How do we learn to control our thinking? Most cognition is not under our deliberate control (even if we believe it is!). But some of it is, at least sometimes: we can decide what to pay attention to; make plans or break them; strategize and problem-solve; stop ourselves from making errors. These skills are referred to as cognitive control or executive functions.
Anyone who has spent time with toddlers knows that their cognitive control – their ability to monitor, reflect on, and govern their thoughts and actions – is pretty limited. But how does this develop? What matures, and what experiences matter? Our research has focused largely on one aspect of executive functions: cognitive flexibility. This is the ability to “switch gears,” by shifting attention, processing new information, and changing our behaviors to fit new problems and pressures in the environment. Young children sometimes show striking limitations in cognitive flexibility, and we are seeking to understand these limitations. We also want to understand the relation between children’s cognitive flexibility and the development of other ‘executive functions’ and capacities like working memory, processing speed, and cognitive inhibition.
Much of our research has addressed cognitive flexibility in response to instructions or verbal cues:
Other work has addressed children’s ‘conceptual flexibility’ — for example, knowing that things may be different than they appear.