Executive functions are a set of skills that help an individual cope with the daily demands of living. Every human is born with the potential to develop these skills when provided with the proper support during development.
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to think about things as well as the ability to consider alternative perspectives. It is sometimes referred to as flexible thinking or metacognition.
Cognitive flexibility is an essential skill for an individual to develop because it allows them to break from routine, established ideas and participate in novel activities.
Cognitive flexibility comes into play when something unexpected happens and you are forced to deviate from your established plan or routine. It plays a key role in new and novel situations where there is not an established way of responding.
For example, imagine that you are going somewhere that you routinely visit, like a friend’s house, the grocery store or school. On your way, you discover that there is a problem with your normal preferred route.
Someone who has developed cognitive flexibility will not have a hard time deciding on an acceptable alternate route so they can still arrive at their target destination.
For an individual who struggles with cognitive flexibility will get upset by the fact that they cannot take the route they always take to get to this place. They will also have a difficult time coming up with an alternative way to reach their destination.
Cognitive flexibility allows you to approach a novel situation by thinking about what is happening in the moment, coming up with possible solutions and selecting the best solution from those options.
Cognitive flexibility allows you to move freely from one moment to another with the ability to adjust your response based on how the situation presents itself.
For example, consider a basketball team who rehearses different play during practice. On game days, they can plan to use the play they practice but they must be able to adapt their plans according to what happens when the game is in play. The team captain cannot just go up to the other team and say, “This is they play we are doing so you must not get in our way to let so we can do it as we practiced.” The team must work together and adapt the play as needed, based on what their opponents are doing.
As mentioned before, professionals generally agree that there are three core executive functions, inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Inhibitory control is sometimes referred to as self-control and it is the ability think about something before reacting to the stimulus or situation.
Working memory is the ability to keep information in your head while you are using it.
These first two executive functions must be present to some extent before an individual is able to develop cognitive flexibility.
I would like to use the story of the Three Little Pigs as an example to demonstrate how inhibitory control and working memory are needed for cognitive flexibility.
Most people know the story about the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf who comes to blow their house down. People who have read or heard this story know that the Three Little Pigs are the good guys, they are going out on their own to build their own houses; but the bad guy, the Big Bad Wolf, blows their houses down because he wants to eat the pigs.
However, not everybody knows The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! In this story the reader learns that poor Mr. A. Wolf was suffering from a cold and only needed to borrow some sugar to make a cake for his grandmother. In fact, he didn’t blow the Little Pig’s house down either. You see, he had a cold and he sneezed. His sneezes were so powerful the first two houses fell down. The story goes on to tell Mr. A. Wolf’s side of the story.
In order for the reader to be willing to hear Mr. A. Wolf’s side story they must be able to not think about how they believe the story goes (inhibitory control) and consider what Mr. A. Wolf says happened (storing this information in their working memory) before they can decide if they will change their mind about what really happened.
Cognitive Flexibility is a critical skill for living in today’s fast paced society where demands on a person often change. It helps facilitate the daily social interactions between people as well as in finding solutions to real world problems that commonly have more than one solution.
Cognitive flexibility is an important skill for people to have because it allows them to:
- Consider other people’s opinions
- Admit when they are wrong
- Take advantage of unexpected opportunities
- Adapt to a changing environment
- Make alternate plans
- Monitor and evaluate their own actions
- Practice making up new rules for board games or games.For example, when playing snakes and ladders, slide up the snakes and climb down the ladders.
- Find a common object and take turns pretending to make it into something else.For example, a water bottle could be a rocket ship, a unicorn horn, a bowling pin or a telescope.
- Read books, create jokes and puns that use plays on words.
Some suggestions for books include the Amelia Bedelia books or the children’s version of Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
As with other executive functions, there are several individuals with various types of exceptionalities, such as ADHD, Autism, Down Syndrome and Learning Disabilities that struggle with cognitive flexibility.
When these individuals struggle with cognitive flexibility it will make them seem rigid. This can make it hard for them to learn new things and cope with daily living in society.
In some cases, there will be areas where the individual can demonstrate exceptional cognitive flexibility but in other areas in their life, they are extremely regimented.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
Morin, A. (2019). 7 Tips for Building Flexible Thinking. Retrieved from: https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/7-tips-for-building-flexible-thinking?view=slideview
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