Stretch Your Child’s Brain: Summer Fun with Executive Functioning
“Our doctor just told me that my son has ‘executive functioning’ disorder,” a mother recently commented. “What is it? What can I do?”
Executive function disorder is an unofficial diagnosis characterized by challenges in following directions, difficulties with planning, organization, and goal-setting, and poor follow-through. Executive functioning challenges are common among people with ADHD, and some experts, including Thomas E. Brown, author of Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults now think that ADHD is, in fact, primarily a disorder of executive functions.
Helping a child with executive functioning challenges works best when expectations are clear and tasks are taught gradually in a step-by-step fashion. The Smart but Scattered books by Dawson and Guare are an excellent guide to this process.
But building executive functioning skills in your child with ADD is not all hard work. Hey, it’s summer! Let’s explore how building executive functioning skills can also be lots of fun!
LEGOs and blocks
On the Learning Works for Kids blog, Legos are discussed in detail as a tool for building “the vital thinking skills that can allow them to focus better at school and during other non-play activities. In addition, Legos (like many other types of blocks and construction toys) can be a useful tool for practicing thinking skills such as focus, flexibility and planning. Lego play facilitates a need to adapt to the blocks you have, at some point plan out what you want to make, and have a willingness to persist on the task to completion.” Blocks can be used in a similar way.
Occupational therapist Kelly Balmer suggests that a parent “build a figurine and have your child build an exact replica in size and color. This works on multiple skills, including initiation, breaking down tasks, sequencing, organization, and attention. If you are unable to build an example, or if you have an older child who enjoys playing independently, there are often … images online that can be printed.”
“Board games, puzzles, quizzes and other parlour diversions have a number of common features [with neuropsychological tests] including being rule bound and subject to the play of chance, and requir[ing] various degrees of strategy, planning, and flexibility for their execution,” says neuropsychologist AJ Larner.
Balmer suggests that several games used in the therapeutic setting can also be used at home: Rush Hour, Mastermind, and Connect 4 Stackers, for example. Traditional games such as Monopoly, Clue, chess, puzzles, and Chinese checkers also promote executive skill development. For a wonderful variety of newer games review the list of American Mensa Mind Games winners.
Additionally, Balmer recommends exercising executive functions by involving kids in planning, shopping and cooking a favorite recipe: “Have your child choose a recipe, … write a grocery list containing everything needed to prepare that dish, create a list of the necessary cooking supplies and, for older children, have them look up the price of each item at the store and create an estimated budget. If possible, … take them with you to the grocery store. Older kids, [can] act as the “head chef” and be responsible for completing most of the cooking. For younger kids, if there are safety concerns, assign specific tasks as their job in the cooking process.”
An anonymous parent on the online DC Urban Moms and Dads forum urges parents to use summer outings as an opportunity to involve kids in stepwise planning of activities: “Want to go to the farm, let’s plan when a good time to go is, and what we need, and what we want to bake with afterward. Go to Kings Dominion next weekend? What rides should we go on?”
The Learning Works for Kids blog suggests using video games such as Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii to exercise working memory skills, one of the key executive functions. Building working memory with these games is enhanced by “repetition… duration… challeng[ing] yourself… and compet[ition].”
Video games aren’t the only way screen time can build executive functioning skills. Neurocognitive researchers have developed a number of computer games thought to help develop certain specific brain functions such as memory and attention. Here are some online sources of “brain games” to consider:
Need more ideas? Learning Works for Kids suggests the following resources for more play activities provide an opportunity to improve thinking skills: Wired magazine’s Geekdad and Geekmom and Melissa Taylor’s Imagination Soup.
Looking for more support in how to help your child develop executive functioning skills? Consider working with an ADHD Coach.
Balmer, K. (2012, November 28). Executive functioning activities at home. [blog post]. Retrieved from http://nspt4kids.com/therapy/executive-functioning-activities-at-home/
“Dr. K.” (2012, August 13). Improving thinking skills with Legos. [blog post]. Retrieved from learningworksforkids.com/2012/08/improving-thinking-skills-with-legos/
Larner, A.J. (2009). The neuropsychology of board games, puzzles and quizzes. ACNR, 9(5), 42. PDF available at www.acnr.co.uk/ND09/ACNRND09_board_games.pdf
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Ahmann, E. (2018). Stretch Your Child’s Brain: Summer Fun with Executive Functioning. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/stretch-your-childs-brain-summer-fun-with-executive-functioning/