What is Cognitive Flexibility?

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Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think flexibly. This skills makes it possible for students to quickly shift their mental gears; they’re able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives and adapt to new situations. There are two main types of cognitive flexibility. With “flexible thinking,” kids are able to think about or see something in a new way or from a new perspective. We use “set shifting” or “task switching” to seamlessly shift our attention from one thing to another or discover a new way of accomplishing something. Improving cognitive flexibility is key to supporting executive functions skills!

How “flexible thinking” helps kids learn

Thinking flexibly is a crucial part of any learning process. As a student develops number sense, it isn’t enough to just be able to count a set of objects or add two quantities together. Instead, students should learn to think about numbers in different ways. In early grades, this includes finding all of the ways to “make 10.” While 5+5 might come to mind first, there are nearly endless possibilities! The more ways children come up with, the more flexibly they are thinking. In higher grades, flexible thinking in math might look like using multiple strategies to solve the same problem. Or better yet, kids can evaluate all of the possible strategies and selecting the best one.

Kids need to learn how to think flexibly when reading and writing as well. For example, they must learn to analyze text purposefully. This might mean a first read to understand the author’s purpose, and a second pass to identify main ideas and supporting details. They must find evidence of the author’s purpose when reading a text. Students should also learn to write a paper with their audience in mind. Plus, they must think flexibly and consider multiple view points in order to create a compelling argument. With flexible thinking, we can do the same task over and over again but gain new meaning from it each time.

How “set shifting” helps kids be successful

Shifting gears without getting derailed is an important skill, but one that is often challenging for kids. In the classroom, a student works through set shifting with each transition from one task to another. This could be as simple as transitioning from eating lunch to cleaning up, or as complex as moving from the planning phase to the drafting phase of a writing task. Students also use this form of cognitive flexibility when they learn to solve a problem in a new way. When they are younger, they might add by counting on their fingers; as their math skills develop, they’ll use more sophisticated strategies to achieve the same goal. Similarly, most sentences written by younger kids are short and choppy, without much detail or expressive language. With improved writing skills, their sentences evolve. With these forms of cognitive flexibility, students learn to be more active, engaged, and thoughtful learners.

How to help your child who struggles with cognitive flexibility

Kids who lack cognitive flexibility are often resistant to change, rigid in their thinking, and have trouble with transitions. Here are some strategies to try at home:

  • Word play – Here is a list of great word play games that develop students’ cognitive flexibility in written and oral language.
  • Pros and cons lists – Anytime we need to think about the pros and cons of a situation, we are practicing cognitive flexibility. Have them do this next time they are deciding which video game to buy, or what they should order from a restaurant!
  • Have your child make up new rules to the games they already play.
  • Use different color highlighters to locate different items in a text. This can become a reading scavenger hunt of sorts. First, children can use one color to highlight main ideas. Then, they can use another color to identify important characters, events, or terms.

Looking for more guidance from an expert? Connect with one of our Braintrust learning specialists today for private tutoring! Braintrust educators have the training and expertise to create a better learning experience for your unique child.

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