Want to Give Your Kids an Advantage? Build Executive Functions

Every parent wants their kids to have the best shot at succeeding at whatever their chosen path may be.  So we try to give them all of the right opportunities.  Some go to tutors, buy complicated programs, or drill through flashcards, but one of the best predictors of success is one that can be regularly built through play.

Study after study has displayed the influential role of executive functions in success over the long run.  Perhaps the most well-known is what is commonly referred to as the Marshmallow Test.  Back in the 60s,  Stanford researchers essentially gave preschoolers the choice of having one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.  (And did I mention these little ones were left alone with the marshmallows until “later” arrived?)

Researchers followed their subjects for decades and found that those preschoolers who could wait longer, did better academically, reported less drug-use, and found greater life satisfaction into adulthood.

It makes sense that efficient executive functions would be a strong predictor of other successes.  Executive functions, those functions of the prefrontal cortex, include impulse-control, judgement, focus, and flexible thinking. Children with these strengths will listen in class when there are distractions, will take the time to look for right answers beyond first-glance answers, and will get their school work done when they’d rather be playing video games.  They’re better able to take their other talents and strengths, build on them, apply them intentionally, and use them in working toward their goals.

The good new is that many researchers believe that these self-regulation skills can be increased through practice and experience.  Perhaps the better news is that this often takes the shape of play!  Here are some ideas for fun ways to build executive functions:


Dance and Freeze.  You know the drill.  The music plays and everyone dances.  The music stops and everyone freezes.  Children have to resist the impulse to keep moving and stay frozen instead.  The same idea can be used for other stop and go games like Red Light, Green Light and Snowmen at Night or for using stop and go signs while singing.

Simon Says.  It seems easy enough.  Do what you’re told, right?  Except that you have to focus and pay attention to detail.  Instead of being distracted by the directions alone, children have to listen for that key phrase, “Simon Says”…

Opposite Games.  I love playing these with young children.  Often, I’ll say, “Listen to my directions and do what I say, but don’t let me trick you with what I do.”  So I’ll say, “Touch your nose,”while I touch my ears.  Can they fight the urge and focus only on my words?  It’s tough for those little ones, but they get better with practice!  Similar games have been played where children say the opposite of what they see on picture cards (night for day, day for night) or do opposite actions (x whenever the adult does y and y whenever the adult does x).  These games require kids to focus on what’s important and resist what is likely their first impulse.

Play Pretend.  Dramatic play is full of benefits for young children, not least of which is the flexibility of thinking and self-control required for a child to take on another character and play out the role.  Even better, as young children build their play scripts with other children, they begin to negotiate and share ideas and build a plan for play — the next avenue in building executive functions.


Planning requires a lot of energy from the prefrontal cortex.  In the Vygotskian-based Tools of the Mind approach, children are encouraged to create a play plan before engaging in the day’s activities.  This simple process encourages future-orientation, and requires children to think before doing, a key aspect of impulse control. 

Encouraging planning can be as simple as asking your child about what he wants to play next and asking him to describe what he’ll do.  It could mean taking a few minutes to talk about what your child wants to do with his upcoming quiet time, visit to the park, or trip to the library.  Turn it into a written plan by discussing the plans, writing your child’s dictations, and encouraging him to draw a picture to complete the planning process. 

Go a step further and help older children plan their day, creating a picture schedule or written schedule to help them see how they can have time to do both what they need to do and want to do by following a plan.  When distractions arise, simply remind them of what they’re choosing NOT to do and ask if that’s the choice they want.  This simple exercise helps reinforce an internal locus of control and encourages them to focus on what they want most over what they want now (the epitome of impulse control!).

So what do you do to build executive functions? 

Top image source.

Interesting reads:

Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control {NPR}

Preschool Age Kids in Different Countries Improve with Self-Regulation Games{eScience News}

Links between behavioral regulation and preschooler’s literacy, vocabulary, and math skills {Developmental Psychology} (Abstract)

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs By Ellen Galinsky



Filed under Child Development & DAP, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

18 Responses to Want to Give Your Kids an Advantage? Build Executive Functions

  1. I love this article! I never knew how important simple games like Red Light, Green Light could be. :)

  2. Amy

    Ooh! What a great find tonight. Love your blog. Will come back and read more tomorrow.

    To answer your question- what I do to increase executive functions? I homeschool til they are at least 9. And until they are at least 9, they are pretty much left to fill their own time each day. They have a chore or two they are expected to finish at some point, but otherwise they have only an expectation that they will use their time wisely. No lessons. No schedule. I don’t tell them what to do or when to do it. Except maybe “clean your room.” 😉

    My oldest homeschooled until he was 14. He is a senior at a college prep high school. He does great on standardized tests, although the classroom is more challenging because he finds it so frustratingly boring. He’s already been accepted to a private liberal arts college that will allow him to experience classrooms more like homeschooling was.

  3. Zina :: Let's Lasso the Moon

    Thank you for the wonderful post. I love that most of the suggested activities are portable. So you can do them for example while waiting in line at the grocery store. Thanks again.

  4. Have you read Tools of The Mind by Bodrova and Leong? I think it’s mentioned in that NPR article you linked . Reading it ( Tools of The Mind) for me was a little like meeting my soul mate or mentor for the first time. If you haven’t read it you must! It makes me crave the classroom and get all teacher geeked out excited to help kids learn. The most exciting thing is that teaching children good control ends up being a huge deterimining factor to educational success , which means that all populations in any school district with any budget can do this.

    • notjustcute

      I haven’t read that, but I’ll have to check it out. I’ve always been intrigued by what I’ve heard about the Tools of the Mind programs, and I’m a big fan of Vygotsky. Thanks for the recommendation! (And I totally relate to the teacher geek – out :0)

  5. Katie M.

    Excellent! We are reading Mind in the Making as part of our preschool parent participation…it is amazing and I encourage all parents to try and find a copy. Excellent thinking and ways to raise our children to be good thinkers and problem solvers! Thanks for getting the message out!

  6. Pingback: Impulse Control « things we do…

  7. My co-teacher and I are using themes from Mind in the Making related to executive function for our class bulletin board this year. Hopefully some parents and maybe even a few students will learn from it as they pass through the hallway each day!

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  10. Great post! Thank you for giving easy and specific things to do with kids. Of course it feels good to know that I am doing most of those things with my kids, but the opposite game is a new one. If you want to see a cute movie of the marshmallow experiment, this one is a favorite at our house (the first part of the video).

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  13. Sara

    What age can you start doing this? I’m having a hard time picturing my 14 month old playing red light green light or writing out a plan of play time.

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  16. Keely

    I really enjoyed reading this, and I thought that it made some really good points. All too often parents are focusing on teaching ‘wrote’ response patterns when what we should be doing is teaching the skills necessary for reaching those conclusions/responses on their own. A couple of important pieces of executive functioning that I feel were left out of this, are problem solving, sequencing, and ideation. Putting a child in a situation where they have an objective but no direction often points out significant gaps in these aspects of executive functioning. And if we’re honest, the situation I previously mentioned is very likely to happen. These involve more demanding forms of planning, but are much more functional. They are skills that would be more likely to come up in real life situations. Rather than asking your child to plan their day (because they mat either use the typical schedule that they’ve grown accustomed to or perhaps plan a day of back to back carnivals and popsicle eating contests), give them three toys or objects and ask them to improvise an activity with rules, a point system, and an objective, then write this all down (for younger kiddos the adult can do the writing, but work with the child to figure out what they want to say). For infants, put them in a situation full of conquerable obstacles and motivate them to get out to a favorite toy or something….facilitating the learning patterns necessary to problem solve their way out of a bind. Or maybe trap their favorite toy in a pile of other things so they have to work to figure out how to retrieve it. Lastly I want to emphasize the fact that the cognitive facets of executive functioning work like a pyramid….to get to the top where all of these skills come into play, the reflexive, motor, and sensory components must be considered as well. It’s important to include a lot more sensory feedback in all of these games and activities in order to reinforce these sensory, motor, and cognitive pathways for more efficient and globalized learning experiences.

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