Portrait of a Learner 9-12

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Portrait of a Learner 9-12 > Factors > Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive Flexibility

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How Cognitive Flexibility connects to...

Cognitive Flexibility, a component of executive functioning, is the ability to flexibly shift Attention between tasks. It is our ability to recognize when rules change, allowing us to think in new ways, act creatively, and solve problems. Cognitive Flexibility can also be called set shifting or task switching as it involves shifting Attention away from one idea or task component and responding to a new or different idea or task component. It thereby supports our ability to see things from other people's perspectives, including understanding the value of the content they are learning. Cognitive Flexibility can be used to effectively adapt behavior in the face of changing environments and task demands: for instance, in school, students must consider and switch between different rules and strategies to complete learning tasks. Cognitive Flexibility is central to Creativity, problem solving, and learning.

Main Ideas

Cognitive Flexibility develops rapidly in early childhood and continues to develop into adolescence, in part reflecting maturational development in other areas of executive functioning which support Cognitive Flexibility. Adolescents show higher levels of flexibility when it comes to social situations than their adult counterparts, likely because social skills are paramount during this period of development. While some development or experiences may disrupt certain aspects of Cognitive Flexibility, complex tasks such musical training, or switching between languages may also support its development. Students with less exposure to these opportunities, who have experienced Adverse Experiences, or who have brain-based differences in their executive functioning development may need additional support in the classroom. For instance, research has found that students with ADHD often have difficulties with task switching, possibly due to reduced Inhibition. This reduced Cognitive Flexibility can make it challenging for students to consider alternative solutions to a problem and self-regulate their learning. As such, explicit instruction around goal-setting and problem-solving may be a valuable support. In addition, while Cognitive Flexibility typically develops with practice and maturation, some research suggests interventions such as mindfulness training can support Attention shifting and in turn, Cognitive Flexibility.

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