Cognitive Flexibility

What is it?

Cognitive Flexibility and Control is the ability to change what you are thinking about, how you are thinking about it and even what you think about it – in other words, the ability to change your mind. Cognitive flexibility is required in multiple ways throughout the school day.

Children have to switch mental gears when moving from one subject to another, abandon one way of thinking about a problem when it does not lead to a solution and adopt another way of thinking, and even give up erroneous information to accept new and correct information. Cognitive control is the ability to switch ways of thinking, either automatically or deliberately, in situations requiring flexibility. Cognitive control requires the ability to resist the impulse to perseverate and keep thinking in a previously active but no longer appropriate manner.

When it's a problem:

Cognitive flexibility is all about context. Some behaviors or modes of thinking are completely appropriate in some settings, or academic disciplines, but not appropriate in others. Similarly, sometimes complex tasks require students to apply skills or concepts learned in one setting to the solving of a new problem in a different setting – applying an abstract understanding of basic addition and subtraction to actually handling money and making change. Students who have difficulty with cognitive flexibility may have trouble transitioning from recess to the classroom – or even between academic tasks.
Cognitive Training Tips:

1) When teaching new concepts or skills, try to represent the content in more than one way. For example, use puns and riddles when teaching new words that show different contexts and meanings; or in math, use number lines, charts, manipulables and real-world problems in addition to abstract written calculation strategies (like long division). This may initially present a challenge to these students but will help them once it comes time for them to apply these new concepts and skills.

2) Use lots of cueing to prepare these students for transitions. Give a 2-minute warning on the playground. Check in with students individually after giving a new assignment to ensure they understand the new directions and have transitioned accordingly. Use a lot of framing language, remembering the old adage "Tell them what you're going to teach, teach it to them, then tell them what you taught them."

3) Provide an itinerary of sorts- give students a written plan for the day, or any part of the day, on the board so they know what to expect and where they are in relation to the rest of the day.

4) Continue using ACTIVATE brain training software. The computer games in ACTIVATE™ exercise cognitive flexibility throughout the gameplay experience. In Treasure Trunk, for example, colors that are targets in one level must be avoided in the next – and in some levels the target colors change rapidly, forcing the brain to stretch itself to respond to rapidly transitioning contexts. ACTIVATE™’s child-centered design means that the difficulty changes in response to each child’s success.

When it's a strength:

Students who exhibit strength in cognitive flexibility and control handle transitions easily, can shift between subjects and tasks in stride, and may have success in tasks that require them to apply learning in one arena to problem solving in another context.
Cognitive Training Tips:

1) Challenge these students with interdisciplinary assignments or projects. Bring terminology or strategies used in one discipline over to solve problems in another discipline. Create a series of math problems based off of a historical timeline. Create a science-themed artwork. Students who can manage the cognitive control needed to understand and use various concepts in different contexts should be prepared to take on these challenges.

2) Use them in peer tutoring strategies. Students who transition well from task to task may make excellent peer tutors for students who need a little help to keep on task. Given the task of keeping their peers up to speed on “where the class is” during a given lesson, these students will continue to build their own abilities to keep on task and organized.

The 8 Core Cognitive Capacities

Further Reading

Executive Function Strategies for Cognitive Flexibility – the Center on Brain Injury Research & Training

Peer-reviewed studies on Cognitive Flexibility – the US National Library of Medicine

Cognitive Flexibility – Wikipedia Article