Executive functioning—as related to schools—includes all self-management skills students need to succeed in a classroom. More specifically, it involves the ability to make goals, plan steps required to achieve those goals, and then execute the plans. For example, attention, focus, planning, organization, working memory, recall, self-regulating emotions, and self-monitoring all fall under the umbrella of executive functions.
For many types of learners, these skills are not intuitive or innate. They need to be learned—sometimes explicitly—and frequently practiced. Here are some ways to practice these crucial skills, so kids are ready for a strong start to the school year!
Ages 3 to 8
- Red Light/Green Light: Players start on the far end of a play area. One person—the designated traffic cop—stands on the opposite end with their back toward the players. When the traffic cop starts yelling, “Red light, green light, 1, 2, 3,” players begin to run. When the traffic cop gets to the number 3 and turns around, runners must freeze or else they’re out.
- Freeze Dance: Play music and dance, but be sure to freeze when the music stops!
- Simon Says: A classic game where one person is Simon and calls out directions. Don’t move unless you hear Simon actually say, “Simon Says.”
Skills supported: Focus and attention are the main goals for these activities. Additionally, self-regulation and managing emotions are also supported if a child doesn’t win.
Skills supported: Focus and attention are the main goals for this activity, as well as regulating body movement.
Skills supported: Hidden-picture activities are a great way to keep kids entertained for at least several minutes. Many times you can find them in Highlights Magazine. These activities target focus as well as sustaining and shifting attention. Working memory and problem-solving might also be supported if the child has to keep track of a certain number of objects or keep track of the objects left to locate.
Narrating routines and plans
Skills supported: It’s never too early to model organization, planning and prioritizing. Narrating a routine or working through your day aloud helps children begin to grasp the concept that even daily activities get planned and prioritized.
Is it possible to teach executive-function skills to people who have brain injuries? Absolutely, says cognitive rehab clinical researcher McKay Sohlberg. She shares insights on how it’s possible to help these patients resume their daily routines.
Ages 7 to 12
Plan a barbecue or a party
How to do it: Brainstorm a list of all of the things you’ll need to execute a successful and fun time for family and friends. Since this task might seem daunting—especially for a child who finds struggles with planning—write each item of the list on a sticky note or strip of paper. Then organize tasks into categories based on when they should get done. The categories could include:
- Two weeks before the party
- Week of the party
- Day of the party
- Day after the party
Then, execute these plans together. The last, but most important step, is to reflect. Discuss what worked, what was fun, what didn’t work and what you could do differently next time.
Skills supported: This activity targets attention skills, planning and organizing. Additionally, it can involve problem-solving if anything goes awry, such as the weather. Lastly, it helps promote metacognitive skills (“thinking about my thinking”) and self-reflection when considering the success of the barbecue.
Mazes and “Rush Hour”
You can print out mazes—in various levels of difficulty—from several online sources or find them in activity books. Rush Hour is an incredibly thought-provoking board game where a player has to get their car out of a traffic maze by moving the cars on the board.
Skills supported: These activities require higher-level thinking and problem-solving skills. They involve sustaining effort and persevering through challenges, focus, and working memory.
Card games (Uno, Rat-a-tat-Cat)
My new favorite game is Rat-a-tat-Cat. Each player gets four cards valued from 0 to 9 points. Two cards are face up, so players may see them, and two get left face down. The object of the game is to get the lowest possible score by drawing and swapping cards. You can swap the faced-down cards, but it’s risky!
UNO is a competitive, standard and fun card game. The object of the game is to get rid of the entire hand of cards by matching them to the top card in the center pile. When you have one card left, remember to yell “Uno!”
Skills supported: Focus, attention, working memory, recall, processing speed, and persevering when the odds are not looking favorable. You may think you’re not going to win, but sticking with it can prove you wrong with these fast-paced games.
Emily Jupiter, MS, CCC, SLP, is the founder of Alphabet Aerobics Speech and Language Education in Manhattan, a private practice specializing in language-based learning disabilities, executive functioning disorders, dyslexia and ADHD. She is also a language specialist at a private school specializing in support for students with language-based learning disabilities, dyslexia and ADHD. firstname.lastname@example.org.