In a typical day, do you ever have to…
- pay attention to something (even if it’s totally boring)?
- ignore the things that distract you from the thing you have to pay attention to?
- hold several pieces of information in your head at the same time?
- stifle impulses to say or do things that could get you in trouble?
- change what you’re doing in response to a change in circumstances?
If you’re a typical human, you might be thinking that pretty much describes your entire day!
There’s actually a fancy term that psychologists have for all of these processes: executive functioning. Together, these processes are the foundation for self-regulation.
As you can imagine, executive function is an incredibly important skill for children to develop.
Researchers tell us that while we can improve our executive functioning at any age, the two critical periods when it develops are early childhood and early adolescence. They also tell us that executive function is a skill — it’s something that we cultivate through continued practice. (It’s a bit like exercise — you can’t go to the gym for a month and proclaim, “Wonderful! I’m fit!” and then be done with all the working out…. If you want to stay fit, you have to keep doing the things that make you fit!)
Executive function consists of the following skills:
- attentional control: the ability to focus on a specific task, even if we find it uninteresting
- cognitive inhibition: the ability to tune out the stimuli that are not relevant to our task
- working memory: the ability to temporarily hold information needed for decision-making and reasoning
- inhibitory control: the ability to curb impulses and select behaviors appropriate for completing a goal
- cognitive flexibility: the ability to adapt when rules or circumstances change
You can probably understand why those are important for, well, pretty much everything we do!
Luckily, there are a lot of fun ways we can teach children these skills — in fact, many of these are probably games you already play!
For Toddlers and Preschoolers
The standard game that is used in research studies on executive function is one in which three- and four-year-olds must sort a series of cards. The cards have different shapes (bunnies, cars, etc.), as well as different colors (blue bunnies, red bunnies, blue cars, red cars). First, the children must sort the cards based on shape — bunnies in one pile, cars in the other. But then, the sneaky researchers change the rules! NOW, the cards are sorted by color — blue bunnies and blue cars in one pile, red cars and red bunnies in the other pile.
Three-year-olds really struggle with this task. In the language of cognitive scientists, they perseverate — they keep following the old rule even though circumstances have changed. (Alas, even forty-three-year-olds do this — continuing to do something the way they’ve always done it, even though it’s no longer productive!)
But when the researchers coach the three-year-olds (“Oh! Remember, we’re playing the COLOR game now. What color is the bunny? …. So what pile should the bunny go in, the red pile or the blue pile?”), the three-year-olds think about what they’re doing, and get better at their task.
There’s lots of ways to play sorting games with your kids — you could do a variation on the card game using simple card decks (organize by number or by color), or with little kids you can play with sorting toys where they need to insert blocks into holes of the correct shape.
These might look like silly games, but they’re teaching kids how to adjust to changing rules, how to inhibit their impulse to act based on habit, and how to hold many pieces of information in their head at a time (size, color, shape, rules, etc.)
Songs with Movements and Repetition
Songs like “Going on a Bear Hunt” or even “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” give kids’ working memory a workout — they have to remember the order of the verses and the actions that go along with each section. They have to pay attention to what part of the song they’re singing, and may need to inhibit impulses to do the actions out of order.
Puzzles require focus and concentration, and the use of working memory to search for pieces that will fit together.
For School-Age Kids
Games like 20 Questions or I Spy teach kids how to think in categories (“I spy something green…”), and they need to use their working memory to keep track of all the criteria for the object they are trying to guess.
Board Games and Card Games
Lots of card games can teach executive functioning skills, but my favorite is Uno — it’s a game where the order of play can change rapidly, and kids have to keep track of colors and numbers (it’s a more intense version of the card-sorting games above). Games like Memory, Spot It!, or other matching games are great, too. You can find more brain-enhancing games for school-agers here.
Simon Says is a classic game that teaches both inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility: “I didn’t say ‘Simon says!!'” Kids need to curb the impulse to respond to “jump up and down” when they hear the words without the requisite “Simon says.” For younger kids, you could play a game where you hold two stuffed animals, and they only do the actions that one of them tells them to do.
For real, even the people at Harvard say this helps build executive function, as it requires kids to keep various fantasy locations in mind, they have to follow certain rules about how different characters and materials can be used, and they need to develop strategies to meet their goals. My eight-year-old is absolutely THRILLED about this.
Volunteering is all about taking specific actions in order to solve a problem. Talk to your teen about an issue that is important to her, and have her research the different opportunities available to take action. You can check out this list of 50 Community Service Ideas for Teen Volunteers here to get started.
With journaling, teens can practice self-reflection and planning. This article has great suggestions for helping your teen get started with journaling. Teens might also enjoy bullet journaling; it’s a fun way to plan, organize, and keep track of projects and activities, and can be a creative, artsy endeavor, too!
They’re not just for the little ones! Teens will enjoy games like Taboo or Apples to Apples, which are hilariously fun, but also require complex thinking and inhibition control. You could also go old-school with a classic game like Risk. See this article here for more recommendations of board games for teens and tweens.
“Executive Functioning” may sound a bit boring, but it can be fun to learn. Family Game Night can now be “Family Brain Night!” Enjoy!