Cognitive Flexibility Definition

Click the play button to listen to Dr. Gendron's definition of cognitive flexibility:

Sound bite transcription:

So cognitive flexibility is a very important concept in executive functioning. Many, many years ago, intelligence was defined as the ability to be able to adapt with flexibility to our environment. So cognitive flexibility is about being able to switch from one task to another, in an effort to be more efficient and effective with our time management. It’s also about being able to come up with different ways to solve problems, having many different ideas about how to do something, thinking outside the box, so to speak. So a student who has difficulty with cognitive flexibility will tend to get stuck, perseverate on a particular task, or particular way to approach the task, may have difficulty seeing a different way to approach the problem, and will even have difficulty moving on to another task. So this in turn will make the learner less efficient with their time. When we get stuck on one thing or one way to do things, we spend too much time on something, and not enough on another, we neglect it. So this is when some students might excel at one subject, and then really not succeed in another.


Students with cognitive flexibility difficulties may:

  • repeat the same mistakes, as they struggle to find alternative strategies;
  • struggle to see other students’ points of view;
  • give the same answer repeatedly;
  • take longer to transition between activities and/or class periods;
  • struggle to adapt to change, or require more time to do so;
  • struggle to understand abstract concepts or interpret things figuratively, and prefer concrete/literal subjects.


Below is a list of possible strategies to support students with cognitive flexibility issues.

  • Have a structured predictable classroom schedule, as much as possible. Reduce the number of transitions or changes that you announce at one time.
  • Warn students of transitions or changes. Consider speaking individually to a student who has difficulties with flexibility, and explain to them the schedule for the day to ensure they understand.
  • Allow ample time to transition from one task to another. Visual schedules may be helpful in this regard.
  • Encourage students to try new and different tasks, and offer encouragement and verbal praise when they take chances.
  • Explicitly and progressively teach cognitive flexibility:
    • Primary:Brain with left hemisphere in black and white, right hemisphere in rainbow colours
      • Play “naming” games. For example, list animals and objects starting with the letter “a”, by alternating between an animal and an object. Offer prizes to motivate students.
      • Sorting and classification games.
      • Paper fortune tellers with pictures only.
    • Junior:
      • While reading a novel, encourage students to think about the plot events from different characters’ perspectives. For example, have students answer the same questions from the perspectives of multiple characters.
      • Remove the text from a comic strip, and have students fill in a possible story. See how many different stories one class comes up with!
    • Intermediate:
      • Ask students to explain one concept in different ways. For example, in a grade 9 science class, students explain global warming as it relates to chemistry, biology, earth and space science, etc.
    • Senior:
      • Ask students to use different critical lenses to examine an issue. For example, students may consider issues related to globalization through one of the following lenses: socio-economic, gender, race, historical, etc.
  • Encourage innovative and “outside the box” thinking in the classroom:
    • Math: Encourage students to find multiple ways to solve a problem. For example, try using Number Talks. Click here to access the answer to the question Are Number Talks an Effective Strategy for Students with LDs?.
    • Language: Encourage students to find multiple ways to express themselves through poetry. Try presenting them with different poetic templates and allowing them to find one that works for them.
    • Physical Education: Play games that encourage creative thinking. For example, a group of students must keep a ball in the air without the use of their hands or feet.
    • History & Social Studies: Ask students to put themselves in a specific historical or present-day situation and ask them to present specific ideas on how they would solve a given problem. This will encourage them to think about different problem-solving approaches
    • Science: Host a design contest and award points for creativity. For example, students must build a device that performs a specific function (e.g., create a machine that will propel tennis balls). At the end, students share their design and see how others thought differently about the same task.