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Activities to Improve Executive Function Skills

February 28th, 2017

Before we can get into executive function activities, it is important to understand what executive function is.

What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is the term used to describe a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action. We use executive function when we perform such activities as planning, organizing, strategizing and paying attention to and remembering details. Executive function skills allow us to focus our attention, filter distractions, and switch mental gears. The ability to manage time effectively is also part of executive function.

These skills allow us to finish our work on time, ask for help when needed, wait to speak until we’re called on and seek more information.

These planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details skills impact us each and every day. Typically, those with ADHD have difficulty with executive function. It is part of the ADHD. On the other hand, those with executive function disorder do not automatically have ADHD.

That being said, these executive function skills are learned skills and are typically not totally intact until you are in your mid-twenties. Knowing this helps us to realize that instruction in planning skills and organizing skills is important for our kids. Knowing this also should help us to be more patient when our kids forget to either do their homework or turn it in as those executive function skills are not totally intact until your mid-twenties.

When one has poor executive function skills, learning is more difficult. Activities to build executive function skills change and become more complex as you grow.

Preschool Age: Executive Function Activities

  1. Hide and seek games like peek-a-boo provides practice regulating the tension around a surprise.
  2. Rhymes – being able to say nursery rhymes improves working memory.
  3. Imaginary play playing house – sweeping the floor, picking up toys teaches and improves following rules and inhibiting actions that don’t belong with the role they are playing.
  4. Finger plays like the Eensy Weensy Spider develop working memory and selective attention.
  5. Matching and sorting games teach cognitive and promote cognitive flexibility.

K – 2nd Grade: Executive Function Activities

  1. Card games (Crazy Eights, Uno, Blink, and Set) and board games (Sorry!, Battleship, Checkers). These games help you practice cognitive flexibility.
  2. Musical chairs, four square, dodgeball, and tether ball (these games require paying attention and inhibition)
  3. Simon Says also improves attention, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.
  4. Solving puzzles and brain teaser books improve problem-solving abilities as well as cognitive flexibility.

2nd to 6th Grade: Executive Function Activities

  1. Card games and board games exercise working memory, quick decision making, and practice with building strategies. Some examples of this are Hearts, Bridge, Rummy, and Chess.
  2. Physical activities that require constant monitoring of your environment like soccer, baseball, and flashlight tag improve executive function skills.
  3. Playing a musical instrument, singing, and dancing all improve attention, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition.
  4. Brain teasers, crossword puzzles, math and number puzzles, The Sentence Zone, and spatial puzzles like Rubik’s Cubes improve working memory, mental flexibility, and cognitive flexibility.

7th to 12th Grade: Executive Function Activities

  1. Focus on activities that promote the planning process. Even learning to do the laundry, a multi-step activity, will help with this.
  2. Strategy games and logic puzzles exercise working memory, planning, and attention. Settlers of Catan is a great game for this.
  3. Yoga and meditation develop sustained attention, reduce stress, and improve decision making.
  4. Study skills instruction improves organizational skills, time management, self-monitoring.

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Executive Function Skills Activities