Teaching Executive Functioning Skills: Four Tips for Parents and Therapists

Teaching children executive function skills can be easy depending on the child with which you are working. Some children are naturals who can regulate their emotions and behaviors, figure out how to get things done, and keep focused on a task over a period of time. Kids who appear to have been born with strong executive function skills observe adults, learn from their own mistakes, and practice self-management skills in their play. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to parents, educators, and developmental psychologists that children learn through their play. After all, it is through play that children get to practice skills that they will need in later childhood and as adults, giving them opportunities to take on different roles, be creative, and solve complex problems. 

However, not all children learn the same way. For kids with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and learning differences, participating in traditional play activities may not be sufficient for developing executive functioning skills. They may need the help of parents, teachers, psychologists, and occupational therapists to build skills such as planning, self-awareness, focus, and self-control. Child psychologists and therapists have historically been advocates of using play for learning and exploring feelings. As a child psychologist trained in play therapy, I have used children’s play as an opportunity to enhance their self-expression. 

But play goes beyond improving communication and facilitating relationships. In my early training, we used board and card games in our play therapy with patients. Now, however, therapists are beginning to use video games and apps for therapy and skill development. 

Increasingly, therapists are recognizing how video gameplay can be used as a tool for improving executive functioning skills. When psychologists (or parents) want to use games to help children develop skills to navigate the real world, it is best to focus on games that require an array of cognitive skills (which psychologists refer to as executive functions). For our purposes, we define executive functions as brain-based cognitive skills that facilitate critical thinking and self-regulation. They include skills such as planning, working memory, organization, time management, self-control, focus, cognitive flexibility, and self-awareness.

Parents can use games in the same way as child psychologists. Watch your child or better yet, sit down in front of an older simulation game such as Rollercoaster Tycoon or the Sims and see how you need to plan virtually everything you do in order to be successful in the game. 

Look at newer games such as  Kirby and the Forgotten Land and explore the ways that flexible thinking and sustained focus are needed. Play a sports game and observe how you need to use your time-management skills by being aware of the amount of time left in the game and your flexibility skills when you need to modify your approach based upon the score and your current situation in the game.

However, children can’t just sit in front of a well-designed video game and learn all the skills they need to succeed in the real world or to improve executive functions. Games are not enough, but they might encourage kids to pay attention and sustain their motivation. While they are likely to learn a few skills from the game, they will need a little coaching and guidance to transfer these skills to their daily lives. That doesn’t necessarily have to come from a parent; these skills could come from an older brother or sister, a peer who plays the same game, or a teacher who uses these games in the classroom setting. However, children are more likely to be able to transfer game-based skills to the real world if they are asked to think about what they are doing and to consider how it might help them in real-world activities. Using the LearningWorks for Kids method of Detect, Reflect, and Connect– an evidenced-based approach to making game-based learning into real-world skills is recommended. In addition to this method, here are four tips for parents and therapists who want to teach their children and patients executive functioning skills: 


Familiarize yourself with the games your children like.  

Engage them in a general conversation about what they are doing in these games and what they need to do in order to beat them. You do not need to be an expert gamer-or even play the game- but just to learn a bit about the gameplay.

Sit down and watch children play their favorite games or, better yet, try to play some of them yourself.

Ask your children what games they think that you might like and be able to “master.” Then, have them walk you through the game and talk to you about the strategies they use. When you’re not actively playing, watch how they play and ask constructive questions about what they are doing.

Have your children be your coaches, teaching you specific techniques in game play.

As they are doing this, formulate your questions so as to ask them about the underlying skills that go into their game-based decision-making. 

Ask your child to make connections. 

Ask them how they might use some of these game-based skills to help with school projects, get along with others, or get better grades. You might be able to talk about games and activities that you enjoy and how they have helped you in problem-solving and applying executive function skills.

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