Cognitive Flexibility Theory

The definition of cognitive flexibility is in the word itself – it is a flexible way of thinking. Being able to switch your way of thinking, change your mind, or simultaneously think of multiple concepts at once are examples of cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is an important skill for children to learn because it is naturally built into their school day. Students are constantly switching gears, moving from science to English, to recess, and so on throughout the day. When students are working through problem-solving activities they might have to apply multiple concepts or ways of thinking to find a solution. In short, cognitive flexibility skills allow students to transition and shift their way of thinking with ease.

Cognitive Flexibility and Autistic Students

From an early age, autistic kids often struggle with being able to adapt to changes as easily as their neurotypical peers. A lot of this has to do with deficits in cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is our ability to shift thoughts and adapt behaviors is due to our environment. Having cognitive flexibility means that you can disengage from one task and re-engage in another one effectively. While we take this for granted, autistic children struggle with this.

While in the school setting, the focus has been on working with young autistic students to build up their coping strategies with changes that occur. Social workers will go over mock situations with them and ways to work through them. Special education teachers will talk to them through presets for changes in the day and transitions around the school. The goal is to improve their ability to move from task to task without being overwhelmed to the point of a panic attack or more.

Autistic students may not always be exposed to a foreign language in school. Parents may have been told it would be too much for their children. Other times it may be removed from a schedule to fit the resource room or another therapy in the time slot. This may change thanks to research out of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Researchers studied a small group of nine- and ten-year-old children. Some were monolingual and others were bilingual. In addition to this, some were autistic and others were not in each of the other categories. Preliminary testing showed that bilingual children were able to task-shift with more ease than those who were not. This is also held true for children with autism who were bilingual. The thought is that a bilingual person has to switch languages unconsciously and may factor into the increased cognitive flexibility that is seen.

How To Measure Cognitive Flexibility

There are several different ways to distinguish levels of cognitive flexibility in a child. These assessments are administered depending on the age of the child being tested. For example, you wouldn’t test an infant the same way you test an eleven-year-old. However, most tests typically involve a combination of colors, shapes, lettering, or objects. The different variables are layered together and the child is required to sort the items by one of their dimensions (ex. sort cards by their color and shape). Some of the more common tests include:

  • A-not-B Task
  • Dimensional Change Card Sorting Task
  • Multiple Classification Card Sorting Task
  • Wisconsin Card Sorting Test
  • Stroop Test

With varying levels of difficulty, these tests can be used to measure the cognitive flexibility of children with autism and students of all ages.

Cognitive Flexibility Training and Activities

Like any other skill, cognitive flexibility can be improved if you work at it and practice. For children, many of the above-listed testing methods also double as exercises that can improve their cognitive flexibility. However, there are a wide variety of other exercises a teacher can administer in a classroom that will help with a student’s cognitive flexibility. Some of these ways to develop your students’ cognitive flexibility include:

  • Altering a student’s daily schedule
  • Creative thinking exercises
  • Presenting new challenges
  • Meeting new people
  • Learning about different cultures and ways of life
  • Structured classroom debates

Generally speaking, cognitive flexibility is limited through routine, confirmation bias, and information overload. That is why exposing your students to new experiences, games, and surprises can help improve their cognitive flexibility. A teacher could introduce a familiar game but change the rules or way it is played. Showing students examples of “cognitive rigidity” also might help them better understand what cognitive flexibility is. Introducing your students to new people and having unique conversations is another activity that will broaden their horizons. Also, using fun word and memory games is a simple way to keep your students engaged.

Why is Cognitive Flexibility Important?

Cognitive flexibility is important to develop in young children and students because of all the implications it has in the school setting. If a child can seamlessly transition between the different subjects in school, see multiple points of view, and can apply thoughts from one concept in a variety of different contexts, then it can lead to better social and academic success.

More research is needed on this topic, but it may be something for special education teachers and therapists to consider. A foreign language component early on may be beneficial in more than one way for children on the autism spectrum.

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