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Executive functioning skills: how children can improve executive function

January 4, 2023

What’s executive functioning?

Executive function enables us to set goals, plan and to get things done.
Executive function comprises three interrelated skills:
It’s crucial for children to develop solid executive functioning in early childhood as it significantly contributes to cognitive and social skills, and success later in life.
Auditory Processing Disorder brain

Executive functioning skills by age – how to improve

Executive function is an important set of skills at any age. There’s lots of everyday activities that help children improve their executive functioning skills, and there are things you can do as a parent to help them improve. There’s also some great computer programs that target executive function.

Executive functioning skills activities for 3 to 5 year olds

Imaginary play

You may not think that seeing your child pretend to be a “doctor” is a sign of cognitive ability, but it is. Imaginary play is a great way to train executive function.
You can help them refine their skills by asking your child to narrate what they are doing, or you can play along with them but let them direct the play.
Give them a variety of objects to engage in imaginary play, such as toys, household objects and clothing. Help them make their own props!

Having a ‘play plan’ is an advanced way of training executive function. Children decide their role, and what they are going to do, and then commit their plan to paper.

imaginary play Executive functioning skills
As children develop their language skills, they can be encouraged to converse with adults and tell stories. This can help them think about sequence/order of events and planning. They can even create their own books with pictures to describe their story – this is all great planning practice.
Watching and narrating their play is a great way of showing children language is used to describe actions. You can ask them what they are going to do next while playing – this will help them reflect and plan.
tell stories Executive functioning skills
Tell a story with your child about a shared experience you had, and have them participate in telling the story. This helps them with working memory and encourages them to think about the order in which events happened.
Group stories – where one child starts a story and each child in turn has to add something to it – helps children to refine attention, use their working memory and develop self-control.
Talking about how they feel is also important. By talking with a child about whether they feel angry, sad or excited helps them to have the words to label emotions – which is important for the development of emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is essential for executive function.
Games & puzzles
Games where children have to match or sort by shape/colour are good for executive functioning.
Complicated puzzles help children strengthen their working memory and planning skills.
Believe it or not, cooking is fun for children, and helps them follow instructions, practice self-control while waiting, and pay attention while measuring and counting.
Executive functioning skills

There’s some great apps that can help executive function too. EF Kids executive function training is game-based training app that builds executive function skills (attention, memory, and cognitive flexibility) across a range of exercises.

Find out more about EF Kids here.

Young girl holding EF Kids ipad

Executive functioning skills activities for 5 to 7 year olds

Card games & board games
Any game that requires memorisation of a particular card location help with working memory, such as Go Fish.
Games that require children to match cards by suit or number, such as Uno, help with cognitive flexibility.
Games such as Snap – which requires fast reflexes – is great for training attention and inhibition.
Executive functioning skills

As for online executive function training, the Cogmed program uses adaptive exercises to train working memory capacity and attention. Learn more here.

Fast ForWord online exercises also use matching exercises to build executive functioning skills, for example Whalien Match from Fast ForWord Foundations I. Find out more about the Fast ForWord suite of exercises here.

fast forword cogmed executive functioning skills
Physical activities/games
Physical games and sports require attention and quick responses, and thus are great for training executive function – for example, Musical Chairs, Red Light Green Light.
Games such as dodgeball and foursquare require focused attention, rule following, decision making.
Simon Says is fantastic for training attention, inhibition and cognitive flexibility – the child has to decide when to apply the rule and when not to.
Executive functioning skills
Strategy games
Chess can be learned by children prior to their teenage years, and requires knowledge of rules, strategy, and the ability to think several moves ahead.
strategy games Executive functioning skills

Zorbit’s Maths Adventure combines play with learning, helping children improve their maths skills and executive function skills – playing Zorbit’s requires creative problem solving and working memory. More about Zorbit’s here.

zorbits maths executive functioning skills

Executive functioning skills activities for 7 to 12 year olds

Executive functioning skills
Card games & board games
Card games which require children to track playing cards are great. They need to use their working memory as well as strategise and plan.
Card games that require matching cards by colour or suit help train cognitive flexibility. Examples include rummy-style games, poker or mahjong.
Strategy games such as chess or Go develop working memory and cognitive flexibility.
Fantasy games, such as Minecraft and RPGs (role-playing games) encourage children remember complicated rules about imaginary places they have visited, and involve strategy.
fast forword cogmed executive functioning skills

The Cogmed program uses adaptive exercises to train working memory capacity and attention. Learn more here.

Fast ForWord exercises also use matching exercises to build executive functioning skills, for example Space Salvage from Fast ForWord Elements I. Find out more about Fast ForWord here.

Executive functioning skills
Physical activities/games
Older preteens become increasingly interested in sport. Sports that require a high level of coordination, such as soccer, are excellent for developing executive function.

The 3 Pronged Approach to improve executive functioning skills

To improve executive functioning, we need to target the cause of executive function problems with a three pronged approach which includes skill building strategies.

If you google “executive function help” you’ll see a lot of strategies (e.g. “keep a schedule” and “use visual aids”).

These are compensatory strategies – they are important, but they do not improve executive functioning and are not a long term solution.

Most health professionals now agree that a three-pronged approach to intervention is most effective, involving a combination of individualised compensatory strategies, learning environment modifications and skill building strategies.

executive function

Learn more & contact us

Executive function info pack

Download Executive Function info pack

Everything you need to know, including the basics of executive function and tips for teaching students who struggle with executive function.

EF programs

Our executive function programs

EF Kids, Fast ForWord and Cogmed are online programs that can help you improve executive functioning in an easy and fun way.

Book a free phone consult

This free telephone consultation can help to answer any questions you have about our services. At Sonic Learning we are all experienced teachers and health professionals so parents tend to find it very beneficial to be able to discuss their concerns and receive guidance from our team.

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