Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence activities for kids

Emotional intelligence in children is a skill that takes practice, example, and more practice to develop. For all of us, emotional intelligence can be an ongoing skill that impacts social emotional skills, relationships, and functioning in day to day tasks. Here we are

For those of us raising children and working with children it is clear that they need more than ‘book smarts’ to navigate the rather complex world that they are growing up in. For a long time the intelligence quotient or Emotional IQ was the only benchmark for measuring children’s potential and predicting how well they would achieve.

In more recent times people studying development and psychology realized that there were other skills necessary for achieving success in the world. One of these sets of skills has become known as Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage and understand your emotions and those around you with empathy and perspective. These emotional intelligence activities for kids develop Emotional IQ through play.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is described as the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and to understand the emotions of those around you. The concept of emotional intelligence also known as emotional quotient or EQ developed in the 1990’s and has gained widespread acceptance in recent years.

Instrumental in the development of the theory and models of emotional intelligence is Daniel Goleman a psychologist and author. Goleman and emotional intelligence may be terms that you’ve heard connected, where he describes four main domains that make up Emotional Intelligence.

These domains are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. What do each of these emotional intelligence domains mean?

  • Self-awareness – Self-awareness is having conscious knowledge of your own character and feelings. This results in being able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness in kids plays a role in emotional control, mindset, habits, and executive functioning skills.
  • Self-management – Self-management is being able to control and manage your emotions in a healthy way. Self-management for kids involves self-regulation, mindset, habits, and self-control.
  • Social awareness – Social awareness is the ability to pick up the emotions of other people and to understand what they are feeling. This can be a challenge for children of all needs.
  • Relationship management – Relationship management is the ability to build relationships with others through positive interpersonal communication skills (Segal, 2020). Children develop relationship management skills through example by watching others in their lives, by interacting with peers and adults, and through play.

The domains are further broken down into twelve competencies and learnable skills that are relevant to the specific domain. (Matlock, 2017)

At the bottom of this post, you can find hands-on activities for children that develop each area of these emotional intelligence skills.

Emotional intelligence and emotional leadership

Emotional leadership is a term developed by Goleman and others, and refers to leadership in groups, impacted by one’s emotional intelligence. When you take a look at the domains of EI, you can see how they play into the functioning of a group.

Occupational therapists know a thing or two about group management and group leadership. At it’s infancy, occupational therapy played a major role in group therapy and mental health. While this domain of occupational therapy intervention is no longer primary area of intervention, there are still many OTs working in the mental health arena and especially in the group treatment intervention.

Emotional leadership is an important part of group occupational therapy sessions, as the participants are interacting with others in the group and developing specific individualized goal areas but also group goal areas. Groups in therapy have a leader, often the therapist, but sometimes the therapist presents as a facilitator but one that keeps the group on track as the group interacts with other participants.

In this way, participants can develop emotional leadership skills and skills that can be used outside of the group setting as a development of emotional intelligence and emotional learning.

It is clear that a lot of work has been done on developing an understanding of emotional intelligence and the components that make up this construct. But how important is emotional intelligence in the lives and development of our children?

Is Emotional Intelligence Important?

Cognitive behavioral therapy recognizes that feelings or emotions can influence thoughts. When emotions run high they can alter the way our brains work and this can have a negative effect on our cognitive abilities. Our feelings can influence the decisions we make and how we interact with other people. It makes sense that having a greater understanding of our emotions will help guide how we interact with others.

Improving our emotional intelligence makes it easier to resolve conflicts, manage our stress and interact appropriately with those around us (Segal, 2020). And children will definitely benefit from developing these skills. Children’s learning is influence by their emotional state so managing emotions in a positive way allows children to be receptive learners at school.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to name emotions. The act of naming emotions tends to diffuse their intensity and lessens the negative impact they may have on our cognitive abilities. The psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this as ‘name it to tame it’ (Schwartz, 2015). The value of recognizing feelings and emotions is evident but how does emotional intelligence develop.

Development of Emotional Intelligence

When asked how emotional intelligence develops in a recent interview Daniel Goleman stated that “emotional intelligence begins to develop in the earliest years. All the small exchanges children have with their parents, teachers, and with each other carry emotional messages. These messages repeat over and over to form the core of a child’s emotional outlook and capabilities.” (Scholastic, viewed 2021)

As adults interacting with children it becomes important to ensure that we are able to recognise and manage our own emotions. Once we are able to do this we can become valuable role models for children and we can provide opportunities for them to see emotional intelligence in action. Recognizing and discussing emotions with children lays a foundation for their self-regulation.

The development of emotional intelligence begins in infancy, through interactions with caregivers, and continues as children are socialized across their school years alongside parents, peers, and teachers. Emotional intelligence is gained through both informal experiences (observations and conversations) and through and formal instruction (being taught emotion vocabulary, learning self-regulation strategies).

How emotional intelligence is taught depends on age, but unlike learning other skills such as math and science or English language arts, there is no age at which it is too early or too late to develop your emotional quotient. The parts of the brain needed to develop emotional intelligence are active from birth and will continue to develop throughout life.

As with many developmental tasks it seems that the first few years of life the brain is at its most receptive to learning key skills. And emotional intelligence is one of these important skills. (Brackett, Cipriano, 2015

This resource on executive functioning skills and emotional regulation shares more information on the role executive functioning skills play on emotional IQ.

 How to Teach Emotional intelligence?

An essential part of developing emotional intelligence is being able to talk about feelings. This skill set is often termed emotional literacy and it is something that we are able to teach young children.

We can teach children to read and understand emotions and to respond appropriately to their own emotions and the emotions of others. Goleman explains that you can teach young children about the most basic emotions, such as happiness and anger and when they get older touch on more complicated feelings, such as jealousy, pride, and guilt (Scholastic, viewed 2021)

It is important to remember to include a range of emotions both positive and negative when talking about feelings.

Although it is not always comfortable talking about negative emotions it is important that children recognize and accept the wide range of emotions that they are likely to experience during their lives.  We can incorporate opportunities to promote emotional intelligence in our everyday lives. 

Emotional intelligence activities for therapy, the classroom, ad home to help children develop emotional intelligence skills for functioning.

Emotional Intelligence Activities

What does promoting Emotional Intelligence look like in a therapy session?

As an occupational therapist (and a parent!) it can be overwhelming to think about the number of developmental needs that fall within your domain of influence. My therapy approach has always been aligned with building confidence and self-awareness in the children that I treat so in that way emotional intelligence has been fostered through incidental learning and interactions.

In more recent times I have used tools and resources that focus specifically on building skills that will enhance emotional intelligence – empathy, self- regulation, communication skills – depending on what the individual child needs. 

In my therapy session the first few minutes are spent getting a gauge of where the child is at and what their mood is like. By spending a few minutes engaging one on one with the child I am able to assess their level of attention, level of arousal and motivation at the time. I also have a mood meter on my wall and the kids love moving the arrow to the colour that corresponds to how they are feeling that day – low energy, just right energy, slightly high energy or off the chart energy levels.

With a reluctant child I might get the ball rolling by sharing how I am feeling that day and using the mood meter to plot my energy levels. I also have a feeling chart called ‘How does your jellybean feel today?” adapted from a book by Susan Jelleberg (Jellybean Jamboree).

This introduces the idea of naming emotions and of expanding our vocabulary related to emotions. In this way I feel I am working on the self-awareness component of emotional intelligence. 

The next step is ensuring that the child is in a good space to learn and this means aiming for a calm-alert level of arousal. The Zones of Regulation offer a number of tools to help children reach that just right space. Some children need activities to lift their energy and some children need activities to lower their energy levels. I find deep pressure or proprioceptive activities work like a charm and I also use breathing activities frequently in my therapy sessions.

In this way we tackle some of the self-management aspects of emotional intelligence. 

Social management is a tricky one for young children to pick you. Learning that the people around them do not always think and feel the same is them is an on-going process. There are some lovely activities to encourage empathy in children and to help them become aware of other people’s feelings.

Finally relationship management is encouraged through appropriate interactions between myself and the child during the therapy session. For some children this means learning how to deal with losing a game or competition, learning how to take turns or share or learning to give and receive complements.  

So within the confines of a short therapy session, while working on other specific OT goals, it is very possible to facilitate and encourage a child’s emotional intelligence. An understanding of emotional intelligence and is various elements means that it is also possible to encourage its growth in the classroom and in our homes.

And it is with this well-developed emotional intelligence that I believe our children will be able to successfully navigate the world they are growing up in and find meaning in their lives. 

For further information on some of the component skills and activities related to emotional intelligence have a look at the following links. There are numerous resources on the OT Toolbox that deal with developing different components of emotional intelligence.  

Self-Awareness Activities for Kids

To develop self-awareness it is important to be able to understand what you are feeling. Children can participate in some of the following activities in increase their awareness of emotions.

These self-awareness activities promote social emotional development through the awareness and process of practicing identification of emotions:

Penguin emotions game– Use this penguin theme emotions activity to support emotional intelligence in kids.

Social emotional learning– This social emotional skills worksheet supports the development of emotional intelligence by allowing children to draw in facial expressions that match various emotional states.

Social emotional learning 2– This comprehensive resource on social emotional learning supports development of emotional intelligence by offering resources and information on how children develop emotional skills and ways to support that development.

Spring matching emotions slide deck game– This Spring themed emotions activity supports the development of emotional skills by offering practice and matching of facial expressions.

Self-Management Activities for Kids

To develop self-management skills you need to move beyond identifying emotions and figure out strategies that will help to regulate these emotions and subsequent behaviours. 

This Zones of regulation toolbox offers a collection of activities and resources designed to promote self-regulation and self-management skills for kids.

Breath control is an important skill for kids to achieve in developing and refining self-management skills.

Deep breathing exercise cards are a powerful tool to use in building and developing self-management skills for kids. Print off these cards and use them over and over again to meet the interests and needs of a whole classroom or clinic of children.

Proprioception activities are heavy work movement activities that provide children with a sense of awareness when it comes to how their body moves through space or in a given situation.

Social Awareness Activities

To develop social awareness you will need to understand other people’s emotions effectively. These hands-on social awareness activities are strategies that children can use to develop emotional intelligence in social situations.

Empathy for others- Developing empathy requires practice and awareness. This Quick as cricket activity for Empathy helps children to understand the perspectives of others through a classic children’s book. The hands-on accompaniment activity gives kids a chance to practice their empathy skills and put them to work in social situations or through the social interaction with others.

Try these friendship activities to work on specific skills in developing social awareness, relationships skills, and interpersonal skills in children.

Through books, families can look at the pictures and come back to specific concepts again and again. And, adding hands-on, multi-sensory play experiences brings those concepts home.

In the resource, Exploring Books Through Play, you’ll do just that.

This digital, E-BOOK is an amazing resource for anyone helping kids learn about acceptance, empathy, compassion, and friendship. In Exploring Books through Play, you’ll find therapist-approved resources, activities, crafts, projects, and play ideas based on 10 popular children’s books. Each book covered contains activities designed to develop fine motor skills, gross motor skills, sensory exploration, handwriting, and more. Help kids understand complex topics of social/emotional skills, empathy, compassion, and friendship through books and hands-on play.

Click here to get your copy of Exploring Books Through Play.

Relationship Management Activities

To develop relationship management skills you will need to know how to develop and maintain good relationships with other people. These relationship management activities are strategies to work on emotional intelligence during interactions and relationships with others. 

These Social skills interventions are therapy activities designed to promote relationships with others through hands-on activities that give kids practice to support relationship skills with others.

This resource on Executive functioning in school is helpful in addressing relationships with peers, mentors, and teachers.

To work on emotional development requires many executive functioning skills, including impulse control, working memory, mindset, attention, planning, self-talk, inhibition, and more. To address these skills in kids, using a fun, hands-on approach to talking about these skills through lists, drawing, and goal-setting is key. You’ll find the exact tools to address these needs in the printable, Impulse Control Journal.

Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox

The Impulse Control Journal…a printable resource for helping kids strategize executive functioning skill development. When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

Grab the Impulse Control Journal to build organizational strategies, planning, prioritization, habits, and mindset in kids.

Contributor to The OT Toolbox: Janet Potterton is an occupational therapist working predominantly in school-based settings and I love, love, love my job. I have two children (if you don’t count my husband!), two dogs, one cat, two guinea pigs and one fish. When I am not with my family or at work I try to spend time in nature. The beach is my happy place.

Adults With Executive Function Disorder

Resources for adults with executive function disorder

Here, you will find tools and information for adults with executive function disorder and executive functioning issues that impact day to day tasks in adulthood. For adults, executive functioning skills are a part of everything we do. They impact the way we pay attention, focus, plan, and prioritize. Here, you’ll find strategies that can impact executive functioning needs so that organization, impulse control, planning, time management, and other executive functioning skills are improved and regulated in daily life tasks.

Adults with Executive Function Disorder

Now you might be thinking, “Executive function disorder?! I don’t have a disorder!” And that is probably the case in most instances for those reading this article. However, there are many of us who struggle on a day to day basis with things like getting started on chores or problems (task initiation), staying focused (attention), losing things constantly (organization), getting out of the house on time on a regular basis (task completion), and a variety of other challenges that impact our lives and generally stress us out. These are not the components that define a disorder, but they are executive functioning challenges that impact day to day life. It’s my hope that this resource offers tools to make the overall wellbeing better, and to offer tools for adults with executive function challenges easier!

Let’s break down executive functioning skills in adults and take a look at how things like focus, attention, organization impact life skills in adulthood.

My daughter has battled Executive Function Disorder all of her life, but right now, it is really preventing her from moving forward with her life. Things like completing a task, making decisions, time management, and projecting ahead are SO HARD. Is there anything that can help my adult daughter struggling with executive functioning disorder?

Does this sound at all familiar? So often, executive functioning challenges are present in adults but we don’t stop and think, this isn’t how things have to be. In fact, there are everyday challenges that are very difficult for adults with executive functioning needs. Things like organization, planning, and flexible thinking can be a real struggle that impacts family life, work life, personal relationships, and the things we need to do every day.

As kids with these challenges move into adulthood, some areas that we might expect to develop just never seem to change. It’s not uncommon; the fact is that executive functioning skills are a very broad set of skills. Forgetting things, difficulty with inhibiting behaviors or actions, trouble with planning big projects, or staying organized in the daily life of an adult…everyone deals with these challenges at one time or another.

The challenges become a problem when  social, emotional, intellectual, or organizational aspects are disrupted.  A person’s career/job/family life/etc. can be devastated by difficulties with executive functioning skills. 

Difficulties with the higher-level cognitive skills that make up executive function can impact adults by limiting one’s ability to “connect the dots” and can impact other areas of executive functioning as well. 

For the adult with executive function disorder, challenges can present in many different ways. There may be no trouble with impulsivity or attention struggles, however other mental skills can be quite difficulty. Sometimes, seeing the “big picture” is the problem. For others, it’s just making decisions. Still others lack time management and have difficulty with multi-tasking.   

Adults with executive function disorder can struggle with organization, trouble with planning, prioritization, etc.Here are tools and strategies to help the adult with executive function problems.i

Executive Function in Adults

Here’s the thing: There is a lot of information out there for kids who are struggling with these areas. However, for most of us, executive functioning skills are still developing well into the adult years.

Executive function in adults is developmental. In fact, executive function skills don’t typically develop until the early 20s. Development of executive functioning skills occurs up through the college years (and beyond), making that transition from the home setting of high-school into a college dorm very difficult for many. 

So, for some adults who are challenged in these areas, there can be simply a few accommodations or strategies put into place. Simply using a few set of tools designed to address these needs can allow for improved skills like organization and time management which are then carried over to other areas.   

Making changes to executive function in adults can mean looking at the big picture.

Adults need to do adult things, right? Areas of life skills where executive functioning skills impact “getting things done” include:

  • Obtaining a job
  • Maintaining a job
  • Creating personal relationships
  • Maintaining personal relationships
  • Sustaining a clean and safe home
  • Completing large home projects (inside the home and outside the home)
  • Shopping
  • Paying bills
  • Transporting oneself to work, the community
  • Making healthy choices
  • Cooking and cleaning up food
  • Taking medications
  • Contributing to the community
  • Caring for children

When you think about the life changes that happen between high school graduation to accomplishing all of these high-level executive functioning skills, you can see how there is a developmental change that occurs between the ages of 18-25.

Executive Functioning Skill Components

In order to complete high-level thinking and planning tasks, adults require development of several executive functioning areas:

  • Planning
  • Prioritization
  • Attention
  • Organization
  • Task Completion
  • Task Initiation
  • Problem Solving
  • Working Memory
  • Self-control
  • Flexibility
  • Self-awareness

For other adults who may have always struggled with seeing the big picture, planning tasks, or staying focused on a task, this is the typical development for that individual. In other words, some adults may be gaining improvements and strengthening the skills they’ve got, just at a lower level than another adult. In these cases, strategies and tools can make a difference here, too. 

Adults and distractibility 

We are distracted by many things, and that level of distractibility is impacted by advances in screens, stimuli around us, faster lifestyles, more options, and increasing availability of information.

Some good resources to check out on adults and distractibility include:

Below, you will find curated information from around the web that will be instrumental in making an effortful improvement in executive functioning needs. Read through this information and use it as best fits the needs you or an adult with executive functioning challenges might be experiencing.  

Remember that everyone is different in their strengths, weaknesses, needs, interests, and experiences. This information is not intended to treat or address specific needs, but rather, as educational material. Seek professional help when needed.   

Adult Executive Functioning Disorder

The is fact that adult executive functioning impacts everything we do as adults. Take a look at this adult executive functioning skill checklist.

Some of these problem areas for adult executive functioning issues may include:

  • Difficulty making plans
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Time management
  • Trouble with organization
  • Difficulty keeping important papers organized
  • Trouble prioritizing 
  • Poor emotional control 
  • Difficulty with flexible thinking
  • Trouble thinking “on the spot”
  • Trouble using a schedule
  • Trouble getting out of the house on time
  • Trouble with impulsive buys
  • Difficulty paying bills on time
  • Difficulty with losing keys or important items
  • Trouble following through with plans
  • Trouble picking the most important tasks
  • Trouble doing the important parts of tasks first
  • Trying to do too much at once
  • Constantly running late
  • Difficulty listening to a person talking without thinking of other things
  • Easily frustrated
  • Forget the last step/steps in a multi-step task

It’s easy to see how the list above can look so different for different people, especially when considering aspects such as job requirements, family obligations, outside situations or other issues that may make a difference in the occupational performance of an individual.   

Executive Functioning Skills and Emotions

Executive functioning kills and emotional regulation are closely related. Playing a role in the ability to function and complete day-to-day tasks is the role of the limbic system when it comes to executive functioning skills. Managing emotions, and emotional regulation can greatly impact the adult with executive function challenges.   

These structures and their hormones control functions such as emotions, behavior, motivation, sleep, appetite, olfaction, stress response. In adults, the role of the limbic system impacts household tasks completed, grocery shopping, paying bills, getting to work on time, caring for children and other daily life tasks.

This is really interesting, because you may connect the dots with this list and see that social emotional skills, executive functioning, inner drives, and sensory processing (including the sense of smell and interoception) all centered in one place in the brain! (This is not to say that these are the only places in the brain that operate these functions as well.)

You can see how the role of emotions and regulating daily stressors impacts attention, organization, task initiation, task completion, and problem solving.

Generally speaking, the limbic system is the emotional brain but this piece of the EF puzzle has a huge role for adults who are expected to act…like adults!

Adults with executive function disorder can struggle with organization, trouble with planning, prioritization, etc.Here are tools and strategies to help the adult with executive function problems.i

Tips for adult executive functioning

Some easy to apply tools can impact executive functioning challenges in adults. These strategies include low-tech or high-tech strategies such as:  

  • Use a paper planner or calendar to keep track of obligations
  • Set up a filing system to keep track of and manage mail and important papers
  • Use highlighters and colorful sticky notes to make a visual organization system
  • Use apps to stay organized. Here are some Alexa Skills that can help with executive functioning skills like organization, etc.
  • Set up calendar reminders on a phone or smartwatch
  • Set up automatic payment plans for bills
  • Brainstorm routines and weekly/daily tasks and strategies to make decision-making less stressful and easier
  • Think through and visualize the day or week ahead and predict any challenge that may arise
  • Create routines and calendars for ongoing tasks
  • Create brain dumping lists for big tasks and set goals with specific dates and timelines
  • Use a daily journal to track each day’s events. The Impulse Control Journal can be used by adults as well as kids. The “look” of the journal is not childish, and has many components that can translate to an adult’s needs in promoting organizational, time management, etc. 

Resources for Adults with Executive Function Disorder

Here are some symptoms of executive function disorder in adults. Some of the symptoms include time blindness, self-motivation, and an inability to keep future events in mind. Do these symptoms sound familiar?

One symptom that is mentioned is the regulation of one’s non-verbal working memory, or our inner critic. This is an area that can be detrimental to some, especially when self-conscious of weaknesses that impact life choices or struggles.  Here is one simple strategy for self-talk in kids, but can be morphed into an age-appropriate version for adults. 

If an adult or someone who is trying to help an adult with executive function needs would like to look into testing, here is a self-test that may help with self-awareness of the problems that can easily be addressed through strategies and tools. Use this information to move forward with professional help if necessary. 

Another article that can “bring to light” some of the concerns with executive functioning needs is this article about the day in the life of an adult with EFD. It really highlights the challenge of managing other people’s schedules, the workplace juggling act, and managing relationships.

Time management tools, including simple planners and time management apps can be helpful. Here are more tools for addressing time management and other tools such as motivation, scheduling, prioritization, and other challenges. 

This article discusses ADHD, but a lot of the tips and strategies can carryover to any need with planning ahead.

Finally, remember that many of the executive functioning strategies that are out there and presented in books can be used just as easily and seamlessly by adults. The same strategies that work for keeping track of homework tasks by a child can be used by an adult who needs to manage bills and important papers. 

How to plan and prioritize tasks

The Impulse Control Journal is your guide to addressing the underlying skills that play into trouble with planning and prioritization. 

The journal is an 80 page collection of worksheets and prompts to discover what’s really going on behind executive functioning skills like planning, organization, prioritization, working memory, and of course, impulse control. 

While the guide was developed for students of all ages, this printable workbook is perfect for adults, too. It can help you discover strategies that make a real impact for all of the skills needed to get things done. 

Here’s the thing; Everyone is SO different when it comes to struggles related to executive functioning and everyone’s interests, needs, challenges, strengths, and weaknesses are different too. All of these areas play into the challenges we see on the surface. And, this is where the Impulse Control Journal really hits those strengths, weaknesses, and challenges where it matters…in creating a plan that really works for kids of all ages (and adults, too!)

Check out the Impulse Control Journal, and grab it before the end of February, because you’ll get a bonus packet of Coping Cards while the journal is at it’s lowest price. 

Read more about The Impulse Control Journal HERE
The Impulse Control Journal has been totally revamped to include 79 pages of tools to address the habits, mindset, routines, and strategies to address impulse control in kids.    More about the Impulse Control Journal:

  • 30 Drawing Journal Pages to reflect and pinpoint individual strategies 
  • 28 Journal Lists so kids can write quick checklists regarding strengths, qualities, supports, areas of need, and insights 
  • 8 Journaling worksheets to pinpoint coping skills, feelings, emotions, and strategies that work for the individual 
  • Daily and Weekly tracking sheets for keeping track of tasks and goals 
  • Mindset,Vision, and Habit pages for helping kids make an impact 
  • Self-evaluation sheets to self-reflect and identify when inhibition is hard and what choices look like 
  • Daily tracker pages so your child can keep track of their day 
  • Task lists to monitor chores and daily tasks so it gets done everyday  
  • Journal pages to help improve new habits  
  • Charts and guides for monitoring impulse control so your child can improve their self confidence
  • Strategy journal pages to help kids use self-reflection and self-regulation so they can succeed at home and in the classroom  
  • Goal sheets for setting goals and working to meet those goals while improving persistence  
  • Tools for improving mindset to help kids create a set of coping strategies that work for their needs  

This is a HUGE digital resource that you can print to use over and over again.

 
 
 
 
These tips and strategies to help with executive functioning skills can be used by adults who are challenged with difficulty in planning, prioritization, organization and other cognitive skills.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Memory Card Games

memory card games

Occupational therapy professionals know the benefit of using memory card games to build skills in therapy sessions. OTs love to use games in therapy sessions to address a variety areas in novel and fun ways…and kids love the gaming aspect of therapy!

Memory card games as an occupational therapy activity to work on working memory, attention, concentration, spatial relations, visual motor skills, and handwriting.

Memory Card Games in Occupational Therapy

There are so many reasons to play memory games in OT! Areas like executive functioning skills, to working memory, attention, focus, to fine motor skills, visual motor skills, visual perceptual skills, and even handwriting can be improved through the use of memory card games.

We’ve talked about using games in a variety of ways…today, we’re covering the use of a Memory Card Game to work on various skills in OT. Here’s why this simple game is such a powerful tool for impacting function:

Memory games are a powerful way to work on sort term memory, working memory, and executive functioning skills such as attention organization planning prioritization organizational skills.

Memory games are fun way for kids to work on short term memory and other skills that are beneficial for learning in the classroom and at home.

When kids play memory they can work on holding short term information in their memory In their short term memory. This allows them to use visual attention and visual memory while they remember where pictures are located playing a classic memory game.

Kids with other executive functioning issues me to be struggling with the same challenges in the classroom or at home. By playing a game such as memory kids can work on these executive functioning skills in a fun and low-key manner.

When they play memory kids can work on prioritization such as choosing which card to pick first.

When you play memory you pick a card and if you seen it before you you need to remember where you’ve seen that location of the card. This scale requires time management self-regulation and self-control. You don’t want to pick up the next card in a rush without thinking through your your process of where you saw that picture last.

Memory card games can be used to address visual motor skills.

Playing a game of memory can help with short term memory and retention of information as well. When kids need to recall where they saw a card in a previous play they need to think back and use their mental memory skills in order to recall where that card is located in the board. This visual component of working memory skills carries over to the classroom when kids need to remember to do it to do their homework or what skills have worked in the past in order to solve problems on tests or in situations of game or learning at school.

A memory game also helps with multitasking and helping kids to stay and complete a task through to completion. All of these executive functioning skills are powerful skills to develop through play such as using a memory game.

“Grading” Memory Card Games to Meet Different Needs

When therapists add a toy or game to their “OT toolbox”, they need to use the material in a variety of ways to meet the needs of different levels of children and while addressing different skill areas.

This refers to grading activities.

Grading, in occupational therapy, means making an activity more or less challenging in order to meet the needs of the individual. This can also refer to changing an activity in the middle of the task, depending on how the client or child is responding. Grading is important when it comes to finding the “just right” amount of support or adaptations that need to be made to a task that challenge the client while also allowing them to feel good about doing the therapy intervention.

If the activity is too easy, you would grade it up to make it a greater challenge.

If the activity is too hard, you would grade it down to make it easier to accomplish a sub-goal or skillset, while also challenging those skills.

Memory card games are a great tool to use to challenge a variety of skill levels and abilities.

  • You can help to boost skills by changing the number of matches that you are using in the memory card game. If a child who struggles with attention, focus, impulse control, visual perception, eye-hand coordination, or working memory, you might play the memory game with only two matches or four matches so that there are four or eight cards total on the playing board.
  • You can further adapt this game by giving clear and concise instructions or hints in other words. Try to help the child use their memory, attention, working memory, and recall skills by defining the match that they are looking for and details that are on that image. This can be accomplished by saying things like, “I’ve seen that card before. Have you?”
  • Another strategy to grade memory games is to ask the child to talk through their moves. This self-reflection can build self-confidence, and it’s a helpful way to remember where they seen a matching card before. And, this self-talk skill also translates over to functional tasks. When a child performs a task such as a chore or a homework assignment they can talk through the task at hand. This allows them to recall what they’ve learned and what’s been successful. They are able to use skills they’ve established in the past. Self talk skill is a great strategy for kids who both struggle with executive functioning skills and anyone in general.
  • Another modification to memory card games include offering visual cues or verbal cues of what the child has seen. You can support this by asking the child “Have you seen this picture already?” Ask them to recall what the image was near on the board and see if you can picture in your mind where that card is in relation to others on the board. This involves a spatial-relations component as well as other visual perceptual skills.
  • Finally it’s helpful to reduce distractions while playing memory game. Sometimes the aspect of attention is limited by other things happening around a child which can’t be addressed in a situation such as a classroom or a community situation however you can work on specific skills such as showing the child how to self regulate like taking a deep breath or preparing themselves before they make their move. This can help with over feelings of overwhelm and stress the kids sometimes get.

How to play memory games in therapy

When kids play memory they are playing the classic memory game that you’ve probably played in your childhood.

  1. The game uses matching cards which are placed facedown on the table.
  2. Players take turns selecting to picture cards they turned one over at a time and see if they’ve got a match. If they’ve got a match they can go again.
  3. If the player doesn’t have a match they turn the cards back over so they were they are facedown on the table.
  4. Then the next player goes. The second player selects two picture cards and turns them over one at a time. It’s important to turn the cards over one at a time because if you have a card because if the first card that is turned over is a card that you’ve seen before then you need to remember where that match is on the board. This aspect of playing the game of memory really works on attention focus and impulse control.
  5. Players continue finding the matches until all of the cards are selected.
  6. The player with the most number of matches wins the game.

What’s missing Activity with memory cards

“What’s missing” is also another great way to use a memory game to work on specific skills of executive functioning including the ones listed above.

How to play what’s missing with Memory Cards

  1. To play what’s missing you would set out a spare set number of memory cards on the table face up.
  2. Then the player gets to look at the cards for a set amount of time.
  3. The player tries to memorize every card on the table.
  4. Then the player closes their eyes or looks away from the table while another player removes one or more cards.
  5. Then the first player looks back at the table and tries to recall and identify the missing images.

What’s Missing games address a variety of visual perceptual skills, visual memory, visual attention, spatial relations, form constancy, and visual discrimination.

This activity can be graded up or down in a variety of ways by adding more cards shortening the amount of time to look at the cards and remember the cards or to add more matches and to remove more or less cards. To make this harder you can have two all different cards or you can have matches and some without matches.

Memory games in sensory bins

Memory cards make a great addition to sensory bins. Children that especially enjoy specific themes can use memory card games in a variety of themes with specific characters or topics such as vehicles, princesses, sports, animals, ect.

To use memory cards in sensory bins, you need just a few materials. This can include a dry sensory bin material, the memory cards, and possibly scoops, tweezers. Dry sensory bin materials include such as dry beans, rice, sand, shredded paper, etc. Then memory cards can be added to the sensory bin and hidden away, much like we hid sight word cards in this sight word sensory bin.

Another bonus is then building and refining fine motor skills through the scooping and pouring of the sensory bin materials.

In the sensory bin, children can look for the matching memory cards. This activity builds skills such as:

  • visual discrimination
  • form constancy
  • visual memory
  • attention
  • sensory tolerance through play
  • fine motor control
  • transferring skills
  • bilateral coordination
  • controlled movements
  • MORE

Memory Card Games and Handwriting

Therapists are often looking for short and functional means of working on handwriting skills through play. Memory games are a great way to address this need.

With a memory card game, children can write down the matches that they’ve found when matching cards. The same is true when playing “what’s missing” games. They can write down the words of the images that they’ve found on the playing board. And, by writing down these words, they can then work on letter formation, letter size, spacing, and legibility. This occurs in a in a short list format that is motivating for kids.

Yet another benefit of working on handwriting skills with a memory game is that children are excited to find matches. This excitement can translate to the handwriting portion. Kids will want to write more words because that means they are finding more matches. This is a very rewarding and positive way to work on handwriting skills, which can often times, be a challenge for kids.

Memory Card Games for Therapy

Memory cards are a powerful tool to add to a therapy toolbox! This is especially true if memory games are focused on an interest of the child. You will really enjoy a new series of themed memory cards with handwriting pages that I have coming to the website shop.

First up is our Back to School Memory Game and List Writing Prompts!

Work on attention, memory, focus, visual skills, executive functioning skills, visual perceptual skills, concentration and a variety of other skills. PLUS, the themed cards include handwriting pages with a variety of lined paper options.

This Back-to-School resource is a great way to quickly assess your caseload for handwriting, coloring, cutting, motor skills, midline crossing, visual memory, visual perceptual skills, motor planning, executive functioning, and more. And, such a fun and motivating activity to quickly and informally reassess each child on your caseload at a “just right” level.

This memory card activity can be printed off, laminated, and used again and again.

Click here to add the Back-to-School Memory Game and List Writing Prompts resource to your therapy toolbox.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

executive function and emotional regulation skills

Emotional regulation and executive function are connected in more ways than one. Development of social emotional skills includes an awareness of self and self-monitoring skills, among other areas. The regulation of those emotions is critical for executive functioning cognitive tasks. When we regulate behavior, the frontal lobe is at work with it’s impulse control, initiation, self-monitoring, and other cognitive skills. Furthermore, emotional skill development includes the ability to self-regulate. These skills mature and develop throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Executive function and emotional regulation is deeply connected. This article includes resources on executive functioning skills and emotions.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

In a previous blog post, shared a little background information on social emotional learning and regulation. We’ll go more into this relationship below. We’ll also cover social emotional learning and occupations that our kids participate in each day…and how executive functioning skills and regulation impacts functioning at home, work, and school. You will also want to check out these social skills activities for interventions to build areas related to social-emotional skills.

Here is a social emotional learning worksheet that can help kids identify emotions and begin to address emotional regulation needs.

Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with.

For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, ASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging.

Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships. 

Sometimes, emotions become intense and out of control. They become dysregulated and impact the ability to manage behaviors and cognitive thought processes, or the executive functioning skills. Emotional dysregulation requires mental skills like focusing, following directions extremely difficult. When the emotions take over, our brain has trouble communicating between the limbic system and the frontal lobe.

Social emotional learning is defined as a process for helping children gain critical skills for life effectiveness, such as developing positive relationships, behaving ethically, and handling challenging situations effectively. The specific skills that allow kids to function and complete daily occupations (such as play, learning, participating in social situations, rest, dressing, writing, riding a bike, interacting with others…) are those social emotional skills that help children to recognize and manage emotions, interact with others, think about their feelings and how they should act, and regulate behavior based on thoughtful decision making.

One piece of addressing underlying needs in kids is the fact that the behaviors that we see have an underlying cause that can be found as a result of regulation of emotions, making decisions, and acting on impulses. Social emotional skills are not always a cut and dry aspect of development.

Today, I wanted to expand on that idea. So many times, we run into children on our therapy caseloads or in our classroom (or hey, even in our own homes!) who struggle with one area…or several. Remembering that beneath the behaviors, troubles with transitions, acting out, irritability, sleep issues, inflexible thoughts, frustrations, etc…can be emotional regulation components.

Let’s consider some of the ways our kids may struggle with social and emotional competencies. We might see kids with difficulty in some of these occupational performance areas (occupational performance = the things we do…the tasks we perform):

  • Academics/learning
  • Management of stress in learning/chores/daily tasks
  • Creating of personal goals in school work or personal interests and following through
  • Making decisions based on ethical and social norms in play, learning, or work
  • Understanding/Engaging in social expectations (social norms) in dressing, bathing, grooming, etc.
  • Social participation
  • Conflict resolution with friends
  • Empathizing with others
  • Responding to feedback in school, home, or work tasks
  • Making good judgement and safety decisions in the community
  • Showing manners
  • Understanding subtle social norms in the community or play
  • Transitions in tasks in school or at home
  • Ability to screen out input during tasks
  • Cooperation in play and in group learning
  • Considering context in communication
  • Emotional control during games

Wow! That list puts into perspective how our kids with sensory processing concerns really may be struggling. And, when you look at it from the flip-side, perhaps some of our children who struggle with, say, fine motor issues may have sensory concerns in the mix too.

Break it down

Let’s break this down even further. There is a connection between social emotional skills and executive functioning skills. When you read through that list of occupations, many of the areas of struggle have a component related to impulse control, working memory, attention, focus, metacognition, and persistence, etc. This chart explains more:

Executive function and social and emotional learning relationship in behavioral regulation and emotional regulation skills.

Image from here.

And, that is just one aspect of friendship/social participation. Consider the connection of social/emotional skills and executive functioning skills in activities of daily living, social participation, learning, play, or chores!

Emotional regulation is a topic that can get hairy, and fast. Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with. For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, FASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging. Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships.

>>When you’re a parent or teacher watching a child you care about struggle, it can be a helpless feeling. Some kids just don’t know what to do with their big emotions.

>>Perhaps you’ve tried everything you can think of and you’re still being held hostage by your child’s emotional outbursts.

>>Or, maybe you are a therapist working with dysregulated children having emotional meltdowns and a fixed mindset who really need the tools to manage overwhelming emotions.

What we do know is that more and more research is showing that emotional regulation and learning are linked.

  • In 2007, researchers stated, “Our findings suggest that children who have difficulty regulating their emotions have trouble learning in the classroom and are less productive and accurate when completing assignments,” (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).
  • “The ability to regulate emotions is an essential prerequisite for adaptive development and behavior” (Sousa Machado & Pardal, 2013).
Emotional regulation and executive functioning are deeply connected and critical of each other in completion of most every task and childhood occupation.

Social Emotional Learning Strategies

When we equip our students with tools to identify their emotions and self-regulate, we are giving them tools for life and promoting a positive environment for learning.

What might this look like at home, in online schooling, or in a classroom setting?

1. Connect emotions to behavior- Children may not have the language knowledge or understand how to explain what they are feeling. They may need concrete examples or scenarios to help them understand how their emotions are tied to their behavior. Does a storm make them feel nervous or scared? How do they react when they feel anxious about a test or quiz? When they argue with a sibling, how do they react? Once they are able to understand their emotions and how they are feeling, they can start using emotional regulation tools and strategies, like in the Creating Connections Toolkit (more on that in a minute!).

2. Be flexible and patient- Flexibility is something we have all been thrown into more than usual lately. But working with children on emotional regulation and understanding their emotions takes patience and being flexible. You may need to change up how you introduce emotions, or maybe a strategy you thought would work isn’t.

3. Set the tone and share your own feelings- This may feel uncomfortable for some of us, but sharing our own feelings with our students and clients and modeling the responses and strategies we are encouraging them to use will have a huge impact.

…it’s ALL connected!

A Sensory Strategy Guide

Having a toolkit of ideas to pull from so you can change things as needed is why we created the Creating Connections Toolkit.

This collection of products is a huge resource of printable activities, movement cards, breathing information sheets, games, play mats, journals, and so much more. It’s a resource that covers all of the areas listed above…the areas that our kids struggle in!

Myself along with other professionals have created this bundle of social emotional products. The Creating Connections Toolkit includes over 20 incredible social emotional and emotional regulation products that you can use every day in your therapy practice, in the classroom, and at home…for $19.

The guides in this bundle will help to teach your child breathing exercises and help you tame tantrums. You’ll get a routine planner and visual chore chart. The resources will help you understand sensory in a whole new way, and have a wealth of sensory play ideas right at your fingertips!

Get the Creating Connections social-emotional skills bundle here.

Executive Function and Emotions

Let’s break this down even further. There is a connection between social emotional skills and executive functioning skills. Critical thinking is a huge part of this. When you consider the daily occupations of kids, many of the areas of struggle have a component related to impulse control, working memory, attention, focus, metacognition, and persistence, etc. Big emotions can impact task performance in each of these areas in different ways.

  • Play
  • Cleaning up after oneself
  • Social/family relationships
  • Learning
  • Chores
  • Homework
  • Schooling at home
  • Reading
  • Grooming/Hygiene
  • Dressing/Bathing
  • Caring for materials

And, that is just some of the daily jobs that occupy a child or teen’s day. When we consider the connection of social/emotional skills and executive functioning skills in activities of daily living, social participation, learning, play, or chores, there is a lot going on!

Self-regulation skills of both sensory regulation and emotional regulation depends on various subcategories of executive functioning skills, including inhibition/impulse control, task initiation, working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. We know that all of these mental skills are deeply inter-connected and that executive functioning is like the air traffic control center of the brain…it keeps us operating as we should.

Impulse Control– Attention and impulses are another set of executive functioning skills that are very closely related.  When the distracted child can not focus on a specific task or conversation, or situation, then the tendency to impulsively respond is quite likely.  A great tool for assessing and monitoring impulses in the child with attention struggles is the impulse control journal.

Working memory– This executive functioning skill is the ability to act on past memories and manipulating the information in a new situation. Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations. 

Attention– Executive functions are heavily dependent on attention. Distractions can come in many forms. The child who is overly sensitive to sensory input may over respond to the slightest sounds, textures, sights, scents, tastes, or motions.  Children who are excessively distracted by their sensory needs will struggle to attend to simple commands. Other children are able to “keep it together” in a classroom or home setting yet their concentration is challenged. 

Self-Monitoring– This executive functioning skill goes hand in hand with attention and focus. Self monitoring allows us to keep ourselves in check in a situation.  We need to stay on task and focus on that a person is saying and respond in appropriate ways.  If the child with attention issues can not focus on what a person is saying for more than a few minutes, than the ability to respond appropriately can be a real issue.

Emotional Control- Kids with attention issues may not be able to attend for extended periods of time on a situation that enables them to control their emotions.  They can perseverate on the emotions of a specific situation or may not be “up to speed” on the situation at hand or be able to process their emotions as they attend to a different situation.  Issues with emotional control can then lead to behavioral responses as they struggle to keep their emotions in check.

Prioritizing- Planning out and picking the most important tasks of a project can be a struggle for the child with attention issues.  It can be easy to become overwhelmed and distracted by the options for importance.

Processing Speed- Processing speed refers to the ability to receive, understand, and process information in order to make a decision or response.  It also involves using working memory in a situation or experience.  Children who experience attention struggles may experience difficulty in retrieval of information (using working memory) and responding using that information (initiation). This carries over to missed information, difficulty keeping up with a conversation or lesson in school, or a fast-moving game or activity. 

Task Initiation– Children with attention difficulties can be challenged to start tasks.  It can be difficult to pull out the starting point or the most important parts of a multi-step project so that just starting is a real struggle.

Task Completion- Similar to the initiation of specific tasks, completing a task or project can be a real challenge for the child who is limited in attention.  Reading a multiple chapter book can seem overwhelming and quite difficult and just never is finished.  Cleaning a room can be a big challenge when there are visual, auditory, or other sensory-related distractions that make up the project.

Emotional regulation is a topic that can get hairy, and fast. Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with. For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, FASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging. Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships.

Executive function and emotional regulation activities for kids

Further development of executive functioning and emotional regulation can be fostered by the methods described here, as well as by some basic strategies:

  • Routines
  • Modeling behavior
  • Establishing a support system
  • Creative play
  • Emotional regulation strategies
  • Opportunities for movement and motor skill development
  • Practicing wellness, healthy habits, and wellbeing
  • Family Connection
  • Mindfulness and Growth Mindset
  • Social networks and interactive play
  • Coping tools for worries, stress, or changes to routines

All of these areas are covered in the 2021 Creating Connections Resources Bundle!

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function Strategies

Having a toolkit of ideas to pull from so you can change things as needed is why we created the Creating Connections Toolkit.

This collection of products is a huge resource of printable activities, movement cards, breathing information sheets, games, play mats, journals, and so much more. It’s a resource that covers all of the areas listed above…the areas that our kids struggle in!

Myself along with other professionals have created this bundle of social emotional products. The Creating Connections Toolkit includes over 20 incredible social emotional and emotional regulation products that you can use every day in your therapy practice, in the classroom, and at home…for $19.

The guides in this bundle will help to teach your child breathing exercises and help you tame tantrums. You’ll get a routine planner and visual chore chart. The resources will help you understand sensory in a whole new way, and have a wealth of sensory play ideas right at your fingertips!

Get the Creating Connections social-emotional skills bundle here.

P.S. This sale only goes from 7-8-21 through 7-13-21!

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Executive Function Tests

executive function tests

Many times, parents and educators ask about testing children for executive functioning skills. Today, we’re covering executive function tests that cover a range of cognitive skills as part of an executive functioning assessment. Let’s get started!

Executive function tests for therapists, including formal and informal executive functioning assessments.

Executive Function Tests

These executive functioning assessment tools can be used as part of a formal assessment, or used in part as an informal executive function assessment. These testing tools can also be included in a full OT assessment.

When determining a child’s need for skilled occupational therapy services, it is important to collect data through an occupational profile, formal and informal assessment tools, observation, and client/caregiver interview. However, there are a lot of different executive functioning assessment tools available, so it can be hard to determine the best one for you!

There are a multitude of different executive functioning assessment tools that vary in their applicable ages, administration type (questionnaire vs. participation-based), and standardization. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but check out a few favorites to see if one might fit your needs!

The Children’s Kitchen Task Assessment (CKTA)

The Children’s Kitchen Task Assessment (CKTA) is a fantastic non-standardized assessment of executive functioning skills. The CKTA is geared toward children ages 8-12. Let’s dissect this particular executive functioning assessment.

The CKTA asks children to make play dough from a recipe with both words and pictures. The CKTA itself is free, though you do need to make a kit of materials out of common household items. Children are rated based on the level of assistance they require, rather than their quality of performance.

Prior to starting the activity, the child is asked to respond to a few questions, including predicting how much help they will need to perform the activity. The child also responds to questions after participating, including their perceived level of assistance and performance, as well as how they could have done better. This is a great opportunity to develop self-reflection!

Try this executive function assessment using kitchen tasks: Children’s Kitchen Task Assessment.

The Executive Function Performance Test (EFPT)

The Executive Function Performance Test (EFPT) is another non-standardized assessment of executive functioning skills. The EFPT does not have a specified age range, though with the nature of the tasks, it is best suited for use with ages 14 and up.

During the EFPT, participants are asked to cook stovetop oatmeal, make a phone call, take a pretend medication, and pay pretend bills. Much like the CKTA, the participant is rated on their level of assistance and the participant also completes self-reflection components. Executive functioning skills become even more critical as a child grows up—executive functioning is critical in adulthood!

Try this executive function assessment, the Executive Function Performance Test.

Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning- 2nd Edition (BREIF-2)

The BRIEF-2 is a standardized, questionnaire-based executive functioning assessment. There are multiple options for the BRIEF-2: teacher report, parent report, and self-report (ages 11+). The general BRIEF-2 is for ages 5-18, though preschool and adult versions are available for an additional cost.

In completing the BRIEF-2, raters are asked to respond to statements relating to a wide variety of executive functioning skills. In order to increase validity, there are 3 subscales to determine any responses that would decrease validity: infrequency, inconsistency, and negativity.

To view or purchase: BRIEF-2.

Informal Executive Function Tests

There are several nontraditional and informal assessment methods for testing executive function skills. Executive functioning is important for nearly every task we complete each day. As a result, it can have an enormous impact on a child’s ability to participate in age-appropriate activities. However, these skills can also be easily assessed through many everyday activities!

Daily tasks such as self-care routines, learning tasks, chores, kitchen tasks, games, or problem-solving tasks, consider these aspects of executive function listed below. These are informal executive performance tests in a very functional strategy, taking into consideration the environment in which the task actually is performed.

  • Forming ideas to do an action (planning)
  • Starting an action (task initiation)
  • Using organization of tools and materials
  • Maintaining an action until the step is finished and knowing when a step is done (task completion, processing speed, impulse control, attention)
  • Switching behaviors or strategies to do the next step needed (prioritization, foresight)
  • Regulating, controlling, and adjusting body actions to deal with changes and new information along the way (working memory, strategizing)
  • Planning a tactic down the road to deal with a new issue or new direction (planning, cognitive flexibility)
  • Holding details in the working memory (working memory)
  • Controlling emotions (self-monitoring, emotional control, emotional regulation)
  • Thinking abstractly (problem solving, persistence, shift)
  • Knowing when the whole task is finished, stopping that task, and moving onto a different task or activity (hindsight)

Some simple tasks to assess these skills can be cooking a simple recipe, completing a chore, making a daily “to-do” list, preparing for a party or event, or other tasks that require several steps and a process of planning out tasks.

When in doubt, select an activity and see if you can assess multiple executive functioning skills within the activity! Whether an obstacle course, board game, or a craft, there are so many options to gather “real-time” data on how these skills are impacting a child!  

Executive Function Activities

Looking for applicable resources to informally test executive functioning skills as well as incorporate executive function activities into daily tasks? The Impulse Control Journal is your printable guide to working through tasks, multi-step activities, and daily issues that impact executive function. Not only does it address impulse control, the journal is a resource in organization, establishing habits and mindset, working through goals, and getting things accomplished.

Click here to access the Impulse Control Journal.

Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox

The Impulse Control Journal…a printable resource for helping kids strategize executive functioning skill development. When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

Grab the Impulse Control Journal to build organizational strategies, planning, prioritization, habits, and mindset in kids.

How to Use Visual Reward Charts

Visual reward chart ideas for visual schedules

Visual reward charts are a powerful tool in helping kids accomplish tasks like potty training, tying shoes, chores, or other tasks, and can be used in conjunction with visual schedules. The use of this hands-on visual schedule can be effective in building intrinsic motivation and even executive functioning skills. Here, we’ll take a better look at visual reward charts, how to create one, and other tips for visual schedules with an identified reward.

Use visual reward charts in visual schedules.

In OT, we talk about personal motivators as a therapeutic intervention. We ask our clients what they want to work on as their therapy. We take what is important to them and strive to accomplish personal goals. Visual reward charts that use personal goals as an end result is very much aligned with occupational therapy. A visual reward chart can be a great motivator when integrating a personal goal with therapeutic interventions (or working on specific tasks at home, like chores, making the bed, potty training, or other tasks).

Visual Reward Charts

I discovered early on in my occupational therapy journey that positive reinforcement and visual reinforcement were powerful ways to shape behaviors and to achieve goals. When I become a mom I found that rewarding targeted behaviors also worked incredibly well with my own children.

This tool really appealed to me because I am a visual, goal-orientated person. I love to make lists and tick off the tasks that I have completed and I have the habit of putting a star or smiley face on my calendar when I make it to gym and manage to squeeze a workout into my day.

I gain a sense of achievement when I look back over the month and see the stars dotted throughout the weeks. I am also motivated to try harder when I look back at the month and there are not that many smiley faces staring back at me!

Reward charts can be highly motivating and very helpful in establishing specific behaviours and reinforcing necessary habits. But reward charts have also received a fair amount of criticism from those who are concerned that children will expect to receive a reward at every turn. The worry that children will become completely reward-focused has been followed up with research on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation in the early years of development.

While it is clear that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are necessary in shaping children’s willingness to learn the role of reward charts remains under review.

Why Visual Reward Charts?

Visual reward charts build intrinsic motivation. In my experience each child I work with is completely unique. Some children are self-driven and easy to motivate and reward charts aren’t necessary. Some children are inspired by working towards a goal and visually tracking their progress. In these cases reward charts have been an absolute hit.

Develop executive functioning skills– Visual schedules that offer a personal goal or reward at the completion can be an effective way to shape a child’s actions in a given situation. Visual reward charts can provide a clear outline of the steps toward a goal that the child wants to accomplish. This can be a powerful tool in addressing initiation, task completion, and other executive functioning skills.

Visual schedules improve functioning- You’ve probably seen potty schedule reward charts, chore charts, reading reward charts, or savings charts (kids save up their money in order to purchase a wanted item). All of these visual charts use the concept of a visual schedule; Complete tasks for a certain period of time and at the end a benefit is gained. The benefit is personal autonomy.

There are many forms of reward charts that work to a functional goal:

  • Potty training chart
  • Chore charts
  • Reading reward chart
  • Math facts reward chart
  • Money savings chart
  • Tying shoes chart
  • Brushing teeth chart

Visual prompts are helpful in teaching the steps of toothbrushing.

Visual schedules can help with toilet training.

Schedules can get kids organized an on time for morning routines.

Visual charts offer a picture so children can “see” their progress– Working on a task can be abstract, especially for those with communication challenges. Visual chart that show time spent completing each therapy item, first-then charts, and visual schedules for autism or other neurodiverse individuals that need a visual breakdown of where they are in accomplishing a specific task.

Visual reward charts offer multisensory feedback- When children accomplish a portion of a task or complete a job in an activity (such as completing each activity of the therapy session, practicing handwriting for a certain number of trials, or performing steps of a task like potty training, they can move velcro image pieces to a visual chart, place stickers on a reward chart, or mark off that they completed those trials. That physical movement, plus the visual component, plus possible auditory feedback (Good Job!) offers positive reinforcement with multisensory feedback to the child. They will be motivated to continue and feel a sense of pride for moving the needle toward their goal.

How to Set up a Visual Reward Chart

There are strategies that impact how successful a reward chart is when it comes to achieving personal goals.

  • The reward chart must be simple and specific. To really gain the benefit of a reward chart you need to engage the child in the process of drawing up the chart.
  • The targeted task needs to be specified and not unrealistic for the child to achieve. The performance tasks should be discussed with the child and the child needs to understand why they are important for them to complete the activity. Explaining why the behavior is important makes the chart more meaningful for the child.
  • Only target one action or behavior at a time and focus on tasks that will have a positive impact on the child and family’s well-being.
  • Once the child has a clear understanding of what is expected of them, create a visual reminder of what that task is. Take a photograph of them performing the activity or draw a picture of it.
  • For older children’s description can be written on the chart.
  • Next decide on the number of times the action needs to be performed in order for them to receive a reward. Keep the number low for younger children and children who are new to reward charts. Expecting them to complete an activity 40 or 50 times before receiving a reward is unrealistic. Chances are they will give up long before they reach their goal.
  • Then decide on the reward. Most children have an idea of something they would like to work towards and this should be mutually agreed upon at the beginning of the exercise. A few of my children have said ‘surprise me’ and the added anticipation of not knowing their reward has been motivating for them.
  • When deciding on a reward make sure that it’s realistic and in keeping with the task. No trips to Disneyland for brushing your teeth. I try and avoid rewarding with sweets so that I don’t encourage a dependence on unhealthy food. Every child is unique but if you connect with the child you will find the right thing to get them working towards completing their chart.
  • Place the chart somewhere that is visible to the child and you are ready to go.
  • Make sure that you mark the chart as soon as the targeted behaviour is performed. Children become despondent if they have done their part and they have to wait three days to their action to be acknowledged.
  • Next be involved as the child completes the chart and focus on providing positive comments about the targeted behaviour they are performing.

When the chart is complete tell them how proud you are of their efforts and make a fuss of the fact they have worked towards achieving their goal. It is important that don’t become reliant on rewards and but focusing on the process they went through. Then, you can shift some of that extrinsic motivation to an awareness of how capable they are.

For other ideas on how to use positive reinforcement in conjunction with reward charts have a look at this resource.

A reward chart in action

The reward charts that I use are usually tailor made for the child and specific behaviour we are working towards. As I have already mentioned it’s important to keep the reward chart simple and specific.

A recent example of a chart I developed was to encourage a young four year old to get dressed in the morning. We established that he was capable of putting on his underwear, shorts and shirt but was really not interested in dressing himself each morning.

I took a photograph of him in his clothes and we stuck it on a page. This provided a clear simple visual of the outcome we were working towards.

We drew ten circles on the page and agreed that when he woke up and dressed himself in the morning he could color in a circle. This number of circles seemed attainable to the child. Remember that a visual chart with hundreds of blocks on it can be daunting.

We spoke about the fact that once all the circles were colored in he would have dressed himself independently ten times. Here we were focusing more on the process that the reward chart would be encouraging.

He loves dinosaurs and when we discussed a reward he asked if he could receive a dinosaur T-shirt when all of the circles were colored in. This seemed like a relevant reward given the task he was completing! We stuck a small picture of a dinosaur at the bottom of the page so he could remember the goal he was working towards. And that was his reward chart.

He was very excited about his chart and managed to complete the chart in eleven days. He woke up in the mornings and apart from one morning that he was feeling quite grumpy he dressed himself independently! His mom made a big deal of how proud she was and how grown up he was that he had dressed himself so well. She made a show of sending a message to his grandparents to tell them about his accomplishment as well. And she bought him a dinosaur shirt which is a firm favorite of his. What a cool reminder of what he is capable of!

In this case the reward chart worked well. It was presented in a positive way and the child was fully immersed in the process. Adjusting the reward chart according to the child’s age, interest and goal will go a long way towards helping them establish good habits.

Main points to remember about visual reward charts

  • Engage the child in the process
  • Target a specific behaviour
  • Have a visual representation of the behaviour
  • Decide on an appropriate number of repetitions of the behaviour
  • Decide what the reward is
  • Place the chart in a visible spot
  • Mark the chart as soon as the behaviour is performed
  • Praise the child’s efforts
  • Provide them with the reward when the chart is completed

Contributor to The OT Toolbox: Janet Potterton is an occupational therapist working predominantly in school-based settings and I love, love, love my job. I have two children (if you don’t count my husband!), two dogs, one cat, two guinea pigs and one fish. When I am not with my family or at work I try to spend time in nature. The beach is my happy place.

Executive Function Activities (at the Beach!)

executive function activities

Executive functioning development is partly learning through experience, and partly trial and error. But did you know you could foster powerful executive function activities through everyday experiences? Here, we’re chatting how to foster executive functioning skills through play…and even at the beach! Add these ideas to improve executive functioning skills this summer.

Executive function activities don't need to be boring. Use these executive function activities at the beach or while on vacation.

Heading out of town on vacation to the beach soon? Check out these cool ways to work on executive functioning while you’re there! Once you get back, get to work on these seashell souvenirs!

Looking for engaging executive functioning activities doesn’t need a trip to the beach. Some of these ideas can be set up in your own backyard. But, if you are going on a vacation or trip this summer, why not use it to foster development of skills through executive functioning activities?

Executive Functioning Activities: Planning and Prioritizing for a Vacation

Trips to the beach can be a great opportunity for families to enjoy some time away! They can also be a fun way to integrate some therapy. Sensory processing, motor skills, executive functioning—the options are endless! Sensory processing and motor skills might seem more obvious than executive functioning. Let’s take a deeper look at a few popular activities at the beach and how they can use executive functioning!

You can start working on executive functioning even before you leave for the trip! These are excellent ways to work on planning and prioritization skills. Especially important in planning for a vacation is the prioritization aspect: when to pack, when to set aside time to wash necessary clothing, making the time to plan out a trip and make reservations can all impact the success of a vacation.

  • Have your child look up the forecast
  • Work on creating a packing list
  • Schedule time to gather needed items
  • Work together to organize vacation items into available bags.

This can be a great way to get them involved! It also challenges their ability to delay gratification, as they will need to wait until it is time to go, even if that is a few days away. Time management will also be necessary so that packing doesn’t take all day!

Executive Function Activities: Build Sandcastles

Kids love building sandcastles! This activity requires a lot of executive functioning skills.

A child needs to use impulse control so that no one gets sand thrown in their eyes and to avoid the castle from being smashed prior to completion.

The child also needs to develop a plan and organize their ideas prior to or as they build in order to get the product they would like.

They need to recall where they put their shovels or buckets, as well as sequence multiple components as they build.

They also need to problem solve, as the sand might not be their desired consistency! Sandcastles—a great, complex way to work on executive functioning!

Executive Function Activities: Skipping Stones

Remember trying to skip stones during calm days on the water? This is another great way to integrate the use of executive functioning skills.

Stones need to meet specific criteria in order to be the best candidates. Or, this can become an area for problem solving or making predictions (foresight) to see what type of stone might skip best.

Certainly, there is a significant amount of impulse control needed in order to ensure safety of others in the area! Work on emotional control through contests of who gets their stone the farthest, especially if a child has difficulty losing.

Don’t have the motor planning or coordination to skip stones? No problem! Toss stones into a pool of water instead.

Boogie boards/knee surfing Executive Function Activity

Boogie boarding or knee surfing can be another activity to work on executive functioning in a hidden way! A child needs to plan their motor movements before they take place, as well as consider timing of waves. Safety awareness will also be important, along with persistence, since this can be a challenging activity!

The beach is a great way to work on a variety of developmental skills, whether sensory processing, motor skills, or executive functioning! Enjoy some of these activities on your upcoming trip and enjoy the benefits of the beach!

Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox

The Impulse Control Journal…a printable resource for helping kids strategize executive functioning skill development. When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

Grab the Impulse Control Journal to build organizational strategies, planning, prioritization, habits, and mindset in kids.

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Ice Cream Working Memory Activity

ice cream activity for working memory skills

This ice cream activity is also a working memory activity that combines the two themes into a hit of a therapy tool…a lot like combining ice cream and sprinkles! If building working memory skills this summer is on your to-do list, than this interactive ice cream ice cream activity is sure to be a hit! Add this to your summer OT activities and let’s build executive functioning skills!

Ice cream activity that is a working memory activity too!

Working Memory Activity

Working memory is a skill that can be difficult for many children but is used and needed for so many functional tasks. Working memory is an executive functioning skill that kids need for safety completing assignments reading participating in self-care tasks interacting with others and basically every task that we complete throughout the day.

We use working memory to complete school tasks, self-care tasks, and everyday living tasks!

Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations.  Working memory allows us to learn, play, and interact with the world around us. The skill allows us to self-regulate, and pull strategies that have worked (or didn’t work) for us in the past. Using working memory skills we can use past information in reading in order to read, spell, know math facts, phone numbers, faces, addresses, sight words…and so much more.  We can remember our way back home, state capitals, mnemonics, phone numbers, addresses, and friends’ names.  We can then use that information to answer questions based on what we know and apply that information in new situations. All of these abilities are working memory at work!

Ice Cream Working Memory Activity

That’s where this ice cream activity that address is working memory is comes in handy.

This ice cream working memory activity is a free virtual slide deck that can be used with teletherapy or to facilitate face-to-face therapy sessions as well as home programming or school activities.

In the ice cream working memory slide deck kids can move through the slides and work on various skills while they complete each slides instructions. The slide deck is designed to support and practice skills including:

  • working memory
  • visual attention
  • visual scanning
  • eye-hand coordination
  • direction following
  • sequencing

This slide deck is able to be graded to expand the activities and make them easier or harder for individual students based on their needs.

You can grade the activities by asking students to complete two or more tasks for each slide.

For example you can read the directions on the slide and then add additional steps or additional details that they need to remember and recall. Each ice cream ice cream on the slide deck is movable so this interactive slide deck is an interesting and fun way to work on specific skills for kids. When you open this slide deck in your Google Drive you can edit it in order to move the individual ice cream cones.

This is an engaging and motivating way for kids to work on listening sequencing motor planning and direction following. And this slide deck can be adjusted so that it addresses specifically different needs for kids you can for example move the ice cream cones to other areas on the slide that were give them to individual children based on descriptive colors or positions so that you’re working on other skills as well such as body awareness and position in space or other listening and comprehension skills.

Working Memory Activity for handwriting

When we write or copy material, we need to recall how to hold the pencil including verbal cues or physical cues we’ve experienced in the past. The ability to recall those cues during a similar task involved working memory. The ability to translate those cues to a muscle memory involves working memory as well.

You can see how working memory plays a role in letter formation, number formation, line use, spacing, sizing, pencil grasp, margin use, capitalization, punctuation, and overall legibility in handwriting.

Ice Cream Activity for Working Memory Skills

The slide deck with an ice cream theme is very engaging and fun for kids and it can be used to work on other areas to such as handwriting and visual motor skills.

There are several slides in the slide deck that work address on hand writing and copying skills kids can copy the different ice cream terms in and work on handwriting skills such as:

  • letter formation
  • letter size
  • line awareness
  • copying from a distant or near point

There are also drawing activities to address visual motor skills.

Kids can copy the simple and complex forms on the slide deck and work on details that are needed for copying work such as handwriting or lists in the classroom. When kids copy from a form they are working on visual motor skills in order to copy the form but they are also furthering their working memory skills by not missing any pieces of the drawing.

There are so many ways to use this engaging and motivating ice cream activity to work on working number memory skills!

Would you like to add this ice cream working memory activity to your therapy Toolbox? Enter your email address into the form below and you can access this therapy tour on your Google Drive. It’s able to be used in teletherapy sessions home programming face-to-face therapy sessions or in the home or classroom.

FREE Ice Cream Activity for Working Memory

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    More Ice Cream Activities

    Want more movement activities? Check out these fun ideas:

    Working on building skills this summer? The Summer OT Bundle is for you!

    Summer occupational therapy activities bundle

    Work on fine motor skills, visual perception, visual motor skills, sensory tolerance, handwriting, scissor skills, and much more so that kids can accomplish self-care tasks, learn, and grow through play all summer long.

    This bundle is perfect for the pediatric occupational therapist who needs resources and tools to use in summer therapy sessions, home programs, or extended school year therapy plans.

    This bundle is perfect for parents, grandparents, and caregivers looking to provide developmental fine motor activities designed to help kids build skills.

    • Send kids back to school in the Fall without worrying about the “Summer Slide”.
    • Use these materials to work on areas like hand strength, fine motor development, scissor skills, handwriting, pencil control, pencil grasp, sensory play experiences, and much more. Just pull out the pages or activities you need for your child, and develop skills through play!

    The Summer OT Bundle includes 19 resources that you can print and use over and over again:

    Helping children develop and achieve functional skills this summer was never so easy (or fun!)

    Be sure to grab the Summer OT Bundle, a HUGE resource of therapy tools and activities for all things building skills this summer.

    Grab the Summer OT Bundle here.

    Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.