Cognitive flexibility is the last of three major skills involved in executive function. Cognitive flexibility is the skill that allows your child’s brain to switch from one thing to the other quickly or to see a problem in a new light.
The picture to the left shows an example of a problem that needs cognitive flexibility. The Candle Problem is an experiment conducted by Karl Duncker in 1945. Participants were to use only these tools to attach a candle to the wall so that the lit the candle would not drip wax on the wall.
Most people could not get it because they did not see the box that held the tacks as an available tool. If you tack the box to the wall, it will serve as a shelf to hold the candle. Cognitive flexibility lets you see the box as more than the container for tacks – it is also one of the tools available to solve the problem.
Children use cognitive flexibility when they read, and it allows them to develop reading fluency and strong comprehension skills. Readers have to be able to quickly go back and forth between decoding words and paying attention to the content. Children also use cognitive flexibility when they problem solve with authentic problems. Authentic problems are the kind where the answer is not in the back of the book.
Here are some home activities that can increase cognitive flexibility:
Family Meals When children help to plan, fix, and clean up family meals they have many small opportunities to problem solve. When children are first learning these skills, resist the temptation to answer questions or solve problems for them quickly. Let them try first and only step in with a hint if they are on the wrong track.
Role Play Stories Acting out a story will add fun to reading and will promote better reading skills by strengthening cognitive flexibility. Solving problems on how to create a simple costume will add to the fun and brain power. For something different, show your child how to read a story with silly voices, and then encourage your child to try.
Cooperative Board Games There are some new board games out there where players do not compete against each other. Instead, the players form a team and compete against the game. PANDEMIC and FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD are suitable for older children, while younger players will enjoy FLASH POINT and RACE TO THE TREASURE. Because everyone is working together, these make good family games when there is a big age range. Cooperative games are all about helping your team members.
Building Projects Encourage your children to attempt creative projects that involve design, building, and problem-solving. The end result is great, but it is not the goal. The journey is where your child will find the real reward of stronger brain skills.