How To Use Movies to Improve Executive Functioning Skills

Developing and improving executive functioning skills comes naturally to some children. For these kids, simple human interaction — observing others and interacting with their family members — is all they need to develop skills such as organization, planning, and self-control. For other children, a more direct instructional approach that includes modeling, discussion, and practical opportunities is necessary to develop these skills. Of course, a child is far more likely to learn and develop when you have their undivided attention.

If you follow the LearningWorks for Kids blog, you’re most likely a believer in the power of video games as teaching tools, and you see us talk about it all the time. What we don’t talk about as much is the fact that movies and television can also be useful tools. You don’t need to be told that they can capture your child’s attention quickly and easily. The trick is capitalizing on the incredibly engaging nature of passive entertainment.

Here are a few ideas for using movies as learning tools that improve executive functioning skills.

Family movie night. The best way to capitalize on the power of TV and movies is to watch along with your kids. Set aside one night a week to watch a popular movie together that provides some underlying lessons and models for improving executive functioning and social emotional learning skills. Some family-friendly examples are Finding Dory (working memory, self-awareness), Kung Fu Panda (focus, flexibility, self-control) and Zootopia (flexibility, self-awareness). Engage in a family discussion about important themes in the movie. You won’t even need to prompt your child with executive functioning problems, they’ll naturally want to get involved.

Watch it again. And again. Many kids can watch their favorite movie dozens of times and can readily recall the quotes, sing the songs, and imitate the characters. If you find a movie that your child absolutely loves, watch it a few times yourself so you can point out some of the executive function and social/emotional learning skills portrayed by the main characters. Just raising their awareness about certain themes helps strengthen those connections and turns a favorite pastime into a learning experience.

Read the book. Many movies are based upon books, comics, video games, and even popular toys. Use this source material as an opportunity to build upon lessons found in the movies and even expand your child’s interests. Read the books and comics together and discuss similarities and differences in the story and characters. Video games will carry additional executive function exercises — check out our Playbook archive to learn more.

Go to the movie theater. While the vast majority of movies are watched at home these days, one way to emphasize the importance of the medium is to make an event out of viewing. Go to the theater, get some candy and popcorn, and be sure to discuss the movie before and after watching it. Encourage your child to tell other family members about their experience at the movie theater and use that as an opportunity to talk about some of the executive function and problem-solving skills that were evident in the movie.

Find your favorites. Starting a discussion about favorites is a great exercise in self-awareness. Discuss what you learn from a movie, why you like it, and what makes a good movie in general. Talk about what makes the characters meaningful to you and what kind of journeys they take. This conversation should give you many opportunities to bring up the skills and attributes of movie characters and how they relate to formal executive functions, critical thinking, and emotional literacy skills.

Laugh and learn. Watch a comedy where poor executive function skills cause problems for the main characters. Many comedies make light of the characters’ lack of self-awareness, working memory, time management, focus, planning, or organization skills creating or exacerbating difficult situations. Not only can this provide a clear guide of “what not to do,” it can also help children who have trouble being objective loosen up and laugh at themselves. Lessons gleaned from this kind of comedy are most valuable if you have an opportunity to talk about them after watching. Fortunately, most comedies end on a positive note, so either some good decision-making or serendipity allows the main characters to be happy and successful in the end.

Check out our friends at to find many recommendations for movies (and books, games, and tv shows) that can help your children learn. You can also find the LW4K team’s favorite movies and other digital media at SmartFeed.

Common Sense Media is another good resource for finding the films and games that are most appropriate for your family.

Featured image: Flickr user jason gessner

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