Exercising the Executive Function of Mental Flexibility

By Tricia Wegman

The executive functions are the building blocks of learning. Strengthening these foundational functions while teaching study skills is essential when teaching students with learning difficulties.

Mental flexibility is an executive function that allows students to switch focus between two concepts or simultaneously process two different concepts. Proficiency in this area helps students adequately adapt to new stimuli and also to receive new information and assimilate it into what they already know. This lesson comes with activities to use for both language arts and math.

Day 1 Lesson Objectives:

  • Executive Functions: Strengthen students’ mental flexibility
  • Study skill: Practice assimilating new information with what is already known


  • Colored markers, highlighters, or pens
  • Colored poker chips (or other colored object such as counting bears)
  • Math page of mixed facts
  • Book of your choice
  • Paper

Lesson Procedure:

1 EF mental flexibility 1. Warm up: On a white board or sheet of paper, write color words in any color but the color each word says. For example, the word “blue" will be written in red marker. Practice reading all the words first as fast as students are able. Then have students go through the list only saying the color each word is written in as fast as they are able without making a mistake.

2. Backwards World. Using colored poker chips choose two colors and place them in a line on the table. Tell students that for today, the colors are switched. Red will be blue and blue will be red. Have students point to each poker chip as they say the opposite color, encouraging them to go faster and faster. When students are ready, add in another color and interchange the three colors (i.e. red is blue, yellow is red, blue is yellow). Now try to read through the changed color line correctly!

3. Math: Create a page of mixed math facts (such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc.). Give each child three different colored highlighters or sparkly pens and tell them to designate one color for each different operation. As they go through the page, have them highlight or circle each operation sign before completing each problem. For an extra challenge and added mental agility, you can make this a timed activity. You can find a math fact sheet generator here: http://www.mathfactcafe.com/worksheet/buildit

4. Language Arts: Read a story to the class. After finishing, change a significant part of the plot. Have students complete the story based on the new information either as a class on the board or individually in writing. For added fun or difficulty, give each student a different variable in the plot and have them write the ending of the story. Read the stories aloud at the end.


These activities will give you an easy view of how a child is doing with mental flexibility. His or her ability to read mixed up color words and agility in naming changed poker chip colors will be clear. Collect the math page and assess whether or not the child was able to identify each sign and correctly complete each problem. In the language arts activity, walk around the room and see how quickly your students are able to adapt to the change in plot and create their own endings. Read their stories to see if they were able to come up with an original idea. The idea is to do these activities frequently and look for individual improvement as time goes on.

Another essential executive function is the ability to concentrate and pay attention for a sustained amount of time. In the following lesson you will find practical ideas to strengthen students in this area.