Having a hard time learning new tricks? Some say that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. Perhaps this statement may be true with some animals. However, with regard to human behavior, science shows that our brains have plasticity, meaning we can learn something new at any age.
Learning new concepts is harder for some people than for others. In psychology, ‘fluid reasoning’ is what we call the learning of new ‘tricks’ or the solving of new problems.
If your child struggles with learning new ways to do things, his or her fluid reasoning may be impaired. When a teacher presents a new math procedure, or it is the first day of algebra, the child may feel lost and discouraged.
The good news is that we have ways to test for this cognitive skill, and we have effective strategies that families and teachers can use to improve their child’s fluid reasoning abilities.
Fluid reasoning is often referred to as ‘novel problem solving’. Humans have various levels of skill when provided with opportunities to solve new problems. Another old saying is ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, meaning that when people are pressed to solve a problem, particularly for their own survival, they tend to get exceptionally creative to solve it.
For example, if you were in a plane crash and wound up on a deserted island, you would rely on your novel problem solving skills. People who travel a lot might have to use novel problem solving to navigate the subway, to order food at a restaurant, and to walk around in a new city.
What do challenges with Fluid Reasoning look like?
- Having a hard time learning new tricks?
- Struggling when introduced to new concepts?
- Resistant to trying a new way, even when the old way doesn’t work?
- Getting lost when introduced to a new game or a new puzzle?
- Shying away from block puzzles, jenga, or a Rubik’s Cube?
- Easily frustrated when learning something new?
Why is Fluid Reasoning happening?
Fluid reasoning is a measure of the brain’s ability to take in new information without the benefit of practice or experience. Fluid reasoning is measured by Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. On most IQ tests, fluid reasoning is assessed with visual puzzles and nonverbal problems, even though the term can encompass verbal problems as well. A child, teen, or adult with poor fluid reasoning may have trouble with new concepts or new learning. In the classroom, people with these challenges may get stuck or become frustrated upon seeing a problem when unsure of the answer or the right approach to take.
How can I manage Fluid Reasoning at home?
Connect to background knowledge: When children struggle with fluid reasoning, they tend to benefit from help with making connections to background knowledge. For example, if the child is learning about a new country, it can be helpful to talk to him beforehand about similarities to his own country or culture.
When learning about geometry, parents or teachers might show the child common household objects with the same shape (for example, a ball for a sphere, a cereal box for a rectangular prism). In the classroom, children with challenges in fluid reasoning may benefit from checklists for step-by-step procedures.
Model problem solving strategies by doing a ‘think aloud’ while showing a child how to solve a problem . For example, in math, a parent can say, “First, I will read the directions carefully. Next, I will make a picture. Then, I will write a number model. Now, I will solve the problem.”
Get help for performance anxiety: If your child’s fluid reasoning is impaired due to refusal to try new approaches, anxiety may be the problem. In that case, your child may worry about how he will perform on new tasks and thus may be resistant to learning new strategies or approaches.
This concern would be related to performance anxiety or self-efficacy, which is your child’s belief in his ability to perform well on a particular task. This issue may require an evaluation or therapy to determine if anxiety is an issue and to help your child learn coping skills.
Get help for general anxiety: Your child may have generalized anxiety, whereby all uncertainty makes her nervous. In that case, learning something new may be intimidating because she does not know if something bad may happen in this unpredictable situation. For these issues, there are resources that can help your child with anxiety [3-5].
If the problem is more anxiety-related, your child should get better at fluid reasoning after he or she learns coping techniques. If your child receives treatment for anxiety but the challenges with new learning persist, it is possible that there is a cognitive or executive functioning issue. See below for suggestions if that is the case for your child.