Executive function is an umbrella term that includes a variety of brain processes that help students to carry out goal-directed behaviors to complete a task (ie., following multi-step directions). Although there are several specific executive function skills, cognitive flexibility is an area where many of my students struggle. This is especially true for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Students who are inflexible in their thinking not only display difficulty with making transitions and tolerating change, but in their interpersonal communication skills. As an SLP, working on cognitive flexibility helps our students become better communicators by being able to generate new ways to solve a problem, negotiate with others and accept different viewpoints.
Cognitive flexibility is an abstract concept; therefore it is important that we use concrete examples to help students understand its meaning and importance. First I like to introduce the concept of flexibility in physical terms, and contrast flexible with rigid. I have students try to break uncooked spaghetti and rubber bands and talk about what happened. We categorize a variety of objects into “flexible” and “rigid” piles.
We use pipe cleaners and toothpicks to make arches on paper and discuss which worked better.
We continue to develop our concrete definition by contrasting how our body feels when it is flexible and when it is rigid. Students attempt simple tasks such as drawing a tree with rigid arms and then drawing another with flexible arms.
I begin forming a bridge from the concept of physical flexibility to the more abstract cognitive flexibility by asking if we can be flexible with our minds. Noting simple examples that you have seen your students demonstrate is a great place to start. For example, “The marker Nate wanted was out of ink, so he used a different one”. This usually opens the discussion with students giving examples of when they were flexible thinkers.
Once students have a foundation understanding of the concept of flexible thinking, we compare it to the concept of being stuck. Using their understanding of rigid, I like to provide real world examples such as the story of the inventor of gum. This example is from my TpT packet, but there are lots of similar stories of inventors who thought outside the box.
A relatable story might be of two friends who were playing and got stuck because they want to play different games. Because they were stuck, they wound up not playing anything. If they were both flexible, they could think of many different games to play. The primary lesson here is that being flexible creates choices.
How do you introduce the concept of thinking flexibly with your students?