Task-Switching in Children and Adults

We all have experienced days where texts and emails won’t stop coming, unexpected things happen (car won’t start; a visitor shows up), and we must scramble to keep up. How do we adapt to changing and unexpected tasks? This requires multi-tasking and thinking on our feet. As adults we slow down a bit (even if we don’t realize it!) when switching between tasks. But children have more trouble than us: they sometimes fail completely to switch from one task to another. Why is this? What develops? We have used both behavioral tests and EEG measures to study the development of cognitive flexibility.


Task-switching paradigm (Holt and Deak, 2014). Participants switch, based on verbal cues, between matching by animal or matching by color. The stimuli create a ‘conflict’ between these responses.)

We found that young children’s flexible rule-switching is tightly tied to their ability to quickly process incoming task cues, and keep in mind the most recent cue (Holt & Deák, 2014). Contrary to some claims, children’s errors are at most only weakly related to problems inhibiting their previous responses. As an analogy, imagine taking a math final exam, and struggling because every problem is a different kind of problem, requiring different formulas, proofs and procedures. Such a test would be difficult not because some particular answer (“2.7x + 4y”) gets stuck in your head. That would be a problem of inhibition. But children switch their behaviors quite frequently and, outside of a few developmental disabilities, are rarely compelled to repeat behaviors.  Instead, what makes such a test difficult is that every problem requires selectively attention to specific clues that indicate how to solve that problem. Even if you know how the procedures, the challenge of attending to those cues will slow you down, and maybe contribute to some errors. Young children have much more trouble than adults paying attention and remembering clues to the sort of problem they are facing.

(Two more conference posters (CSDL 2010; SRCD 2011) that describe these findings.)

Rule switching skill develops between 3 and 5 years. We developed a test...
of this skill, called the 3DCCS (3-Dimension Changes Card-Sorting test; see Figure below; stimuli available in Test Materials). The test replicates previous findings that many 3-year-olds, and some 4-year-olds, make many errors of perseveration after a rule-change (i.e., they keep using the previous rule). However, our results also show that rule-switching ability improves continuously with age, and that we can measure flexibility as a continuous (not just categorical) skill in individual children (see figure, below). Also, as in our FIM tests, young children make different kinds of errors: many errors of perseveration, but also some seemingly ‘haphazard’ responses. These different errors might reflect different cognitive processes, and different challenges to flexible cognition.


Design and sample stimuli from 3DCCS test, Deak & Wiseheart, under review 2014Flexibility in 3DCCS test by age, Deak & Wiseheart, under review 2014







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