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The Positive Side of Rigid Thinking

Apr 02, 2020

By Maude Le Roux, OTR/L, SIPT, RCTC, DIR® Expert Trainer at A Total Approach

Is your child a rigid thinker? You’re not alone. Many children exhibit inflexible thinking, particularly those with attention, learning, and sensory processing disorders. 

Rigid thinking is characterized by a desire for predictability, displaying difficulty with unmet expectations, feeling compulsions to do certain things, and in some cases exhibiting perseveration – repetition of words, phrases, and gestures. Children who are rigid thinkers often show behaviors like explosive outbursts, meltdowns, difficulty communicating, or even a state of near-incoherence in moments of intense frustration.

But I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about the negative aspects of rigid thinking, so today I’d like to focus on the positive. Let’s take a closer look at the positive side of your child’s rigid thinking.

Rigidity Reduces the Guesswork (Or Does it?)

When your child is a rigid thinker, they may prefer that things predictably happen the same way, day after day. Of course, the world doesn’t always behave as we expect. Unpredictable circumstances can send your child into a tailspin, as they may become emotionally overloaded by unfamiliar sensory experiences.

As a parent, you can probably predict how your rigid thinker will approach many kinds of daily situations. Even if your prediction is simply, “He won’t like it,” you still have some awareness of how your child will react to certain events.

 However, I’d suggest that you avoid allowing your own assumptions to limit the potential you see in your child or the potential they may see within themselves. When a child begins occupational therapy, they are encouraged to learn in their own way. Their rigid thinking isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a limitation on how much they can do. 

Coping With Chaos and Uncertainty

We live in a chaotic world. As your rigid thinker comes into contact with new sensory experiences, they may feel overwhelmed. Some children feel compelled to assign things certain labels and fit them neatly into the sorting boxes in their minds.

This is normal human behavior, even if the labels aren’t always kind, helpful, or accurate. Labeling people and things is a way of coping with uncertainty and gaining a sense of control. To some degree, everyone does it.

If your child seems to have a strong desire to name, sort, and categorize things, this could be a form of self-soothing and self-reassurance. And if they become extremely distressed when things don’t sort correctly – for example, when someone they labeled “friend” is unfriendly – you’re seeing their frustration about the uncertainty of the situation. 

This can manifest as a meltdown, but your child isn’t being bad. They’re just struggling to sort things out in their mind. Here’s a more positive way of looking at it: Your rigid-thinking child has excellent mental organization, but sometimes the world just doesn’t want to be organized.

Rigid Thinking in Schooling and Therapeutic Settings

Many children with autism, anxiety, and/or sensory processing disorders experience school quite differently from those without these challenges. A child who is cognitively flexible can easily transition from subject to subject and activity to activity.

For your child, one rigid moment can cause such intense emotion that they are unable to make a smooth transition. Their classmates and teacher may or may not understand what is happening or how to help, depending on the setting and the resources provided at school.

This is why occupational therapy can be such an effective way to support the education of children with rigid thinking. As long as the therapy takes a child-led approach, the child is in charge of their own process and their own progress. 

Your child’s thinking might be rigid, but it doesn’t have to be restrictive. Within the therapy setting, their rigid thinking can be a benefit rather than a detriment. Their therapist can help them learn techniques that will allow them to blossom in many other settings, including school. 

Thriving for a Lifetime

Some children with rigid thinking thrive in environments with a fairly high degree of order and structure. Others prefer a certain level of personal structure but actually thrive in more flexible environments. It depends on your child’s individual needs.

Do you worry about the many types of environments your child will encounter in the future? Perhaps you’re concerned about how they will handle college, a workplace, friendships, and relationships down the road in life.

Well, here’s a comforting thought: Your child is full of potential. The precise form of rigid thinking they exhibit at age 5 is not necessarily representative of the thinking they will exhibit at age 25.

This is why I recommend taking a holistic developmental approach to supporting children with rigid thinking. It’s an approach that goes beyond one skill deficit or performance issue and examines how the child is forming their total sense of self, based on how they experience their world. 

I believe we can dig deeper to find the “why,” and then take it a step further by saying, “We can change the why.” This is a method of reshaping the child’s self-perception to think, “I can do this,” which will be a benefit to them for a lifetime. 


For more information about finding the positive side of rigid thinking, I encourage you to explore the wealth of resources provided by the Maude Le Roux Academy and A Total Approach.

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