Module 3: Executive Functions and Thinking Skills

LearningWorks Live Instructor Training

Module 3

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are brain-based cognitive skills that facilitate critical thinking and self-regulation. Executive functions call upon the prefrontal cortex of our brains to help with goal-setting and decision making. These skills include flexibility, focus, organization, planning, self-awareness, self-control, time management, and working memory. You can learn more about these individual skills and how they are developed through play.

Problems with Executive Functions

Many children have difficulties with one or more executive functions. In fact, most people who struggle with executive functioning are never “diagnosed” with a problem but simply see it as an area of weakness for them. In today’s complicated, and disconcerting world, deficits in these skills can cause problems in managing one’s life and getting things done efficiently.

Children with psychiatric issues, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; learning disabilities; and problems in social, emotional, and behavioral functioning, often display impairments in their use of executive functions. They may display difficulties in getting started on tasks, sustaining attention and effort levels, following multi-step directions, staying organized, and managing time effectively. It is important to note that many children will display executive strengths in certain areas and dysfunctions in others. These differences can often be explained by both biological and environmental factors.

Executive functioning difficulties are often undiagnosed in many children, but their problems are usually identifiable through school. Children with executive functioning difficulties often manifest as Alternative Learners, or students who struggle in traditional classrooms.

Executive Functions at School

A number of executive skills are easily identifiable as being crucial to classroom success. For example, the executive skills of Organization and Planning help students to write down their homework, remember to do it, and return it to class the next day. Executive skills such as task initiation, sustained attention, and task persistence are necessary for starting and completing long-term projects.

Executive functions are also directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, Working Memory skills, used when a child is able to keep different sounds of a word in mind while sounding it out, are necessary for word-decoding. Working Memory skills are also required for reading comprehension, when a child needs to keep in mind what has occurred in previous sentences and then integrate this information in order to achieve a cohesive understanding of the text. Executive functions play a role in other academic tasks, including reading fluency, written content, math computations, and note-taking.

Executive Functions and Thinking Skills

LW4K uses two different sets of terms to describe the brain-based self-management skills that we are teaching through the use of video games, apps, and other activities. These terms are Executive Functions and Thinking skills. In the broader psychology field they are referred to as executive functions, sometimes as executive skills. We essentially made it simpler for parents by calling them “Thinking Skills” on the website.

To make matters more confusing, there are hundreds of definitions of executive functions, many of them include similar components- for example working memory and flexibility, but there is no standard collection of functions or skills, nor one agreed upon definition. Ours (at LW4K ) is based upon a set of executive skills developed by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.  Essentially we took their 11 skills, added one on social thinking and then reduced it into the 8 thinking skills listed below.

  1. Working Memory
  2. Planning
  3. Organization
  4. Focus
  5. Self Control
  6. Self Awareness
  7. Flexibility
  8. Time management

In the rest of this module, you will learn about each of these 8 skills in detail.

Training Modules

Follow along with each of the training modules by clicking on the buttons below.

Gameplay with Thinking Skills

Watch the following videos to see some examples of how Thinking Skills are practiced in gameplay.

Games Featuring Executive Functioning Skills:

About the Skills

Read through each of the sections below for detailed information about all eight thinking skills.

What is Working Memory?

Working Memory is the thinking skill that focuses on memory-in-action: the ability to remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity. For example, a child is using their Working Memory as they recall the steps of a recipe while cooking a favorite meal.

Children who have trouble with their Working Memory skills will often have difficulty remembering their teachers’ instructions, recalling the rules to a game, or completing other tasks that involve actively calling up important information.

How does Working Memory work?

Working Memory is a crucial skill that affects every area of a child’s life. This skill allows a child to recall and utilize information while performing an activity. It is vital to activities like taking notes, following multi-step directions, and completing complex mathematical calculations. Working Memory also plays an important role in reading comprehension.

Kids with good Working Memory skills:

  • Can remember and follow complicated directions.
  • Have the ability to use what they have learned in a previous experience in a new situation.
  • Maintain their level of engagement while performing tasks, even when shifting activities within a given task.
  • Reorganize their thoughts or materials in a fashion that encourages further learning.
  • Are able to sustain their attention throughout tasks.

Kids with underdeveloped Working Memory skills:

  • Remember only the first or last things in a series of directions.
  • Have difficulty with tasks that entail more than one step.
  • Forget what they are doing in the middle of doing it.
  • Can be absent-minded and often need help from adults to remember directions.
  • Have difficulty retelling a story in their own words.
  • Are confused when attempting to complete multi-step math problems.

Working Memory and Digital Play

Working Memory is a skill that is routinely applied in many video games, ranging from simple tasks, such as recalling which buttons to push on a controller, to more complex games where recalling the layout of previous levels in a game world are crucial to future success. Games often require that players retrace their steps in a game in order to go back to a place to find new weapons, gadgets, or spells that they did not pick up initially.

Interactive digital media and apps can be great tools to support children with Working Memory deficits. Rather than having to keep every piece of information in their head, it is very easy for a child to transfer what they need to remember to an electronic device. This requires that the child masters the app, automatically inputs what she needs, and most importantly, that she has regular access to it.

Interactive digital media can be a great asset for supporting Working Memory deficits. Electronic to-do lists can help when children have a series of activities they need to complete. Speech-recognition software can be a fantastic tool for children who cannot hold information in their minds long enough to write it down physically but can speak it clearly enough to complete a writing assignment.

Digital play can help kids improve Working Memory skills by helping them to:

    • Master advanced controls in fighting games such as Street Fighter, which requires players to remember fast sequences of change-of-button commands for complex attack combinations.
    • Memorize the layout of racetracks in racing games to anticipate twists, turns, and hazards.
    • Recall skills and characteristics of an enemy in a game that may help in future levels.

What is Flexibility?

Flexibility is the Thinking Skill that focuses on a child’s ability to adapt to new situations, improvise, and shift strategies to meet different types of challenges.

For example, when taking a test that contains both multiple choice and essay questions, a child with good Flexibility skills will be able to switch easily between the two formats, while a child who struggles with Flexibility skills may get stuck and become frustrated each time the format changes.

Video games can help improve Flexibility by allowing kids to practice their Flexibility skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive game experience. Many games require players to shift their thinking and gameplay strategies with each new level, in order to advance and “beat the game.” Video games provide a great opportunity for children to learn from their mistakes, shift their approach, handle frustration, and think creatively about new ways to solve problems.

How does Flexibility work?

Flexibility is not only an important skill for academic success, it is vital to a healthy social and family life. Because it involves the capacity to improvise, shift approaches, and adapt to new situations, Flexibility is often utilized in social and peer interactions. When a child needs to deal with disappointments, shifting expectations, and unexpected changes in events and routines, they are utilizing Flexibility skills.

Kids with good Flexibility skills:

  • Are able to think on their feet and adapt readily to new situations.
  • Do well with transitions, such as leaving gameplay to sit down at dinnertime.
  • Are able to wait their turn so that a younger child can have a first opportunity to do something.
  • Are able to deal with disappointment when they lose a game.
  • Are able to view situations from others’ perspectives.

Kids with underdeveloped Flexibility skills:

  • Experience significant problems with changes, transitions, and new situations.
  • Become inappropriately insistent and indignant in new situations.
  • Become angry when they receive negative feedback.
  • Have difficulty understanding the differing expectations of parents and teachers.
  • Continue to dwell on something that was said to them in the past.
  • Cannot change their plans readily.

Flexibility and Digital Play

Flexibility is a core Thinking Skill necessary for learning how to master video games and other interactive digital media. Part of what makes video games interesting are shifting challenges and increasing complexity as one advances to higher and higher levels. This requires flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

Similarly, individuals must use Flexibility when mastering an app or a program on the computer. When people can’t figure something out on their new cell phones, they usually “play” with them, flexibly trying out new approaches to see what works. While you can read the directions if you want, most often the best way to learn how to master interactive digital media is to try a variety of approaches and see what suits your particular need.

Digital play can help kids improve Flexibility skills by helping them to:

  • Get to the level of the “boss” battle, where they need new and flexible strategies to beat a super-hard foe and are likely to make a number of mistakes initially.
  • Quickly identify when a previously useful skill needs to be discarded for a new strategy.
  • Learn about the functionality of a new cell phone or other digital device by pushing buttons, making mistakes, and discovering new applications.

What is Focus?

Focus is the thinking skill that allows people to begin a task without procrastination and then maintain their attention and effort until the task is complete. Focus helps people pay attention in the midst of distractions and setbacks and to sustain the effort and energy needed to reach a goal.

For example, a child would be using good Focus skills when sitting down to begin an essay and then diligently writing until the assignment is done without getting distracted by the television, Internet, or friends.

Video games can help improve Focus by allowing kids to practice their focusing skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games, particularly fast-paced action games, require sustained focus, attention, and effort in order to “beat” levels and to be successful in the game.

Focus is one of the most important thinking skills for academic success, as it helps kids begin tasks without procrastinating, maintain their attention in the presence of distractions, and continue tasks through to completion. Focus is very helpful when children are engaged in activities that require sustained practice in order to improve, and it is useful for developing the skills needed for playing an instrument or learning a new sport.

Kids with good Focus skills:

  • Are unlikely to waste time at the beginning of a test, chore, or other task.
  • Easily complete chores and homework without interruption.
  • Have little problem achieving long-term goals.
  • Can read a lengthy novel or write a book report.
  • Can sit and complete their homework in a timely fashion.
  • Continue to work on tasks that may be boring or dull, such as chores.

Kids with underdeveloped Focus skills:

  • Get up and down frequently while doing their homework.
  • Are easily distracted by noise and activities surrounding them.
  • Frequently complain about being bored.
  • Have difficulty sitting though an entire meal.
  • Procrastinate and have difficulties getting started on tasks.
  • Turn in incomplete or hastily-completed schoolwork.
  • Often don’t finish what they start.

Focus and Digital Play

Focus is a helpful skill in many types of video games. For example, in fast-moving games such as racing or action games, players must often attend simultaneously to multiple events in order to avoid danger. In slow-moving games, players often need to pay attention to small details which may be relevant for success at later levels. Sustained focus and effort are also needed for many of the more complex, multi-layered games where players are likely to encounter obstacles to reach their goals.

Interactive digital media can be a great tool for enhancing focus in children who might otherwise find it extremely difficult. For example, some children are better able to focus on a reading assignment using an e-reader rather than a paperbound book. In other settings, a multi-media presentation of information, such as a website video, may also help to sustain a child’s attention.

Digital play can help kids improve Focus skills by helping them to:

  • Learn to ignore extraneous activities and attend only to elements that are important within the game.
  • Attend to multiple sources of information at the same time.
  • Shift their attention back and forth between items in a game in order to move to a higher level.
  • Sustain their attention to digital media-based academic content that might not otherwise interest them.

What is Organization?

Organization is the thinking skill that helps a child take a systematic approach to problem-solving by creating order out of disorder. Organization involves learning how to collect all of the necessary materials to complete a task while being able to step back and examine a complex situation. For example, a child is using organizational skills when they take time to gather all of their notes before starting to study for a test.

Video games allow kids to practice their Organization skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require that a child accumulate and organize objects or money in order to progress.

How does Organization work?

Organization is vital to a child’s academic success, as it allows them to arrange elements into a functioning whole, while understanding how to conceptually organize all facets of an activity to create a unified approach. Organization is the thinking skill that facilitates a child’s ability to obtain important information, make it accessible, and know how to use it for informed decision making.

Kids with good Organization skills:

  • Always know how to find homework or studying materials.
  • Put their bookbags, clothing, and other materials in a regular place.
  • Are able to work systematically on longer projects, such as writing an essay or book report.
  • Keep track of their commitments, homework, and responsibilities.

Kids with underdeveloped Organization skills:

  • Often lose their homework before turning it in.
  • Have extremely messy rooms.
  • Have disorganized backpacks and school lockers.
  • Are unable to find clothing, sporting equipment, or school supplies when they are needed.
  • Start projects, such as homework, recipes, or chores, without having the right materials on hand.

Organization and Digital Play

Video games practice organizational skills when players need to collect or categorize items to move from one level to another, complete game tasks in a particular sequence, or when they are required to keep track of what they have accomplished in order to move on. There are a variety of digital technologies that can improve and support organizational skills. These technologies range from electronic “to-do” lists available for mobile and desktop devices to search engines, social bookmarking, and cloud-based computing that facilitate labeling and organizing one’s information.

Here are some examples of the ways that digital play exercises organizational skills:

  • Collecting and keeping track of specific items, money, or powers while playing a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.
  • Categorizing, grouping, or collecting sets in a game.
  • Organizing one’s assets such as troops, spells, or tools in order to advance within a game.
  • Using a computer program or app that organizes information such as contact lists, e-mail addresses, online links, or research material for a school project.

What is Planning?

Planning is the thinking skill that helps an individual develop strategies to accomplish goals. It helps a child to think about how to complete a task before attempting to begin it. For example, Planning is utilized when a child sets out to complete an art project by first deciding what art supplies they will need, carefully assembling and arranging these supplies, and then taking a step-by-step process for completing the project.

Video games can help improve Planning by allowing the practice of this skill while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require the use of Planning where sequencing of activities, setting goals, and anticipating the future is required.

How does Planning work?

Planning is an important part of your child’s academic advancement, as it is the key thinking skill in allowing them to set strategies, prioritize actions, and accomplish goals. Planning skills are needed for social activities such as extending invitations to friends for a play date and for school-related tasks such as writing an essay, conducting research, and presenting a final project.

Kids with good Planning skills:

  • Combine school and social activities without getting overwhelmed by stress.
  • Tend to be good at scheduling activites.
  • Can anticipate the tools necessary to successfully complete a task.
  • Prioritize their activities effectively.

Kids with underdeveloped Planning skills:

  • Encounter problems in step-by-step processes.
  • Experience difficulties in setting priorities and goals.
  • Tend to complete their homework at the last minute.
  • Tend to jump into activities without reading the directions.
  • Can be overly absorbed in the present moment.

Planning and Digital Play

Planning is the most identifiable thinking skill used in video games. When psychologists and educators talk about video games being a great opportunity for developing problem-solving, critical-thinking, and decision-making skills, they are often targeting the importance of Planning in games. Many of the best games require players to develop short, and long-term goals, anticipate the future, and use a step-by-step process for success.

Apps and interactive digital media have become the norm for assisting individuals in Planning. Whether it be a graphic organizer that helps plan a writing assignment, a calendar on one’s cell phone, or a productivity program on one’s computer, the day of the paper planner is quickly fading.

Digital play can help kids improve Planning skills by helping them to:

  • Use foresight to anticipate what is going to happen next within a game allowing them to, for example, avoid bombs or predict enemy attacks.
  • Shift between long-term and short-term goals within a game. For example, they can practice attacks on weaker enemies in order to strengthen a character prior to a big “boss” battle.
  • Learn from mistakes and use what they have learned to make strategic changes.
  • Use productivity tools that facilitate the reordering of priorities as tasks are accomplished.

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-Awareness is the thinking skill that focuses on a child’s ability to accurately judge their own performance and behavior and to respond appropriately to different social situations.

Self-Awareness helps an individual to tune into their feelings, as well as to the behaviors and feelings of others. For example, a child successfully uses self-awareness skills when they notice they are talking too loudly in a library where other children are trying to work, and then adjusts the volume or their voice to a more considerate level.

Video games allow kids to practice their Self-Awareness skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require that players “think about their thinking” in the game in order to overcome challenges, and multi-player games require interpersonal cooperation and understanding of one’s teammates’ intentions.

How does Self-Awareness work?

Self-Awareness is vital both to a child’s academic success as well as their social and emotional growth. This thinking skill facilitates a child’s ability to accurately judge their own performance and behavior, as well as their ability to appropriately respond to different social situations.

Kids with good Self-Awareness skills:

  • Recognize the needs of younger children, such as holding their hands while crossing a street.
  • Are willing to evaluate themselves.
  • Have an awareness of how their behavior impacts others.
  • Display an ability to understand and articulate their feelings.
  • Use self-instruction, such as, “First, I’ll do this; next, I’ll do that.”
  • Are able to identify what they must learn in order to complete a task successfully.
  • Understand their personal strengths and weaknesses.

Kids with underdeveloped Self-Awareness skills:

  • Have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues and body posture.
  • Are unable to understand other people’s perspectives.
  • Are in frequent conflict with others due to misunderstandings.
  • Engage in inappropriate behaviors without recognizing how they impact others.
  • Have difficulty being accurate in their self-assessment, such as in describing their academic or athletic performance.
  • Are unlikely to double check their work and often make simple mistakes, such as adding instead of subtracting.

Self-Awareness and Digital Play

Self-Awareness is a frequently applied thinking skill for video game players who are looking to improve their performance or simply share their game passions with other players. Players will often ask each other questions, explain their approaches to difficult parts of the game, and reflect on new ways they can use their digital technologies to help them in real-world activities.

Digital play can help kids improve Self-Awareness skills by helping them to:

  • Plan and discuss game strategies with parents or friends in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG).
  • Talk to their peers who have an interest in the same video game or technology.
  • Self-evaluate their performance in order to assess what they need to do in order to be successful and beat the game.
  • Learn from one’s failure in the game, as well as one’s success.
  • Develop estimation skills that help them hypothesize how certain strategies may “play out”.

What is Self-Control?

Self-Control is the thinking skill that helps children learn to control their feelings and behaviors in order to make good decisions, while aiding in reducing impulsive actions and dealing effectively with frustration. For example, a child may use Self-Control when encountering a difficult problem on a test. Rather than impulsively writing down any answer, they are able to control their anxiety and figure out the answer.

Video games allow kids to practice their Self-Control skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require that players stop themselves from engaging in a previously-successful action in order to learn a different approach on a new level. Similarly, the capacity to handle frustration is an inherent part of the learning process in well-designed video games.

How does Self-Control work?

Self-Control is a vital part of a child’s social well-being, as it allows them to make good decisions by regulating their feelings, frustrations, and reactions. This thinking skill also helps children to stop themselves from engaging in inappropriate and impulsive actions and to learn how to plan out, consider, and display appropriate behaviors.

Kids with good Self-Control skills:

  • Have positive, rather than negative self-images.
  • Are able to accept criticism without becoming angry or defensive.
  • Handle frustration well, without having outbursts or needing to stop what they’re doing.
  • Understand the need for taking turns in game play.
  • Show appropriate caution while crossing the street or using a knife.
  • Take enough time to understand social situations before joining in.

Kids with underdeveloped Self-Control skills:

  • Display anger or frustration when they need to share or wait their turn.
  • Act out in an inappropriate fashion in situations such as birthday parties or family functions.
  • Become very frustrated with academic tasks that they perceive to be difficult.
  • Have a tendency to blurt out answers to questions without raising their hands.
  • Are overly-aggressive in sports, causing their peers to not want to play with them.
  • Produce sloppy schoolwork.

Self-Control and Digital Play

Self-Control is a skill that helps players tolerate the frustration inherent in the trial-and-error nature of learning new skills within video games and other interactive digital media. Handling disappointment, maintaining emotional stability, and thinking before acting facilitate success in games. While success in some games is based upon rapid hand-eye coordination, many of the most popular and complex video games require self-control and thoughtfulness to succeed.

Digital play can help kids improve Self-Control skills by helping them to:

  • Identify parts of the game where they have to think before acting, rather than simply continuing as before.
  • Take the time to learn about the directions of a game, rather than simply playing and making mistakes.
  • Manage their feelings in order to complete a task within a game.
  • Use their success in a game to help build a sense of positive emotion and optimism.

What is Time Management?

Time Management is the thinking skill that helps children to prioritize tasks and complete duties in a timely fashion. It involves accurately judging the amount of time it will take to complete a task and knowing how to stick to a schedule. An example of good Time Management skills would be when a child decides to finish their homework and chores immediately after school so they have time to watch TV later in the evening.

Video games can help improve Time Management by allowing kids to practice their Time Management skills while in the midst of a fun and immersive gaming experience. Many games require the player to complete a certain amount of tasks and challenges within a limited time frame. Games often require that players prioritize their actions to maximize their progress and success.

How does Time Management work?

Time Management is an essential skill for a child’s success at school. It allows a child to complete tasks in a timely manner by correctly estimating the time necessary to finish an undertaking and helps them to make and follow a schedule. Time Management often involves a child monitoring their own effort and actions, having an appropriate sense of urgency to complete assignments, and having the ability to follow step-by-step procedures.

Kids with good Time Management skills:

  • Tend to be good at planning and scheduling.
  • Are able to judge how long it will take to complete tasks.
  • Are able to complete tasks or chores in a timely fashion.
  • Prioritize their activities effectively.
  • Anticipate the time needed to complete long-term school projects.

Kids with underdeveloped Time Management skills:

  • Frequently need to rush through their homework.
  • Often stay up very late to complete assignments.
  • Have difficulty estimating how long it will take to complete a task.
  • Spend more time procrastinating than working.
  • Take too long to get ready for school in the morning.

Time Management and Digital Play

Time Management plays a prominent role in several game genres, as well as in the functionality of many of today’s gadgets and apps. Many young people use their cell phones as tools for setting alarms for waking up in the morning, reminding them about assignments, or alerting them about sports practice or lessons. Many of the best video games require time management skills that go far beyond “beating the clock.” Real time strategy games often require prioritization of one’s actions in a game in order to be able to respond effectively to enemies or challenges within the game. Puzzle games also require players to think quickly and effectively so as not to be penalized.

Digital play can improve Time Management skills by helping kids to:

  • Learn how to begin a video game efficiently and focus clearly on their goals and objectives.
  • Complete multiple tasks in succession in games that award extra points, prizes, or privileges to players who complete challenges in a shorter period of time.
  • Prioritize and keep a schedule in real-time strategy games. Depending upon the game, this ensures that crops will be harvested at the correct time, defensive armies will be set up before one is attacked, or a particular character will appear at a specific time or place in the game.
  • Master an electronic calendar, scheduler, or to-do list. The regular use of these tools can dramatically improve a child’s Time Management and reduce the necessity of parents to continue to nag or remind their children.