Flexibility, Self-Talk, and Stamina: How to Immunize Your Child Against Uncertainty

During a pandemic, when kids face canceled summer trips, postponed playdates, and missed celebrations, how do we equip them to pivot when plans and routines change? The solution is building their executive functioning – soft skills such as cognitive flexibility, stamina, and positive self-talk–that will serve them as they transition back to school and encounter uncertainties during this new academic year.

Flexibility refers to the capacity to shift gears and respond to change. As educators, we provide as much notice as possible to ease students into routine shifts. This might include ringing a bell to signal they have five minutes left of center time or previewing the day during morning meeting. 

Regardless of the planning or predicting we do as adults, students will need to be flexible as life happens. Say, for example, your child needs to see the allergist and an appointment opens up that afternoon. Unfortunately, they won’t have advance notice that you’re picking them up until you arrive at school, and they might be upset because they don't like to miss class time. To encourage flexibility, you could take a few different approaches. 

First, you could try positive framing. We often forget that we constantly model thinking for our children. When you pick up your child for the appointment, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry you’re having to miss class,” you could try, “I’m really excited you get to see a doctor who will help you with that runny nose you’ve been having.” Or, “Isn’t it special we get to spend time together?” 

Another strategy is to talk about the Size of the Problem to help your child put an obstacle into perspective. The Size of the Problem concept is part of the Social Thinking Curriculum by speech pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner. This approach involves helping your child understand that a small problem should be followed by a small reaction. 

A small problem is something that can be solved quickly with little or no help. In this case, it involves missing a few hours of school to go to the doctor. A large problem is something that takes many adults a long time to fix, such as a house fire or serious illness. It’s alright to be upset or disappointed about a small problem, but big reactions to small problems often make the situation uncomfortable for everyone. Think of the Snapchat phenomenon a few years ago where parents took pictures of their toddlers tantruming about things like toppled blocks or broken cookies.

 If your child expresses worry over the doctor’s visit, they can solve this problem easily. For example, if they are concerned about missing a math lesson, they can arrive at school early the next day to meet with the teacher. You can tell your child, “It’s ok to be a little disappointed that you’re not at school, but if we keep focusing on it after we’ve come up with a solution, this whole day is going to be a bummer for both of us.”


Stamina is the ability to persist through difficult, lengthy, or non-preferred tasks, especially with accompanying worry or stress. Students need stamina to master a new skill, take a test, or sustain attention while playing a game.

To illustrate how to help children build stamina, we’ll return to the doctor’s appointment example. When you arrive at the clinic, your child immediately remembers sitting for almost an hour in the waiting room during the last visit. To make matters worse, this time they will have to wear a mask as part of the safety protocol. You might be tempted to promise ice cream to preempt a meltdown but, instead, you can take this opportunity to help your child build stamina.

Start with a small, manageable goal and increase the target over time. Begin by setting your phone timer for ten minutes. At the end of the 10 minutes, tell your child they’ll be able to walk outside and take their mask off for a 60-second break. For the next interval, set the timer for 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, and so on. Increase motivation by praising their patience at the end of each time period.


Self-talk refers to a student’s internal dialogue. Our goal as educators and parents should be for children to internalize our modeling of executive functioning skills as self-talk as they mature. Instead of reminding your child, “Don’t forget your backpack!” every morning, you eventually want them to think to themselves, “Did I remember to grab my backpack?” before they walk out the door.

Revisiting the doctor’s visit example, positive self-talk can be a helpful way to regulate worry and mindset. Imagine now that you’ve left the allergist, prescription in hand, and your child begins to perseverate about returning to school. “What if when I get back to school, I go to my classroom and the kids aren’t there? What if I don’t know what to do?” 

Hopefully, you’ve already helped your child brainstorm solutions to this small problem and used positive framing such as, “You’re growing up and becoming more independent. I know you can handle this.” Now, you can provide the positive self-talk you want your child to internalize in the form of affirmations. This can be a phrase they repeat to themselves such as, “I’ve got this,” or, “I know what to do,” a motivating song they can sing in their head, or their own positive framing. Your child doesn’t have to believe they can conquer the world before repeating these affirmations; over time, the simple act of repetition will transform their mindset. When your child notices their inner voice saying something unkind, teach them to drown it out with positive self-talk.

Although we can’t control the obstacles and unknowns children will face this school year, we can prepare them by developing their positive inner voice, building their stamina for difficult tasks, and teaching them to be flexible thinkers. Honing these executive functioning skills will prepare them for any challenges they encounter, whether on campus, at home, or beyond.

By Coordinator of Student Services Nissa Pearson

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.