Cognitive flexibility (CF) is the ability to consciously consider multiple alternatives in a specific scenario and to rapidly transition between such alternatives in order to select the one that best fits an individual’s current goals or priorities. CF is a paramount ability for our daily functioning and children deploy such flexibility skills in schools when they learn exceptions to rules of grammar, when they are able to approach a science experiment or math problem in new ways, or when they try different strategies in order to solve a conflict with a classmate during an interpersonal interaction. Flexibility is an essential component of the umbrella term “executive functions” (Miyake et al., 2000) along with working memory (the ability to manipulate and act on information held in mind) and inhibition (suppressing distracting information or inappropriate responses) processes. CF is considered a complex executive ability which builds upon working memory and inhibition processes.
When children are confronted with emotionally complex situations, such as reinterpreting a negative situation after receiving a bad grade to find a motivating role in order to work harder for the next exam, children make great use of affective flexibility (AF) – a subset of CF. AF is defined as the ability to flexibly attend to, and disengage from, emotional material (Genet, Malooly, & Siemer, 2013). Cognitive and affective flexibility represent a crucial building block for the development of children’s cognitive, social and emotional capacities and they also provide the foundation upon which children’s abilities to learn to read, write, and do math can be further built. Higher levels of CF are related to school success (e.g., Engel de Abreu et al., 2014), increased
levels of creativity in adulthood and better quality of life in older adults (Davis, Marra, Najafsadeh, & Liu-Ambrose, 2010). AF is crucial for the development of effective emotion regulation skills in children and for their academic success (Wilson et al., 2007). Furthermore, superior AF predicts resilience to negative life events and stress (Genet et al., 2013) and predicts lower levels of anxiety and depression in adults (De Lissnyder et al., 2012).
Across the lifespan, CF ensures optimal performance on a variety of daily tasks, and predicts functionality across a wide range of domains. It is only when this ability fails, that we become truly aware of the major role it plays in many aspects of daily life. When flexibility fails, people adopt a rigid repertoire of cognitive and behavioural responses and exhibit poor emotion regulation skills which could easily get them stuck in dysfunctional thinking loops (such as worrying for those who experience anxiety). These flexibility failures are considered the hallmarks of people who experience anxiety disorders (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010). Deficits in AF have been documented to predict greater use of rumination and less use of reappraisal in adults (Genet et al., 2012). Our own studies reveal the presence of flexibility deficits in children and adolescents who experience high levels of internalizing symptoms (Mocan et al., 2014) or high levels of trait anxiety (Mărcuș et al. 2016). Our preliminary work suggests that such flexibility-related deficits are only present when participants are required to nimbly switch between different ways of viewing emotional stimuli (AF) and are absent when participants are required to successfully switch between different ways of viewing non-emotional stimuli (CF).
Given the widespread repercussions of intact flexibility throughout development and into adulthood, it becomes paramount to develop interventions aiming at improving this crucial ability during a vulnerable developmental period – adolescence. During adolescence, children are required to gradually learn how to independently regulate their emotions and behaviors while taking into account long-term goals and consequences. Hence, an intact ability to keep a cool head in emotionally charged situations and to flexibly switch between different alternatives (affective flexibility) is extremely important during this vulnerable developmental window. According to the literature, adolescents with increased anxiety are at risk for multiple academic and social
problems. For instance, such anxiety can be very distressing, leading to impairments both in peer relationships (Greco & Morris, 2005) and in school performance (Langley, Bergman, McCracken, & Piacentini, 2004), as well as placing them at heightened risk of being bullied and victimized (Gladstone, Parker, & Malhi, 2006). For most children, these symptoms will persist into adulthood and beyond, and may become more severe (Miers, Blote, Rooij, Bokhorst, & Westenberg, 2013).
The possibility of developing cognitive interventions targeting flexibility may be the next important step in preventing and ameliorating anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.
Given the relevance of flexibility to children’s daily life and to their educational settings, the major aim of this current research proposal lies in the development of two flexibility interventions relying on non-emotional and emotional content, aiming to improve children’s flexibility skills (near transfer), but also to increase their general cognitive skills (inhibition, working memory), and academic achievement while also decreasing their anxiety symptoms (far transfer effects).
Specifically, we aim to test the assumption that interventions that work to increase flexibility will have a positive effect in terms of increased inhibition and working memory capacity and decreased anxiety symptoms. Thus, we want to assess the impact of two flexibility interventions (targeting cognitive or affective flexibility) in children and adolescents compared to an active control group. Following previous research we will expect that the flexibility interventions would be associated with improvements in cognitive flexibility (measured with an untrained task) and with significant improvements in inhibition and working memory. Also, we set out to explore the degree to which this adaptive affective flexibility intervention would be associated with reduced anxiety symptoms in young people as compared to the adaptive cognitive flexibility intervention.
O.1. To build and validate the tasks used in the two cognitive training programs targeting cognitive flexibility and affective flexibility in order to identify the most important individual factors which contribute to the occurrence of training related gains during adolescence (Study 1).
O.2. To build the pretest and posttest tasks for these the two time points assessments in order to allow us to measure the effects of both near transfer as well as far transfer following the completion of the two flexibility training programs (Study 2).
O.3. To implement the two cognitive training programs and investigate the extent to which such interventions are associated with benefits in terms of improved flexibility (near transfer effects) and executive functioning, while also decreasing participant’s levels of anxiety symptoms in the two experimental groups as compared to the active control group (far transfer).
The present research proposal will bring significant empirical, methodological and practical advancements regarding the development of cognitive interventions targeting adolescent’s cognitive and affective flexibility skills. This research will help us to test an original approach towards improving flexibility and executive functions while also reducing the presence of anxiety symptoms in adolescence via two different online flexibility training programs.
These innovative flexibility training programs will bring significant methodological contributions to the field of cognitive training:
(1) they will target cognitive and affective flexibility as it manifests itself
in our daily life, namely in an unpredictable manner (by including an unpredictable training task sequence)
(2) they will be adaptive in terms of increased difficulty if participants reach ceiling
levels of performance thus adapting to individual differences in flexibility;
(3) the affective flexibility intervention will include emotional stimuli, which represents a novel approach toward training flexibility.
This type of research endeavor has potential major practical contributions as
well as clinical implications as it might help us to identify the best approach to improve flexibility, a crucial skill for children’s daily functioning in both educational contexts as well as interpersonal settings. Nevertheless, if such online flexibility training programs prove to be promising it might be achievable to make it widely available to Romanian adolescents via our web platform.