How to Explain Cognitive Flexibility to Your Students

Understanding cognitive flexibility is key to improving a student’s executive function abilities. However,  kids are often confused by what cognitive flexibility, or thinking flexibly, really means. Cognitive flexibility is less concrete than other areas of executive function, such as organization or goal setting, making it harder for students to initially grasp. This is particularly true with younger students. Even after explaining that the word “cognitive” relates to thinking and the brain, students can have trouble visualizing how the brain can be flexible.

Fortunately, I’ve come across a great cognitive flexibility demonstration activity on Maureen Wilson’s blog The Speech Bubble SLP, which can be a fun activity to use when introducing students to SMARTS Unit 3: Cognitive Flexibility.

First, Maureen started by drawing a brain on a piece of plastic wrap and a piece of tissue paper.


Then, she had two students hold the plastic wrap tight as she began to place items on it (a bottle of glue, book, tape, etc.). These items represented the information the brain takes in. As the items were added, the plastic wrap began to stretch, demonstrating how our brains can “stretch” to take in all the information when we are thinking flexibly.




Next, Maureen had her students repeat the process using tissue paper, which represented brains that were not thinking flexibly.  When more and more “information” was added, the tissue paper broke.


This is a fun and memorable way to introduce students to the concept of cognitive flexibility as well as the consequences of not thinking flexibly—brain breakdown.

Let us know if you try out this demonstration and how students responded. Do you have other ideas for demonstrating executive function concepts? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager