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May 16, 2018

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How to Play Games and Develop Executive Skills at the Same Time

May 17, 2017

I have often heard it said that this child just "can't get organized," or just can't seem to "plan ahead." I have close friends who never seemed to learn how to keep their house clean or make a grocery list. My daughter will still impulsively yell out a negative comment when she doesn't get the right card in UNO. I've worked with superb teachers who, nonetheless, have never been able to develop a "Plan B" in case "Plan A" doesn't work out. As far as I'm concerned, I jump from one project to the next without cleaning up the materials from the first project! It can seem like these skills should be things that just come naturally, as part of our personality, and that some get it and some don't. But executive skills  are a set of processes that are learned through modeling and experience. The subset of skills include:


  1. Organization (ability to bring order to materials)

  2. Planning (ability to systematically think about what is needed)

  3. Self Monitoring (measuring your own performance against what is expected)

  4. Emotional Control (ability to manage emotions with rational thoughts)

  5. Memory (hold information in mind to complete a task)

  6. Flexibility (moving from one activity to another)

  7. Inhibition (stopping actions and thoughts that will not serve you well)

  8. Initiation (starting tasks that will benefit you)


Many basic games can help with address these skills effectively through both sensory-motor combinations (races, marbles, ball games, etc.), or intellectual combinations (cards, chess, etc.), in which there is competition between individuals.







First and foremost, games are motivitating. Thus, children are far more willing to engage with you and others in playing.


Games have rules. Rules help a child regulate because breaking them brings sanction from the group. Again, strong motivation to learn how to self-monitor and use emotional control..


Games have a progression toward a determined aim/goal. This helps focus attention to the task at hand and includes many cognitive processes, such as being alert, holding attention, monitoring reactions, being flexible, etc...all conditions that will favor the possibility of finding solutions for new problems


Games integrate all of the executive skills listed above and allow you to intentionally practice these skills with your child. You can use your interaction to observe the skills and identify strengths and weaknesses. You can reinforce the strengths with praise and develop the skills that are weak through practice and feedback.  Using games can help your child build up skills that help them learn to surpass difficulties.


Games require a finish/end result. This means that the use of many internal resources, such as acting with persistence and flexibility.


Here’s How

Introduce a new game - For example “UNO.” Introduce as “exploration.” (implies observation, manipulation, and freedom to explore the components in different ways.):


“Let’s explore a new game” (show cards)


“Let’s look at the cards. What color’s are there? What numbers? Do some cards have words?”

(this helps to develop thinking and identifying parts of a project or activity).


Introduce  the rules -  “Let’s look at the rules. These are the rules we must play by.”  (Playing by the rules builds skills and understanding of what it is to achieve successful results. This also removes any anxiety or doubts related to how-to-play. Teach your child to always find out the rules of a given situation).


As you read the rules have your child state them back to you and ask open ended questions:


“We get seven cards each. What did I just say?” How many cards do we get?” etc.


Play a hand open so you both can see cards and discuss aspects of the game with your child.


For example:

“See how I organize my cards? I put the same colors together. How are you going to organize yours? Why did you organize them that way?”


As the game goes on notice whether or not your child begins to organize differently or use different patterns. If so, question, “I noticed you started putting the numbers together instead of the colors. Why?”


Identify a strategy that you use during the game-

“I changed the color to red because I see you don’t have any red and now you will have to pick up cards.”


Address emotional control as needed.

For example,

Your child begins to tantrum when they have to pick up cards.You say,  “I know it is frustrating sometimes when you have to pick up cards but the way you have a chance to win is follow the rules.”




Finally, remember to praise approximations of success and success itself.


For example,


  • “I love the way you are organizing your cards. That will make it easier for you to play”

  • “You are doing a great job following the rules. That makes me want to keep playing with you.”

  • “That was awesome the way you planned on holding that card until the right moment. That kind of strategy will help you win”

  • “You started to get upset but when I restated the rule you did a great job using control and calming down. Now we can keep playing together”

  • “Great job remembering that you can use the color OR the number. Now you’ve got two ways to make sure you don’t have to pick up cards”


If you notice weaknesses in any of the executive skills listed, just focus on one or two when you play games.


For support and free consultation please check out our services at 



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Barkley, R. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention and executive functions: Constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 65-94.





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