I once had a student that was having difficulty turning in his homework. He would do it, but when it came time to pass it in, he could not find it. He had a “homework folder” where all of his finished work was supposed to go, but his work was not there. When asked, “Where else did you look?” He was unable to answer. In his mind (we later discovered), if it wasn’t in the homework folder there was nowhere else to look. Does this sound familiar?
This is an example of cognitive inflexibility – difficulty changing or shifting your mindset when the most logical answer does not bring results. Needless to say, upon further searching, other homework papers were found at the bottom of the backpack, stuffed inside a text book and also on his desk at home. All papers exactly where he had left them, yet he had no recollection.
Cognitive inflexibility is real. It is one of the Executive Function skills that develop in the pre-cortex of the brain. It can be measured on certain IQ tests and on the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functions. It has two components: a cognitive shift and a behavioral shift. Simply put, if your child cannot change their thoughts or their behavior when they realize something is not working, then it may be from cognitive inflexibility. You may have seen it when they get “stuck” on their math, or they don’t know what to do, but won’t accept your help because you, “don’t do it like the teacher.” Or have you ever noticed their perspective of what happened, does not quite agree with the other person’s perspective? All related to cognitive inflexibility.
As an Executive Function skill, cognitive flexibility will continue to develop but, in the meantime, it can cause some issues. Try to help your child see other people’s perspectives. You can explain how things are not always “black and white” (another sign of this underdeveloped skill and often related to ADHD), and that there are always other possibilities. They can help themselves by starting with some simple questions. A research study indicated that there was a close relationship between cognitive flexibility and inner speech among both children and adults. It appears as though inner speech may increase top-down control during shifting of thoughts (i.e. flexibility). https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/07/26/7-ways-to-increase-your-cognitive-flexibility/
Try having your child ask themselves these questions:
“What do I already know that will help me?
“What should this look like when it is done?”
“What should I do first, second and third?”
During: “How am I doing?”
“Am I on the right track?”
“Is there another or better way?”
“What do I do if I get stuck?”
After: “What strategies did I use?”
“Did I get stuck or have to change my thinking?”
“What did I learn from this?”
Developing this ability to shift thinking or shift behavior can also be improved through games and activities. Games to encourage the development of cognitive flexibility include: Set, Othello, Connect 4, Mastermind, and Gobblet. Activities include: Stroop (where color words are written in different colors and they must say the color they are printed in), optical illusions, maps with multiple ways to the destination and Tower of Hanoi. Other activities include changing up routines, learning a new skill, exercise, getting out in nature, and video games that have multiple streams of information that have to be manipulated simultaneously.
For more strategies: Check out our blog, Stuck? 12 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Flexibility