Referring back to my previous blog – Children and young people with Executive Functioning Difficulties need us to:
Accept that they have gaps and delays in these skills.
Learn, by spending time with them and observing, which Executive Function Skills need scaffolding and practice.
Support by being the air-traffic controller when a child can’t do this alone, building in steps like:
- modify the environment – reduce noise/ remove other distractions, create comfort, provide easy access to resources, use visual aids/ prompts, movement/ sensory breaks.
- simplify tasks – reduce language and instructions, keep tasks short and achievable.
- support completion of tasks – help child get started and ensure he/ she understands and can access materials required – check in regularly; if needed, be alongside throughout a short task before child tries a similar one with less support.
- Use memory cards – if child needs to wait for your support, write it down on a card for each of you – and if possible the approximate time you will return to the task with them.
- build EF skills development through practice – carefully chosen activities/ games/ projects.
The best way to develop executive function skills is to do meaningful activities which require Executive Function (thinking) skills to be used. To be able to engage in these kinds of activities and draw on thinking skills, children need first to feel safe, regulated and connected – for this they need a regulated, consistent adult to support them. Children also need activities which interest them and which are achievable, matched to their emotional age and ability level or the level they could manage with support. The following ideas for activities and games are just a few of many which might help.
Many of these activities involve the use of working memory in order to plan, prioritize, and get organised. They may also require self-control to stay focused and flexibility to solve problems:
- Build a bird box or bug hotel/ grow things/ make a wormery/ catch falling leaves/ watch birds
- Bake/ plan and cook a meal/ make a rug/ make a puppet/ do a mosaic/ make fimo beads
- upcycle furniture/ decorate a room/ mend a bike puncture/ junk modelling
- start a collection/ invent games/ create hunts and trails for each other
- do a jigsaw/ make lego models – either from the box or made up
- make music or playlists/ make up dance routines/ do puppet shows/ role-play/ tell stories
- Matching pairs (working memory, flexibility, self-control). Adapt this to suit attention span and memory skills by reducing the number of cards. Can be cooperative if you work as a team to see how many turns it takes you to find all the pairs.
- I went to the shops (working memory). Take turns in a pair or group to add to a shopping list, repeating the full list each time – invent various (I went for a walk and I saw a …… ; I went exploring and I found a ……) – be as flexible as you need to be to keep child engaged – eg. give clues if they struggle to remember a word.
- Word tennis (working memory, task initiation, attention, flexibility). Play cooperatively in pairs or a group. Take turns to pick a topic and see how many things you can name from that topic – pass a ball/ soft toy as you do it. Continue for as long as you can without repeating a word. If you wish, time how long you can all keep going for or count the number of words.
- Cooperative Bananagrams (planning, prioritising, flexibility). For children not ready for the competitive version of this game, work altogether as a team to use all the letters to make lots of mini crosswords or one giant one. Adapt this for your child’s attention span by choosing how many letters you play with.
PICTURE / MOVEMENT GAMES
- Jenga (self-control, flexibility, planning) – Adapt this game in any way that suits your child, eg. leave out the requirement to pile bricks on top, use a smaller stack, create a rule that when a brick is taken there are other actions to follow, which might be drawn from a pile of cards. Or, just use the bricks to create mini collaborative challenges. Eg. Let’s see how high we can make a staircase, What’s the tallest tower we can make? Can we make a domino rally in the shape of an S? Are there enough bricks to make an outline of both my arms?
- Home-made Pictionary/ charades (flexibility, self-control) – Create your own bank of words/ pictures/ phrases to be drawn or acted out for others to guess – or use cards from published games. Avoid time limits if this creates stress. Play in pairs if this helps a child to participate – whisper together about how you’re going to draw or act out the word.
- Freeze (focus, self control). Play music while everyone dances or moves in any way they want. Freeze when the music stops. Or everyone moves about and one person just shouts “Freeze!” Try holding your poses for a count of 5/10/ longer.
- Dobble (focus, initiation, self-control) – a matching game done at speed – the twist is that matching pairs of images may be different in size and surprisingly hard to spot! There are different ways to play the game and various themed versions available.
- Forbidden Desert (planning, prioritising). This is designed as a cooperative game where participants work together to escape from a desert by finding pieces of a sun-powered flying-machine, whilst avoiding sandstorms and keeping water supplies topped up.
- Quirkle (Planning, organisation, flexible thinking). A simple but original game based on matching colours and shapes on wooden painted blocks. Players need to think about where best to place their pieces for the maximum score. Work in teams if this suits your child best. And you could try using the blocks to make patterns – see what your child comes up with.
- Rush Hour (Focus, flexible thinking, working memory, perseverance). This is the original version of a game which has been replicated on many apps. The real thing is a fun way of moving vehicles to enable an ice-cream van to leave a car park. There are 4 levels so it’s easily adapted.
- Genius Square (Focus, flexible thinking, perseverance). This game can be played solo or against a partner/ other team. The task is to fit the blocks into the grid around where the dots are placed. There are always lots of possible solutions.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch with us. Online therapy is available.
Further resources and ideas are available at:
HARVARD Centre for the Developing Child website for activity ideas by age group –https://developingchild.harvard.edu/guide/a-guide-to-executive-function/
UNDERSTOOD website for ideas on supporting different areas of executive function.