What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive Flexibility Game

Working with children can be a challenge. There may be times within the school day when students need to transition, whether physically or from one task to another. When it is time to transition to a writing lesson after recess, many kids may be upset with the disruption. Of course, most children will be able to make the move back into the classroom and get to their writing. Practicing this from week to week makes it easier for the majority of kids. When you practice this with your students you are actually improving their cognitive flexibility.

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

Cognitive Flexibility Exercises

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 actually 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.

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.

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 are able to 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 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.

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. Does your school promote bilingual support for children in special needs programs? Please share your experiences below.

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