Executive functions in everyday life – Cognitive flexibility

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Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt to new or unexpected things. If something different happens, you can shift gears and figure out a new way to deal with it.

This means you have to call on all the other executive functions as well. You have to notice that things have changed (that’s using your self-monitoring skills). Then you have to shift your attention onto the new things (that’s inhibitory control). Now, you have to think from a few different points of view. You keep your goal in mind (that’s planning and organization as well as working memory) but stop yourself from doing the same old thing (that’s inhibitory control again). The old way just wasn’t working anymore. You have to figure out new ways to deal with it.

Cognitive flexibility plays an important role in both learning and daily life. Being able to see things in different ways helps us develop different strategies and adapt to life’s challenges.

Cognitive flexibility takes a while to develop. There’s a big increase in children’s cognitive flexibility between seven and nine years of age. Development continues into adulthood so don’t expect to see much flexibility in young children. Children with autism, ADHD, and other related conditions find cognitive flexibility particularly challenging.
You’ll notice children with difficulties in cognitive flexibility. They may:

  • do things in the same way every time. 
  • have a hard time changing from one activity to the next.
  • get upset when their routines are changed.
  • focus on one or just a very few things that interest them.
  • have problems taking turns.
  • get upset when an activity or game doesn’t go as they expected.
  • have difficulties thinking of new ideas or new approaches to things.  

Here are some things you can do with your child to work on Cognitive flexibility:

Change unimportant things – with your child’s help, change the order of a book or two on a shelf, of cereal boxes in a cupboard, or clothes in a drawer – anything that isn’t important. This is a good way to start introducing the idea of change and that’s it’s okay. Tell your child, “It’s good change things sometimes.” That will help them start thinking about change in positive ways. 

Make small changes in well-known routines – once you’ve set up a routine, make a small change. This might involve having your child wash their face before brushing their teeth rather than the usual routine. You can try having everyone sit at a different place at the dinner table. You could also choose to go to a different grocery store. Before changing anything, make sure your child is calm. Tell your child, “Sometimes I change my mind and that’s okay. You can change your mind sometimes too.” If your child becomes upset, just change it back and try again another day. 

– Do something different – you might get your child involved in a dance or art class. It might be learning tai chi or tae kwon do. Go to a museum or other place you haven’t been to in a while. Remind your child, “New is good.” Use it as your mantra: New is good.

Play games that are based on luck – this means what happens is based on whatever number appears on dice or whatever card you draw from a deck. Your child has to ‘flex’ with whatever the dice or cards indicate. There are some suggested games in the Resources section.   

Try different approaches to things – Get your child involved in brushing their teeth with eyes closed. Decide to use only your left hand to do everything for a while. Play a game to figure out how many ways you can use a common object. For example, think of all the things a plastic pop bottle could be used for – flower pot, bowl, cup, jet pack – check out Youtube for creative ideas. See how many ideas you and your child can come up with.

Plan a backwards day –  Choose a day with your child to do things backward. Have what you normally eat for supper at breakfast. Wear pajamas all day and sleep in your day clothes.  

Model how to think flexibly – if you run into a problem, talk out loud about how you calm yourself and then think of ways to deal with it flexibly. For example, you find you don’t have enough potatoes for supper. You can decide to go to the store, borrow some potatoes from your neighbor, or have rice instead. Get your child involved in figuring out what you can do.

Philip Zelaso discusses cognitive flexibility

Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

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