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A Worldwide Shift in Cognitive Set Looms

Shifting gears is a skill, one that’s going to be in high demand shortly.

Source: Pixabay

The transition from life as we knew it to pandemic living was jarring for most of us and tragically traumatizing for so many. As some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel finally approaches, another massive transition looms — the transition back to life as we knew it — except that it won’t be like life as we knew it. This transition will be from a new life in which we had to grow accustomed to a somewhat uncertain future.

We psychologists call the skill of navigating transitions the ability to “shift cognitive set.” This skill is what helps us shift gears from one idea, mindset, perspective, activity, setting or routine to another. Most preschoolers aren’t so great at shifting cognitive set, but fortunately, it’s a skill that develops pretty rapidly if all goes well. That said, like any other skill, shifting cognitive set comes more easily to some of us humans than others, and the demand for this skill is about to be massive. So even if you are pretty good at handling transitions, we should prepare for this one.

The demand to shift cognitive set is easiest when:

  • We know when it's coming, as opposed to when it is sprung on us
  • We know what it is going to look like
  • We have some control over it
  • When it is a shift from something less desirable to something more desirable

In this case, we only know vaguely when it’s coming. We don’t really know what it is going to look like. We don’t have much control over it, and for many of us, it’s a mixed bag of some things that are more desirable and some things that might surprisingly be less desirable. To make matters even more challenging, this big shift isn’t just one shift. It will actually be made up of tons of little shifts happening simultaneously.

Younger students will get to see their friends, but they will also have to navigate potential separation anxiety after spending so much time close to their loved ones for the last year. Older students might be similarly excited to be with their peers, but not excited about the prospect of getting up early and having to worry about how they look and whether any of their friends will have the same lunch block as they do.

We parents might be thrilled to have more breathing room to concentrate on our work again, but not eager to start losing hours of our day to rushing around or commuting. Our educators can’t wait to feed off their students' in-person energy again and be around their peers, but perhaps there were things about remote work that they enjoyed too. And of course this is true of many other professions as well.

At the very least, the transition means interacting in person with others much more often than we have in the past year which, while wonderful, will also be a change. But these are best case scenarios. Sadly, for some the transition back means confronting the new reality of job loss and grief in an entirely changed world.

Making things even tougher is the fact that when we face a challenging transition, we often lean on those around us for support. So what will happen during a worldwide shift in cognitive set when everyone around us is also dealing with their own attempts to navigate these transitions? It’s going to a rocky road ahead I’m afraid.

Working with lots of kids who struggle with being flexible and shifting cognitive set, we’ve learned some things about how to make shifts easier. We must do these five things if we are going to navigate this looming transition without even more collateral damage from the pandemic:

  1. Prepare
  2. Allow extra time
  3. Break things down
  4. Make new routines
  5. Provide a sense of control

We all do better when we have a sense of what’s coming. Begin discussions and planning long in advance for each shift you can anticipate and try your best to predict where the sticking points might be. We psychologists call this “previewing.” Stretch out the transitions so they do not feel too abrupt by starting slow and easing your way back into things. Break down any larger transition into its component parts and focus on one getting used to one piece at a time. Since routines will be changing, work to create new consistent patterns.

Finally, we all do better when we have a sense of control, as opposed to feeling like something is simply being done to us. We need to give kids and ourselves an active role in navigating the transitions ahead by having proactive conversations where they and we are co-authors of plans and solutions to issues that will arise. The more this massive transition feels like something we are steering as opposed to just trying to get out of the way of, the better we will all feel.

These five things can help our children, our students, our colleagues and ourselves handle the massive shift in cognitive set that awaits us, and they are all best accomplished by listening and engaging collaboratively. But perhaps most importantly, be patient and kind to each other and yourself. Remember now more than ever: people do well if they can!


Ablon, JS. Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work. New York: Penguin Random House; 2018.

Ablon, JS, Pollastri, AR. The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior using Collaborative Problem Solving. New York: Norton; 2018.