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Building Executive Function Skills in Elementary School Students

Teachers can help students improve skills like inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility by explicitly connecting them to popular games—and then letting students play.

We’re constantly exhibiting self-control, staying focused amid distractions, and flexibly solving problems in order to manage and complete tasks. Yet we weren’t born with well-developed executive function (EF) skills. These skills—a set of mental tools used to manage tasks and regulate one’s thinking to achieve goals—begin to develop early in life, a process that continues into early adulthood.

What that means for teachers is that elementary school students can develop and practice EF skills with explicit modeling and teaching.

One way we can help students develop EF skills is to use games—card games, board games, physical games and activities, and movement and song games. These games provide healthy challenges and practice for EF skills. Checkers, Connect Four, and Jenga are just a few examples of popular games that can help develop these skills.

When students play games that involve strategy, they have an opportunity to make plans, and then to adjust those plans in response to what happens during gameplay. The students’ inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory work together to support playing the game.

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to build their EF skills through meaningful social interactions and fun games. A gradual release of responsibility approach (I do, we do, you do) can support learning as the teacher provides intentional instruction and gives students an explicit explanation of the strategies or skills involved in games, and then allows them independent practice.

Excerpted from “Building Executive Function Skills Can Be Fun” in Edutopia. Read the full article for strategies on how game play can help students develop inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and more.

Source: Edutopia | Building Executive Function Skills Can Be Fun, | © 2019 George Lucas Educational Foundation