Mind bending

Cognitive flexibility refers to our ability to modify how we think, and therefore, behave. It is a fundamental skill for an uncertain future, say Harriet Brown and Dr Eloise Crush of the Positive Group

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2020 has been a lesson in expecting the unexpected. It has become a cliché that we’ve all faced unprecedented levels of uncertainty. The fact is, the future for our young people was already filled with uncertainty.

The 21st century has seen unparalleled levels of innovation, and we’re on the cusp of further major developments: in artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology, amongst many other fields. The World Economic Forum’s report, The Future of Jobs Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, states that 65% of children currently in primary school will end up working in types of job that don’t yet exist. It also claims that due to the rate at which technological information is being created, nearly half of the subject knowledge acquired in the first year of a technical degree will be outdated by the time a student graduates. Accompanied by threats of climate change and political instability, the future was challenging even before coronavirus showed up.

We can’t predict what technical or academic skills people will need in the future. However, what we do know is that having the ability to effectively manage our psychological health will be essential. The WEF concludes that social skills, including emotional intelligence, persuasion and teaching, will be in higher demand than narrow technical skills. And the evidence is now overwhelming that psychological tools and techniques really work. They can help us to manage uncertainty and build resilience. They can even help us to progress our careers in the modern world; employers will seek out people who can manage their minds in challenging environments.

Cognitive flexibility allows people to respond adaptively to changing or difficult situations, by enabling them to understand the perspective of others, to consider different options, look from different angles and be creative with solutions

We must take note for today’s young people. No, we cannot predict the challenges they will face in the future, but we do know that core psychological skills will be vital, and it’s our responsibility to equip them.

At Positive, we believe that adolescence is a golden opportunity to embed these skills. Not that we’re saying it’s an easy time. This period sees huge changes to the human brain and body. At the same time, teenagers are required to navigate complex social environments, and they’re faced with the pressure of exams that will help define their futures.

With this cocktail of change and pressure, it isn’t surprising that this time frame is critical to the trajectory of mental health. Adolescence can shape and influence the mental health issues that occur in later life. But it is also an opportunity to establish protective behaviours and habits for the future. It represents a crucial window for supporting, upskilling and intervening.

The good news is, psychologists know a lot today about the psychological skills that can enable individuals to manage their mental health in complex, stressful and changing environments. This is the perfect time to be providing adolescents – and their mentors and teachers – with the skillsets that will help them to be resilient.


What sort of skills do we need?

There are a number of ‘future skills’ that can support individuals’ psychological wellbeing. These include emotional regulation and attentional control, but also cognitive flexibility.

How we think has a powerful impact on how we feel and how we behave. Therefore, being able to influence how we think can have a dramatic impact on our mood, our levels of anxiety and how we respond to challenges or difficult circumstances. For example, our thinking can make stressful situations even more stressful, or it can make them feel manageable and a challenge we can overcome.

Cognitive flexibility relates to the ability to modify or shift how you think. It’s been associated with higher levels of wellbeing and better mental health, as well as a range of other performance outcomes. It allows people to respond adaptively to changing or difficult situations, by enabling them to understand the perspective of others, to consider different options, look from different angles and be creative with solutions.

It is the opposite of rigid thinking. We see this type of thinking when individuals exposed to challenges a) find it hard to cope if a situation does not go as expected, b) become stressed if they cannot resolve a situation, and c) struggle to make decisions. The skill of cognitive flexibility is not just about psychological health, then. It is fundamental to relationships, good decision making, ongoing success and performance – in schools and beyond.


So how do we build psychological skills and cognitive flexibility in our young people?

  • All minds have the potential to be more flexible; these skills can be learnt.
  • Learning cognitive flexibility is firstly about awareness – educating people to think about how they are thinking and helping them to understand what cognitive flexibility means.
  • Next, there are cognitive tools and techniques that can enable people to challenge unhelpful patterns and to build more adaptive ways of thinking.
  • Importantly, if young people see cognitive flexibility modelled by their teachers and parents, they are more likely to adopt this way of thinking and behaving for themselves.

The GDST has always placed huge importance on providing girls with a holistic education. They recognise the importance of psychological skills and have partnered with us at the Positive Group to embed this learning in their schools.

It is the role of every school, teacher and parent to prepare our young people for their futures. While we may sometimes feel we’d like to protect them from difficulty and challenge, this is not always possible, or even desirable. What we can do is ensure they are equipped with the skills to manage these challenges and to thrive, even in the face of adversity.

Harriet Brown and Dr Eloise Crush work at The Positive Group, an organisation of multi-disciplinary, expert psychologists who are working with the teachers and leadership of GDST to build psychological skills and embed these skills into the culture of the GDST.