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Brain Yoga: Mental Flexibility and Executive Function

Posted on May 4, 2015 at 9:25 PM
I've never considered myself to be very flexible. In fact, when I was eight years old and taking ballet classes, my Russian ballet instructor was dismayed at how my young body simply refused to bend on command. I've found that doing yoga regularly can contribute to a more flexible body, but what can one do when the problem is an inflexible brain?

Last week I discussed executive function (EF), which is a set of cognitive functions that help us to be more mentally flexible, less impulsive, able to control our emotions, and capable of planning and problem solving. I promised to discuss each of these areas more fully, and to provide some ideas for strategies that can be used to support children and adults who experience EF challenges.

In FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, we define flexibility as, "the ability to change your mind and make changes to your plans as needed" (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015). Perhaps you know someone who always needs to have things their way, or perhaps you've had experience with someone who gets an idea in their mind and can't seem to see any other alternatives. These individuals were exhibiting a lack of mental flexibility.

Having mental flexibility is important in that it allows us to move forward and get things done, even when things might not happen as planned. It also allows us to look at a situation from several different perspectives, enabling us to "try on" different solutions, eventually landing on one that makes the most sense. It also helps us to take the perspective of others by making it possible for us to put ourselves in the place of someone else, ultimately allowing us to show empathy and understanding. Finally, mental flexibility makes it possible for us to go into unfamiliar situations and adapt our behavior to fit in with the expectations of the particular situation.

One strategy that can be used to build mental flexibility for building contextual sensitivity (the ability to "size up" a situation and adapt behavior accordingly) is a process called SOARR. The letters in SOARR stand for:
S - Specify the specific situation (i.e., eating in a fancy restaurant)
O - Observe how others are behaving (i.e., talking quietly, using cutlery, etc.)
A - Analyze what behaviors will need to be exhibited in order to fit in with the environment 
R - Respond based on the observation and analysis
R - Reflect on your own perceptions and the responses of others

SOARR can be used as a coaching tool, with one individual taking on the coaching role and supporting the other person to walk through the steps. The coach could be a trusted adult, such as a teacher or a parent, who works with a young person who needs some help with mental flexibility. However, an individual can also use SOARR as a self-coaching tool, running through the steps mentally when in an unfamiliar situation. The goal is to build flexibility so that one can quickly analyze a situation, determine the expected behaviors, and adopt those behaviors that will enable the person to comfortably navigate the situation.

For more information on executive function, as well as 25 strategies for supporting individuals with EF deficits, check out FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills,
which is available from AAPC Publishing, as well as major booksellers (such as Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble).

Next week I'll discuss the link between EF and emotions, and share a strategy for reducing the emotionality that can sometimes occur when we're working with a someone with EF challenges. Until then, stay agile, both in body and mind!

Categories: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Behavior, Evidence-based practices, Executive Function

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