, two, half, or all of your students, you can open a discussion about it and encourage your students to help generate strategy ideas that they are invested in and that will work in their specific context. It won’t be hard.

Step 1: Clear 10 to 20 minutes and sit your students down for a discussion.

Step 2: Describe the specific challenge you see them having and let them tell you more about how the challenge feels and works. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed we’re having a tough time being flexible in math class,” or “you tend to stick to your first idea instead of considering and learning about new ideas. What do you think about this?

Step 3: Listen carefully. Ask them for clarification. Relax and be a little flexible yourself so you can learn something new about your students.

Step 4: Let your students apply their inventive young minds to creating a few strategies. In the same way that I quickly came up with an innovative strategy to get my report writing done, they too, will surprise and delight you with strategies that are creative and fun.

This is a data-based approach to intervention. In addition to consulting with experts, doing your reading, and attending workshops, you will be gathering information directly from your students. You will empower them with a sense that they are competent, make room for all kinds of culturally specific strategies and perspectives, and create feelings of interdependence and belonging. And, no offense, but strategies created by peers tend to be much more interesting to students than the ones suggested by you, or by Harvard, or by some random expert like me.

To see how this can look in real life, you might like to take a scroll though the many classroom artifacts I’ve gathered on Twitter (@LCFaith). If you explore the approach I’ve described, or invent something new, I hope you’ll consider tweeting at me with a picture and description so I can share it. You can also check out the free resources on the ActivatedLearning.org website. Until then, I wish you many wonderful conversations with your fascinating and delightful students, and every success in your quest for improved flexibility.


Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2000). The "what" and "why" of goal pursuits: Human needs and self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Picture of Laurie Faith

Laurie Faith is a PhD student at the University of Toronto. She studies self-regulated learning, executive functions, and the types of support that teachers need to optimize these in classrooms. Laurie is the leader of a teaching movement called Activated Learning. She espouses “EF-Literacy” and “communally regulated learning,” and her approach has been implemented by individual educators in Canada, the US, and the UK, scaled-up in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Ontario, and studied/scaled up in the York Regional District School Board in Ontario. Her approach was featured in a chapter of Dawson and Guare’s 3rd edition of "Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents," and will be described in detail as the focus of a 2021 book with Guilford Press called “Thinking Forward” (working title).  

Laurie’s work is based on 17 years in the classroom. She is a certified Future Design School educator, and has extensive training in both the Rotman School of Business’s Integrative Thinking discipline and Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness approach. Laurie has received recognition from SENG for distinguished contributions to gifted education.

If you would like to learn more about Activated Learning, self-regulated learning, or EFs, follow Laurie Faith on Twitter (@LCFaith) or find her at www.ActivatedLearning.org.