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Executive Function Components: Part 3 Cognitive Flexibility


Executive Function Components: Part 3 Cognitive Flexibility

This is the last post in a series on the core components of executive function. If you missed our previous posts, you may view the full series of executive function core components here. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt thinking and behavior to changing circumstances or demands [1]. It is also called flexible thinking. This skill helps children adjust to the demands of new situations such as starting school [2]. Children with rigid thinking may have a hard time adapting to new things. Cognitive flexibility is important for language development and learning to read [3,4]. It is also used in problem solving. It helps children see things from other perspectives and “think outside the box”. This allows them to find new ways of doing things [1].


Social & Behavioral Functioning

Cognitive flexibility helps children adjust when things don’t go as planned. For example, a field trip might be cancelled due to bad weather; cognitive flexibility helps children “go with the flow” of the new plan for the day rather than having a meltdown. Cognitive flexibility is also important for social relationships. It helps children see things from another's point of view [5,6]. This ability promotes cooperation, open-mindedness, and empathy.


Below you will also find a handout about flexible thinking for parents that you can download and share.

[1] Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
[2] Lewis-Morrarty, E., Dozier, M., Bernard, K., Terracciano, S. M., & Moore, S. V. (2012). Cognitive flexibility and theory of mind outcomes among foster children: Preschool follow-up results of a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Adolescent Health, 51(2), S17-S22.
[3] Colé, P., Duncan, L. G., & Blaye, A. (2014). Cognitive flexibility predicts early reading skills. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.
[4] Deak, G. O. (2003). The development of cognitive flexibility and language abilities. Advances in Child Development and Behavior, 31, 271-327.
[5] Carlson, S. M., Moses, L. J., & Breton, C. (2002). How specific is the relation between executive function and theory of mind? Contributions of inhibitory control and working memory. Infant and Child Development, 11(2), 73-92.
[6] Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education. NCER 2017-2000. National Center for Education Research.