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LEGOs & the Art of Flexible Thinking

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This is a guest post by gifted coach, educator, and writer, Jade Rivera. I absolutely LOVE what she has to say about flexible thinking. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Jimmy is playing with the LEGOs that Amanda wants. So Amanda walks up and rips them out of his hand. Tears and turmoil are immediately evident on Jimmy’s face and Amanda looks very very confused.

In the beginning of my career as an educator of gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) children, I loved to work with the little ones. I delighted in creating activities that combined complex scientific concepts like polymerization with silly crafts like making glitter slime.

Many of my students were as young as four and five. The above scene concerning the LEGOs was a near daily occurrence. Despite our deep conversations about the paleolithic era and introductions to basic algebra, the concept of sharing seemed to have the steepest learning curve for nearly every student.

This is ansynchrony, folks. It’s one the most identifiable aspects of giftedness.

When a child is developing asynchronously, often their social development is out of step with their academic development. They may grasp academic concepts beyond their years and still have meltdowns like a three year old when they’re seven.

So what could I do? I seriously thought about taking away the LEGOs. (gasp!)

LEGOs are an important aspect of a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) learning environment, so I couldn’t possibly do that.

They’re also a way many of my students self-soothed and expressed their creativity. This is likely why we had so many impassioned conflicts around them. LEGOs meet many needs for gifted/2e children, such as calm, creativity and fun. The fear of those needs not being met was enough to make a child lose sight of care for a friend’s feelings.

After a few weeks of this sharing dynamic playing itself out in a variety situations, it became clear to me that a big — no, the biggest part — of my job was going to be fostering flexible thinking.

My students knew how to use technology to find out anything they wanted. And that’s great; I love to support independence and autonomous learning.

What they needed most from me was guidance on how to navigate the social aspect of school. A part of this meant supporting flexible thinking and the understanding that there is more than one strategy to meet a need.

Flexible thinking is the art of moving your mind around the various facets of a challenge, determining the possible paths to take in addressing that challenge, and then choosing the one that attends best to the needs of those involved.

Hard to do in the heat of the moment.

Amanda had a problem. She wanted the LEGOs badly, but couldn’t use her flexible thinking to come up with a way to get them that also respected Jimmy’s needs.

Now I will share with you my three-point plan for addressing these conflicts:

  1. Check yourself. Take a deep breath and name your feelings (silently, to yourself). This will help calm and center you.
  2. Join both children in mourning (and hugs if the kids seem up for that) “Oh no! You both really wanted those LEGOs! Isn’t it terrible when you don’t get the LEGOs you want?!” Hopefully while you’re doing this, attention to the LEGOs themselves has been paused.
  3. When the intensity has faded (and this may take awhile), brainstorm ways that the situation could have been handled with more care. If you need to, prime the pump with some solutions of your own.

Below are some different strategies that could work for having a more harmonious LEGO play time. I’ve ordered them from most likely to least likely.

  • Amanda could come and ask me, and I will dig around in the free LEGOs to find the piece she needs.
  • Amanda could ask Jimmy for the LEGOs.
  • She could think up something to make that didn’t involve those LEGOs and wait to build her things until later when those LEGOs are free.
  • She could collaborate with Jimmy.

I know what I’ve outlined here is overly simplistic. It is really only meant to be a jumping off point for you to begin to foster flexible thinking in your own home or learning environment. Please go easy on yourself; it’s impossible to take this calm of an approach every time an issue arises. Do your best, and be generous with yourself when it doesn’t work out. I have no doubt you’re doing the best with what you have.

LEGOs are possibly the most coveted toys in a progressive learning environment. At times I’ve parceled them out in evenly distributed kits and made policies that only one LEGO creation could be saved for longer than 48 hours. These were strategies I had to put in place as a last ditch effort to combat anxiety and meet needs for safety. They didn’t always work. LEGOs are a necessary complication and a great instigator of lessons about flexible thinking.

How have you fostered flexible thinking in your home or classroom? Leave a comment and let others benefit from your wisdom!

Testimonials - Jade RiveraJade Rivera provides coaching and consultation to families with gifted and twice-exceptional children and the professionals that serve them. She lives with her fiance Sam in Oakland, CA, where she is working on her upcoming book “Micro-schools for Gifted Children” by GHF Press. You can read her blog and learn more about her work at www.jadeannrivera.com.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • John February 17, 2015, 12:19 pm

    We stopped punishing over Lego disputes. Even when they led to “unkind hands” as opposed to gentle hands. I make them play Simon says sometimes with my oldest as Simon (since one of his intensity triggers is not feeling in charge. The next youngest doesn’t care).

    I make them tell knock knock jokes. I make them have bouncy ball races until they are laughing with each other. I never ever make them apologize or bring up what happened during the heat of the intensity moment. Maybe later I pull one aside during happy play and do social coaching. Just have to use creative ways to get rid of the intensity. I like the mourning idea and might add to the repertoire.

    • Jade Rivera February 17, 2015, 10:29 pm

      Hi John! Redirection is a great strategy for making it through intensity. Thanks for sharing.

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