Exercise and Mood: Why Does my Child Need to Exercise?

Exercise and mood in kids

Years of research and personal experience can tell us that adults tend to function better with regular exercise. Exercise helps us sleep better, reduce our stress, and manage our weight2. But what about our kids – how do they benefit from exercise? Today we are going to dive deep into the research and see why and how our kids should exercise to better their mood. Let’s look at the link between exercise and mood.

Related: Emotional Regulation and Executive Functioning Skills.

Exercise and mood in children. Kids benefit from exercise to help with tantrums, behaviors, and confidence.

Exercise and Mood: Managing TEMPER TANTRUMS

If your child is having issues with emotional regulation, it may come out as a temper tantrum. You know the feeling of having no control over your emotions; being taken on a ride of sadness, aggression, and pounds of heavy frustration. Most adults have had enough practice honing their emotional regulation skills to keep them from screaming in the middle of the grocery store after a long day. Children, however, are still working on developing emotional regulation skills, and because of that, their overall mood can suffer.

According to research new and old, exercise can help a child better regulate their mood9. Next time your child is screaming in the middle of Target, think to yourself – have they gotten enough physical activity recently? I have found that 30 mins of exercise in the morning can help even out moods for the whole day. Plus, you are bound to get a good nap time out of them if they have gotten enough physical activity – double whammy for everyone’s mood!

Tips for Exercise and Mood

Try these tips for encouraging exercise to reduce tantrums in toddlers:

  • Instead of pushing your toddler in a scroller on neighborhood walks, encourage them to walk next to you for a while.
  • Use classic movement songs to incorporate movement into their day – our favorites are “Animal Action” By Greg and Steve, “Jim Along Josie” By Pete Seeger, and “Pet Parade” by Hoyt Axton.
  • If screen time is a part of your routine, use videos like Cosmic Kids Yoga  to make the screen time more valuable.


Research shows that regular exercise in youth can treat anxiety and depression in the short term and long-term 3,4. Some studies suggest that high-intensity exercises, that will increase cardiorespiratory activity, improve mood more than low-impact exercises, like yoga5.

While there is lots of evidence to support that exercise can improve mood in both adults and children, some of the research points to other affects that exercise programs can have on children. For example, when children are enrolled in sports or other physical activity programs, they are also socially active and get attention from adults, which may also positively impact their mood7.

Whatever way you look at it, exercise is likely to improve their mood and guard against anxiety and depression.

Exercise for self-CONFIDENCE

One way that exercise improves mood is through raising self-esteem – physical activity gives you a confidence boost! Research shows that all kinds of physical activity contribute to a rise in self-esteem5.

Self-esteem is so important in all the occupations that children have, particularly in school. Academic and social success are partially dependent on self-esteem and self-worth, and both contribute to a positive mood.

“Psychological and behavioural problems in children and adolescents are common, and improving self‐esteem may help to prevent the development of such problems” (Ekeland et al., 2004).

Exercise and positive BEHAVIORS

In one study, researchers found that teachers reported an increase in wanted behaviors for children enrolled in both high and low-intensity exercise programs5. The theory here is that when a child’s physical activity needs are met, they are better able to regulate their emotions, attention, and behaviors9.

This comes with the awesome effects that exercise has for executive functioning, which controls many cognitive abilities6. With this increase in desirable behaviors, they will be more likely to develop positive relationships with their peers, teachers, and family members8.

“Exercise…is highly relevant in preadolescent children… given the importance of well-developed executive functions for daily life functioning” (Verburgh et al., 2014). 

Exercise has been shown to increase self-esteem, cognition and academic success, and decrease depression and anxiety in children3. Not to mention the obvious health factors associated with physical activity like heart and respiratory function. All said, exercise is integral to the overall health and wellness of our children.


After all that exercise talk, we have to offer some great ideas to add to your list! Most important to any exercise routine – you have to do what you love! Find what your kids like and encourage them to try new activities.


1. Ekeland, E., Heian, F., Hagen, K. B., Abbott, J. M. & Nordheim, L. (2004). Exercise to improve self‐esteem in children and young people. Cochrane Libary of Systematic Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003683.pub

2. Oaten, M. & Cheng, K. (2010). Longitudinal gains in self‐regulation from regular physical exercise. The British Journal of Health Psychology,11(4). https://doi.org/10.1348/135910706X96481

3. Ortega, F. B., Ruiz, J. R., Castillo, M. J. & Sjöström, M. (2008). Physical fitness in childhood and adolescence: a powerful marker of health. International Journal of Obesity, 32, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijo.0803774

4. Pascoe, M. C. & Parker, A. G. (2018). Physical activity and exercise as a universal depression prevention in young people: A narrative review. Early Intervention in Psychiatry, 13(4). https://doi.org/10.1111/eip.12737

5. Telles, S., Singh, N., Bhardwaj, A. D., Kumar, A. & Balkrishna, A. (2013). Effect of yoga or physical exercise on physical, cognitive and emotional measures in children: a randomized controlled trial. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health,7(37). https://doi.org/10.1186/1753-2000-7-37

6. Verburgh, L., Königs, M., Scherder, E. J. A., & Oosterlaan, J. (2014). Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents and young adults: a meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine,48, 973-979. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/12/973

7. Williams, C. F., Bustamante, E. E., Waller, J. L. & Davis, C. L. (2019). Exercise effects on quality of life, mood, and self-worth in overweight children: the SMART randomized controlled trial. Translational Behavioral Medicine,9(3), 451–459. https://doi.org/10.1093/tbm/ibz015

8. Xue, Y., Yang, Y. & Huang, T. (2019). Effects of chronic exercise interventions on executive function among children and adolescents: A systematic review with meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine,53, 1397-1404. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-097600

9. Zhang, Y., Fu, R., Sun, L., Gong, Y., & Tang, D. (2019). How does exercise improve implicit emotion regulation ability: Preliminary evidence of mind-body exercise intervention combined with aerobic jogging and mindfulness-based yoga. Frontiers in Psychology,10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01888

Sydney Rearick, OTS, is an occupational therapy graduate student at Concordia University Wisconsin. Her background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about meeting your family’s needs. After working as a nanny for the last decade, Sydney is prepared to handle just about anything an infant, toddler, or child could throw at her. She is also a newly established children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

Exercise and Mood Resources for Kids

You’ll love these resources designed to help kids get moving, exercising, and building skills, and kids won’t even realize they are “exercising”!

Designed to use fun themes, these heavy work activity cards add proprioceptive input to help kids become more aware of their body’s position in space.

Heavy work input allows kids to gain more awareness of motor planning skills, coordination, AND strengthening in fun and creative ways.

Incorporate the themed exercise cards into learning themes or play.

Grab your set of heavy work exercise cards, now.

Includes themes:

  1. Trucks Heavy Work Activities
  2. Insects Heavy Work Activities
  3. Sea Animals Heavy Work Activities
  4. Farm Animals Heavy Work Activities
  5. Jungle Animals Heavy Work Activities
  6. Woodland Animals Heavy Work Activities
  7. Superheroes Heavy Work Activities
  8. Sports Heavy Work Activities
  9. Monsters Heavy Work Activities
  10. Summer Heavy Work Activities
  11. Butterfly Life Cycle Heavy Work Activities
heavy work activity card example

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

emotional regulation and executive functioning skills are connected.

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.

Emotional regulation and executive functioning are deeply connected and critical of each other in completion of most every task and childhood occupation.

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.

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.

>>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).
Executive function and emotional regulation activities for kids

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.

Creating connections emotional regulation tools

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 through Friday the 10th!

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


Modeling behavior

Establishing a support system

Creative play

Opportunities for movement and motor skill developmnt

Social networks and interactive play

Coping tools for worries, stress, or changes to routines

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.

Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is a big term that encompasses many skills including executive functioning, thinking, doing, and regulation.

Critical thinking is intentional thinking that is involved in the process of completing tasks. In this post, we will dissect critical thinking. This essential executive functioning skill helps us accomplish complex tasks. Let’s talk critical thinking for kids!

Critical thinking is a big term that encompasses many skills including executive functioning, thinking, doing, and regulation.

What is Critical Thinking

Let’s start with executive function. Executive function encompasses the critical thinking skills of planning, organizing, prioritization, time management, working memory, attention, and other skills. Critical thinking is similar and requires the use of executive functioning. Critical thinking includes observing and analyzing, self-reflection, interpretation of available information, evaluation and inference (based on working memory), problem solving (metacognition), and decision making.

Within the aspects of critically thinking are many thinking and doing processes that allow us to follow through with the completion of tasks.

We’ve discussed previously that executive function does not fully mature until adulthood. It is important to recognize that fact because many times, we expect kids and teenagers to exhibit maturity in their decision-making and meta cognition.

Critical thinking or strategic thinking? Which is it?

Strategic Thinking and Critical Thinking

Strategic thinking may be commonly known as a business term that describes savvy business decisions to lead a business to success. But, there are similarities between the strategic planning of a business and critical thinking involved in executive functioning tasks. In business, strategic thinking involves using a business plan as well as past successes and failures in order to reach business goals. Strategic thinking requires initiation, planning, prioritization, observation, and self-assessment.

Similarly, critical thinking in order to self-analyze, create goals, initiate tasks, and plan out a task follows along with the same process.

Critical thinking for kids is essential to accomplish tasks and learn. Here is how to help kids build these brain skills.

Critical thinking for kids

Critically analyzing given information so we can strategize a plan and follow through with that plan based on what we know sounds a lot like executive functioning, right? We know that executive functioning doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood. But, we ask a lot of our kids when it comes to integrating critical thinking/executive functioning/regulation.

These skills, together, allow us to integrate the areas of strategic thinking that we need to accomplish tasks:

-Regulate emotions and behaviors

-Pay attention during tasks

-Complete tasks with an awareness of working memory

-Initiate tasks when it can be hard to decide on the best “first step”

-Transition between tasks

Some of our kids really struggle with this process on a daily basis! Critical thinking in kids can be a real struggle, but we can help by breaking things down into bite-sized steps.

Critical thinking skills involves integration of thinking, doing, and regulation to analyze and make decisions.

Critical Thinking Broken Down

When it comes to accomplishing a task, there are two parts that we need to separate. The first is the thinking of the task. The second is the actual doing of the task.

We’ll break down all of the specific pieces of critical thinking by dissecting the task of writing a book report.

Say you know a child who has a book report to write and it’s due on Monday. They’ve known about this project for some time and have read the book (mainly in class), but haven’t actually done any of the actual book report work. They have this weekend to get it completely finished to turn in on Monday morning, while going through the routine of a typical weekend: activities, events, chores, relaxation/down time…(sound like a familiar situation, parents?)

Let’s pull apart the process of knowing there is a book report due on Monday to the completion of that assignment. Talk about executive functioning skills and critical thinking, right??

Think of it this way: When a child has a book report to do, they know they need to do it. It’s been talked about in the classroom for a few days. The assignment might be in the back of their mind. So, when the child has the weekend to complete the book report, they know they need to start thinking about actually sitting down to do it. But, what about the Friday night time with friends? And the Saturday morning sleep-in time? And the baseball practice Saturday afternoon? And the family party that’s planed for Saturday evening? And, and, and? We are all well aware of exactly HOW FAST a weekend can slip away from us in the blink of an eye. There is a lot going on during a typical weekend! So pulling out time to actually break away from the “fun” and initiate a book report?? It’s not easy. It takes some skills: planning, prioritization, and task initiation. Then, they need to consider other things they have on their schedule during that weekend so they can plan ahead. (More Planning Skills)

Next, They need to plan out what they are going to write about. (Planning Skills)

They need to gather all of the materials they need to complete the task, like pencils, paper, and the book. (Organization Skills)

They need to recall important facts from the book and pull out that information. They need to recall how they’ve written a book report in the past or the assignments they’ve done in preparation for this project that will help them. They need to gather their thoughts to know where to even begin on this report and start thinking about a topic or a viewpoint they are taking with this report. (Working Memory)

Finally, they need to think about how they can use those facts and prior experiences to write statements that make sense in their book report. They need to think about what they’ve written in if they might need more information. They need to be self-reflective in their writing. (Metacognition Skills)

All of those tasks involved thinking about actually writing the book report. It didn’t involve the writing portion and accomplishing the task to fruition.

The next part of accomplishing the task of writing a book report involves the “doing”.

The child needs to regulate behaviors and emotions so they can stay on task without having an attitude or tantrum. They need to inhibit the desire to refuse to write the book report because they would rather check their phone or go play video games. (Response Inhibition)

They need to start the process of writing the report by sitting down and getting started on the book report and not get angry or upset by the task at hand. (Emotional Control)

They need to maintain attention during the entire task. (Sustained Attention)

There is a need to be flexible, as well. The student needs to adjust to other tasks that need accomplished during that weekend, and be flexible in their thinking and task completion. (Flexibility)

Finally, they need to actually complete the report to completion while retaining focused on their goal of getting that book report done so it can be turned in on Monday morning. (Goal Oriented Activity)

These critical thinking examples and tips will help kids build critical thinking skills to learn and develop.

Critical Thinking Examples

It’s a lot to process, right? That project, when broken down, has some major skill building lessons within the assignment. Here are those specific skills again:

The thinking skills:

  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Time Management
  • Working Memory
  • Metacognition

The doing skills:

  • Response Inhibition
  • Emotional Control
  • Sustained Attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Flexibility
  • Goal-directed Activity
How to develop critical thinking in kids and teens using real strategies that work.

How to improve critical thinking

So, how can we take a major project like a book report and make it an assignment that helps kids build each of these critical thinking skills? By breaking down that assignment into bite sized pieces and working on each area!

Critical thinking activities for kids and teenagers to help with executive functioning needed for multi-step tasks like completing a book report.

Kids with executive functioning skill challenges really struggle with critical thinking. And vice versa. Here are some ways to help teach kids impulse control for improved attention, self-regulation, and learning so they can do hard things:

  • Goal tracker
  • Reduce clutter
  • Make goals
  • Break big tasks or projects into smaller steps
  • Make a schedule (picture-based or list)
  • Social stories
  • Act out situations beforehand
  • Count to three before answering/responding
  • Self-rewards
  • Self-talk
  • Reduce time to complete tasks
  • Increase time to complete tasks
  • Think through and predict social interactions before going into a situation
  • Control buddy
  • Ask for help
  • Habit tracker
  • Use a strategy checklist
  • Carry a goal list
  • Positive thought notebook

All of these strategies are built and monitored in our resource, The Impulse Control Journal.

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 Journal 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 download and print to use over and over again.

 Read more about The Impulse Control Journal HERE.  There are so many strategies to address attention in kids and activities that can help address attention needs. One tactic that can be a big help is analyzing precursors to behaviors related to attention and addressing underlying needs. 

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.

Self Awareness Activities Slide Deck

Use this free self awareness activity slide deck in occupational therapy teletherapy

Helping kids become more more self aware is a skill that can help with emotional regulation, goals, executive functioning skills, goal achievement, and so much more. Today, I’ve got self-awareness activities for kids in the form of a free Google slide deck. This is a powerful social emotional development tool for kids. Use these awareness activities to help kids become more aware of how they feel, the things they are good at, personal goals, interests, and positive traits. You’ll find the animal themed activities below. First, let’s discuss awareness for kids.

Self awareness activities for kids

Self awareness for kids

For kids and adults alike, self-awareness is a means to become more aware of how they are behaving and thinking. Using that awareness of self and applying the ability to self-monitoring through strategies can help with improved behavioral outcomes. When we respond to situations, most of us have a monitoring system or the ability to monitor how we feel, think, and act so that we can respond appropriately. Self monitoring leads to behavioral responses and functioning so we are able to complete tasks in a given situaion.

Being aware of one’s needs, goals, emotional state, thoughts, behaviors, and responses can help within a situation. Awareness offers an opportunity for the need for self-care and self-advocacy.

Self awareness is a metacognitive skill needed for higher level thinking

All of our life experiences, including functioning in day-to-day tasks, learning, and social participation requires self-reflection or an awareness of self. Without self awareness, learning, participation, following rules, social interactions, lawfulness, and all aspects of occupational performance may be threatened.

Self-awareness is a skill that allows for emotional regulation and behavioral regulaiton. For some, these are extremely difficult. When awareness of one’s preferences, tendencies, emotions, reactions, one can begin to understand their needs. Having a sensory diet in place as part of a sensory lifestyle is just one tool to address sensory needs. Using coping strategies to help with regulation needs can be a life-changer. Using stress reduction tools to address anxiety or anger can be powerful in adapting. There are tools to address specific needs of all kinds. One of the first steps in identifying needs is the understanding of self-awareness.

For more information on integrating a sensory diet into a sensory lifestyle, try the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook, a comprehensive resource in integrating functional sensory diet based on individual interests in a motivating manner.

Understand how self awareness skills develop in kids

Development of self awareness

For children, the ability to self-monitor and be aware of their thoughts, skills, abilities, interests, emotions, and behaviors, these skills may be challenges.g It takes practice and experience for a child to have the ability to self-reflect. Research tells us that self-awareness begins to develop in childhood, but involves metacognition, or interospection. Metacognition is a skill that is acquired later in childhood, in the adolescent years.

One study of metcognition has found that the skill develops at a functional level for basic metacognitive skills around age 13 to 14. More generalized or advanced metacognition develops around age 15. This study also determined that between the age of 12 and 15 years teenagers develop in qualitiy of metacognitive skills, however this development varies between individuals. Aspects of higher level cognition skills such as those commonly discussed when covering executive functioning skills impact self-reflection: orientation, planning, evaluation, and elaboration. Like other aspects of executive functioning, self-awareness and reflection (metacognition) develops until at least the age of 22.

Another aspect of executive functioning, working memory, is a skill that impacts metacognition and self-reflection. Younger teens have been observed to have a lower level metacognitive skills that are applied to single situations or limited transfer of skill. Older teens, as metacognition develops, are capable of transfer of metacognition across environments. This higher-level inference involves conscious formulation of abstractions in one situation that allows for making a connection to another situation.

Self awareness examples and self reflection strategies for kids

Self awareness examples

In the self awareness slide deck you’ll find below, there are several main areas covered. These are essential pieces of the self reflection and self monitoring puzzle.

Identification of positive traits- Knowing what they are good at. The slide deck prompts kids to identify 5 things they are good at. This exercise is a booster in self-esteem and can be a starting point for addressing goals.

self awareness activities include self reflection

Compliments- Learning to identify what others are good at and telling them is an important skill. Authentic compliments identify positive traits in others. Noticing these details about others builds an awareness of oneself as well as others.

Emotions- The first step of emotional development is identifying emotions. We can see by the faces someone makes how they are feeling. Putting a label to that emotion is a strong skill.

Emotional self-awareness- Moving on, kids can describe how they are feeling at any given moment. They can identify how they might feel in a situation. Then, they can identify coping tools and put words into their feelings and emotions.

Self awareness is an important part of social emotional skill development.

Growth mindset- This skill is powerful in self-awareness and metacognition. Using a growth mindset allows room for development in your internal belief system. You have room to learn and develop as a person and understand that there is room for improvement regarding behaviors or actions. This mindset, when it comes to self awareness, limits self-judgement and hopelessness.

Self awareness activities include a growth mindset

Interests- Identifying interests is a first-step in self-awareness. Our Sensory Lifestyle Handbook covers interests and motivation in great detail. The research tells us that interests impact motivation and goal achievement. Looking deeper into oneself to identify interests is a great first step.

Goals- Goals don’t need to be all about behaviors and actions. A beginning step can be identifying goals that others might have and the steps it takes to get there. A simple goal achievement path builds skills in planning, prioritization, organization, and other executive functioning skills.

self awareness activities address goals

Setting goals- A higher level task of setting goals covers self-reflection as well as those items covered in goal achievement. Kids can be guided to set goals that are important, achievable, satisfying, and motivating. Then, identifying milestones and the steps to get there can make it easier to achieve, making them motivating and a self-confidence booster.

Self awareness activities

Setting one’s own goals- Setting goals can be helpful for kids as they learn to work toward a meaningful goal. This process helps them learn focus, planning, prioritization, self-esteem and goal achievement. Setting goals and identifying goals impact self awareness. Part of goal setting includes getting super clear on what’s important to a child. Kids can examine their process and identity actions they’ve taken toward those goals. They can identify what’s working and what hasn’t worked. They can create a plan for moving forward. All parts of this process improves self-awareness through self-reflection.

Provide opportunities for kids to self-reflect- Ask questions based on concrete acquisition of knowledge and open up conversations such as, “Before, I thought… Now, I think…”

Role playing (role reversal)- Kids can sometimes “see” how their actions or reactions impact themselves and others when the situation is acted out. Coping tools or strategies can be used in the role play as a practice run.

Zone of regulation activities- Using Zones of regulation activities to address self-awareness is an effective strategy for many children. The Zones program was developed to help kids learn a greater internal awareness while using self-regulatory behaviors and emotional adaptive skills for functional use.

Keep a journal- Keeping a record of small wins, mini goals, struggles, efforts, and day-to-day progression can be so powerful for kids (and adults!) The Impulse Control Journal is a comprehensive resource that can be printed off and used over and over again as a journal for addressing and building executive functioning skills, including the essential component of self awareness.

Goal Attainment Scaling- This AOTA article shares examples of how goal attainment scaling can be used to measure changes in individual behaviors using a self-rating scale for specific actions in response to goals. This self-awareness strategy offers a means for the child and their therapist to track progress on goals to help accomplish individual goals and accomplish a specific aspect of functioning, or occupation.

Self-cuing- Using self cuing is a tool to help recall instructions, coping strategies, tactics, or even a visual prompt that delivers a step-by-step directive in a situation. Visual prompts can be as simple as a list, or a social story that is visible or accessible during a situation. These visual reminders can be a building block for self-awareness and reinforcement of strategies that have been determined to work for an individual.

Video modeling- Making a video recording of a child within a treatment session can be another way to help the individual see how they are responding in a situation. They can then watch their actions, behaviors, and choices as well as use of coping tools or modulation strategies within a situation. The video should be reviewed with the child and discussed what they did well and what might work better next time.

This free self awareness activity slide deck is great for kids to develop self reflection skills with an animal theme

Self-Awareness Slides

These self awareness slides use an animal theme to help kids become more aware of them self through self-reflection. The slides work through the aspects of self awareness that we outlined above. Beginning skills are covered and kids can work on each area in a fun and creative way.

Enter your email into the form below and you can access this free therapy slide deck to help kids build self awareness skills.

Self awareness activities include emotional regulation aspects

Get a free Self-Awareness Animal Theme Slide Deck

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at anytime.
    Powered By ConvertKit


    Foster L. and Lueger, K. (2014). Model Behavior: Helping Adolescents With Autism Through Goal Attainment Scaling and Video Self-Modeling. OT Practice 19(2), 79. http://dx.doi.org/10.7138/otp.2014.192f1.

    Kindergarten Readiness and Executive Functioning Skills

    Kindergarten readiness and developing executive functioning skills in kindergarten

    Many parents of preschoolers have questions about preparing for kindergarten. There are kindergarten checklists and loads of resources online designed to address kindergarten readiness. One area that parents might miss when getting ready for kindergarten is the concept of executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills develop from very early in childhood! These skills can easily be developed
    through fun, age-appropriate play. Sound familiar? Combining learning and play in kindergarten is essential to build skills with an age appropriate awareness and at developmental levels. This is the exact way that children should be preparing for kindergarten!

    Kindergarten readiness and developing executive functioning skills in kindergarten

    Kindergarten Readiness

    There is immense amount of pressure for children to be ready for the academic demands of
    school, even from kindergarten. From the moment they walk in the door, most kindergartners
    are pushed to be “little sponges” of the academic content to meet standards. However, most of us
    recognize that this may not be the most appropriate approach to take. Finding engaging executive functioning activities can be tricky. The ideas here should be a great start to add to your kindergarten lesson plans or use in kindergarten preparations.

    However, there are more child-friendly things that parents can do to help their children get ready
    for kindergarten. Provide children with opportunities to be independent! Teach them the steps to
    wash their hands (initiation, working memory, shifting, monitoring), how to blow their nose
    (initiation, working memory, and monitoring), and letter recognition (working memory). Teach
    them how to follow directions (impulse control, working memory, and shifting).


    Working on some kindergarten prep through play can involved executive functioning skills at the same time. Start here to understand exactly what executive functioning skills entail, but when it comes to kindergarten aged children, here are some of the executive functioning skills that can be addressed through play as well as tasks that will help them prepare for kindergarten:

    Kindergarten lesson plans can include these reading and writing activities that build executive functioning skills

    Reading, Writing, and Executive Functioning

    Amazon affiliate links are included below.

    There are many ways to integrate reading and writing preparation into play. Have your child
    match uppercase and lowercase letters in games or at the store. This encourages working
    memory (what letter they need to look for). Games like Zingo are great for teaching sight words
    in a fun way while also requiring a child to use their impulse control, shifting, and working

    More reading and writing for kindergarten:

    Alphabet Discovery Bottle

    Magnetic Letter Handwriting Game

    Name Soup Writing Your Name 

    Fizzy Dough Letters 

    Handwriting Cookie Cutters

    Kindergarten lesson plans can include these math activities to develop executive functioning skills to prepare for kindergarten

    Math, Science, and Executive Functioning

    Early math and science skills can be fun and easy to integrate into play! If the weather is
    conducive, try hopscotch, saying the numbers out loud as you jump! For mental flexibility,
    change the rules of how they go through the series: hop on one foot, jump on two feet, switch
    feet, and so on. For older children or those who know their evens and odds, have them only jump
    on the odds or only on evens.

    For science, create simple science experiments, like vinegar and baking soda volcanos! This
    requires initiation, monitoring, impulse control, shifting, and planning/organizing.

    More kindergarten math activities to build executive function:

    Caterpillar Math Craft 

    Math with Checkers 

    Cardboard Tangrams 

    Play Dough Math 

    Counting Nature 

    Play and Executive Functioning

    Play is critical, but with the push to be ready for academics, play is getting pushed to the side
    However, without play, children suffer. They lack the ability to find joy in learning.

    Outdoor play provides the opportunity for children to develop their executive functioning while
    participating in child-led adventures! Taking a bike ride or a walk around the community, or
    even playing basketball in a driveway, requires a child to demonstrate strong impulse control and
    monitoring skills for safety. Red light, green light is also a great opportunity to work on impulse

    Outdoor play also encourages children to take risks while being aware of their surroundings.
    Whether determining if cars are coming, stranger danger, or appropriate clothing to wear outside,
    this is an incredible opportunity to encourage executive functioning development!

    Can’t play outside? Build a fort! Planning/organizing, initiation, shifting, time management, and
    working memory are critical for this.

    Kindergarten play ideas to build executive function

    Teaching Spatial Concepts 

    Bugs and Beans Sensory Play 

    Outdoor Small World Play 

    Painting Toys in the Water Table 

    Sticks and Stones Simple Sensory Play

    Use these executive functioning games in kindergarten lesson plans and to prepare for kindergarten

    Games and Activities to build executive functioning skills in kindergarten

    Some family-friendly games include Outfoxed (initiation, working memory, monitoring,
    planning/organizing, and impulse control) and Sneaky Snacky Squirrel Game.

    For less structured activities, think about making something in the kitchen, like baked goods. Making slime with a slime kit is another engaging way to build executive functioning skills.

    For a less structured executive functioning activity, try making a bracelet from a bracelet kit that involves patterns or low-level direction-following.

    For kindergarten readiness, focus on fun! This is a time of extensive growth, including in the
    area of executive functioning.

    For more executive functioning activities, grab this Executive Functioning Activity Guide. It’s full of strategies to address common executive functioning areas that impact working memory, attention, impulse control, organization, and more.

    executive functioning skills activity guide The OT Toolbox
    The OT Toolbox contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L

    This post was written by contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in the Madison, WI area. Emily participated in the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association’s Emerging Leaders Program (2016), earned her level 1 digital badge in autism from the American Occupational Therapy Association (2017), received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Chatham University (2018), and was appointed the South-Central District Co-Chair of the Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Association (2019). Emily has presented at both state and national conferences and is passionate about professional development. While trained as a generalist, Emily particularly enjoys working with clients with autism spectrum disorder and challenges related to executive functioning skills.

    Engaging Executive Functioning Activities

    Executive functioning activities can be motivating and meaningful when they use the interests of the child.

    Executive functioning activities are tools to build skills in attention, working memory, self-control, and cognitive flexibility. But these brain tasks can be HARD for some kids. So, when enhancing executive function is a real challenge, how can you make executive functioning activities meaningful and engaging? In a previous post, we talked about the use of strategy games as a method to improve executive functioning (EF) skills. Executive functioning games can be one means of engaging individuals in processing and self-reflection. While games are a great tool that children and teens can participate in both in and out of the clinic, there are many other everyday activities to promote EF skill development! Here are some more engaging ways to improve executive functioning skills.

    Executive functioning activities can be motivating and meaningful when they use the interests of the child.

    Executive Functioning ActivitiesThat Work

    Executive functioning skills are an important client factor contributing to successful participation in daily occupations. EF is currently a buzzword, but it isn’t a new idea. Creating a EF activities that are personalized and based on interests is an effective strategy for ensuring participation. If the child has a deep interest in specific themes or activities based on their personal preferences, executive function practice and skill work becomes more fun as opposed to “work”.

    Using the interests of the child as a motivator and as a scheduler can have great results. 

    Check out a few ways that you can help children and teens develop their EF skills!

    Cooking for Executive Functioning Skill Development

    Cooking is a great way to work on executive functioning with a treat at the end! Cooking requires many executive functioning skills. Kids need to use impulse control to complete one step at a time and pace themselves, avoid ingesting raw ingredients or eating all of their hard work, as well as prevent injury with sharp or hot tools.

    They also need to use working memory to recall what ingredients they need after looking at a recipe, as well as recalling the quantity of that ingredient. Here is information and strategies to teach direction following with cooking activities.

    Crafts and Projects for Executive Functioning Skill Development

    Crafts for kids and projects are another great way to work on executive functioning skills. Does your client have a special interest in the U.S. Presidents? Have them create a board game related to this interest! They will need to keep track of their materials, manage their time appropriately, and consider the perspectives of others who might play their game!

    Executive Functioning and Gross Motor Activities

    Gross motor activities and executive functioning activities can go hand in hand. Almost any activity can be adapted to integrate gross motor play! In a large room, a child could look at a list of items, then race to the other side of the room on their scooter to find an object, just like “I Spy” books and games! Many kids love to make obstacle courses, allowing for the development of initiation (getting started on building, instead of making grand plans and running out of time to make the course), impulse control (try changing the rules on them halfway through! “No touching red pieces!”), and metacognition (have them evaluate what went well, what did not go as well, and what they would change).

    Executive Functioning and Daily Routines

    Daily routines are a natural opportunity for the development of executive functioning skills. However, this also goes the other direction, because executive functioning is critical for independence in daily routines. Have clients create visuals to support their attention and sequencing of multiple step routines. If a child takes a significant amount of time to complete their routine, have a race to see who can get ready the fastest!

    Executive Functioning and Technology

    Some kids are highly motivated by apps and technology. These interests can be used as part of therapy intervention or as a reward. Here are occupational therapy apps which contain some free options to address executive functioning skills. Here are Alexa skills for therapy that can be used to work on executive functioning and other areas.

    It’s all about executive FUNctioning!

    Try a few of these activity ideas to integrate executive functioning skill development in an enjoyable, approachable way! These are engaging and fun ways to build executive functioning skills through meaningful strategies. They work for kids, and adults. The most best thing is that building mental skills can be meaningful and fun!

    Looking for more motivating executive functioning activities? Try the Impulse Control Journal. It’s a fun and creative way to journal through skills…impulse control is covered, but also working memory, attention, organization, planning, prioritization, flexible thought, and more.

    Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox

    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 Journal 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
    • MORE!  

    Click here to read more about the Impulse Control Journal and to add this resource to your therapy toolbox.

     How to Teach Kids Impulse Control

    What is Modulation?

    Easy Ways to Improve Impulse Control

    The OT Toolbox contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L

    This post was written by contributing author, Emily Skaletski, MOT, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in the Madison, WI area. Emily participated in the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association’s Emerging Leaders Program (2016), earned her level 1 digital badge in autism from the American Occupational Therapy Association (2017), received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Chatham University (2018), and was appointed the South-Central District Co-Chair of the Wisconsin Occupational Therapy Association (2019). Emily has presented at both state and national conferences and is passionate about professional development. While trained as a generalist, Emily particularly enjoys working with clients with autism spectrum disorder and challenges related to executive functioning skills.

    Free Apps for Occupational Therapy

    These free apps for occupational therapy build handwriting, executive functioning, visual memory, fine motor skills, and more.

    Normally at this time of year in therapy, it can be hard to keep the kids attention spans on track. Having a free app that builds skills can be one way to stay on track with addressing specific skills. Here, you will find free apps for occupational therapy that can be used as a supplemental activity or as a quick activity in between other occupational therapy activities. Add them to your line-up of occupational therapy teletherapy activities. Others may want to use these apps for therapy breaks or as a reward at the end of the session. Still others may find the occupational therapy apps perfect for home occupational therapy programs or ways to keep kids busy while parents are working from home. Whatever your need, these educational games and special education supports can be a powerful tool in distance learning and learning at home.

    These free apps for occupational therapy build handwriting, executive functioning, visual memory, fine motor skills, and more.

    Free Apps for Occupational Therapy

    The free apps below are broken down into targeted skill area. I’m adding apps for handwriting and letter formation, visual motor skills, executive functioning skills, and other areas. Some of these apps are IOS apps and others are Android apps. The apps that are available for Android on Google Play may be accessed through a Google account on a desktop and then accessed through the Google play app or via a Google account on an Apple device. Here is more information on how to access Google Play apps on an Apple device.

    I tried to locate only free apps in this resource. There are many great apps for occupational therapy out there, but I wanted to cover all the bases when it comes to OT interventions with free apps that can meet the needs for free!

    Another great idea for using free technology in occupational therapy includes using these Alexa skills in occupational therapy.

    Free Apps for Visual Motor Skills

    All About Shapes- This free app is available on IOS and is a shape drawing app. Users can draw and identify shapes.

    Vision Tap- This free IOS app is a great one for addressing visual processing and visual efficiency skills. Visual tracking, visual scanning, and oculo-motor skills are challenged with this one!

    Broom, Broom- This free IOS app allows children to draw paths for the vehicles in the game to drive on, building eye-hand coordination, motor planning, visual memory, and precision of fine motor skills.

    Visual Memory is a free app available on Google Play. The game is designed to develop visual memory and improve attention. Users can find the image that appears at each level.

    Piko’s Blocks- this free IOS app really challenges the visual spatial skills for older kids.

    Memory Game is another free app on Google Play. The game is just like the classic concentration game, helping users to build visual memory skills.

    Learning with Wally is an Android app available on Google Play. The visual discrimination app challenges users to discriminate between differences, recognize, and attend to details in visual forms, including pictures, letters, words and sentences.

    Sorting and Learning Game 4 Kids- This app is available on Google Play and challenges users to categorize and match themed objects while helping to build visual attention, visual memory, and focus with a concentration on visual perception.

    Visual Attention Therapy Life is an app available on Google Play. The free app allows users to address and build visual scanning, visual memory, and visual attention. It also helps rehab professionals to assess for neglect and provide more efficient and effective therapy for attention deficits.

    Sensory Baby Toddler Learning- This Google Play app is great for younger kids as they work on cause and effect and develop hand eye coordination skills.

    Connecting Dots is Fun- This free IOS app allows users to work on visual perceptual skills such as visual discrimination, form constancy, figure-ground and visual processing skills of tracking and scanning. Users create dot-to-dot activities in the app.

    Alphabet Puzzles For Toddlers- This Google Play app helps younger children work on letter identification and letter recognition. The letter learning app is a great app for preschoolers or toddlers. The visual perceptual app allows children to address form constancy, visual discrimination, figure ground, and other visual perceptual skills.

    iMazing- In this free IOS app, users can complete maze activities while challenging visual perception and visual motor skills.
    Skill Game- This free app is available on Android. The game allows users to draw lines to connect numbers while building eye-hand cordination, precision, motor planning, visual memory, and more.

    On the Line- This IOS app is great for working on visual motor skills using a stylus.

    Squiggles- This free app is a great one to work on pre-writing skills. Users can draw lines and figures and watch as they become animated.

    Use these free handwriting apps to work on letter formation, number formation, letter recognition, and more.

    Handwriting Free Apps

    ITrace is a handwriting app that does have a price for the main version, however, there is a free version available with some activities. Users can trace letters, numbers, words, and shapes while working on visual motor skills and letter formation.

    Writing Wizard- This app is available on Google Play and allows users to trace letters along a visual guide. There are various fonts available and size can be adjusted for different ages.

    Writing Wizard-Cursive- This handwriting app is created by the makers of the regualar, print version of Writing Wizard. Users can practice letter formation in cursive.

    Start Dot- This app addresses letter formation using visual, auditory, and movement cues. These prompts fade to address accuracy and independence.

    Ollie’s Handwriting and Phonics- This free app allows users to trace and copy individual letters and words on the app’s chalkboard wall.

    Write ABC – Learn Alphabets Games for Kids- This handwriting app is available on Google Play. The app helps younger children work on letter formation using visual cues for starting points and ending points.

    Sand Draw- This free Google Play app provides a sandy beach for kids to practice writing letters, words, or phrases in. Use it to practice spelling words for a fun twist.

    Snap Type- While this app has a paid version, the free version also allows users to create digital versions of worksheets. Students can take a picture of their worksheets, or import worksheets from anywhere on their device. They can then use their Android device keyboard to add text to these documents. When complete, students can print, email.

    Fine Motor Free Apps

    Dot to dot Game – Connect the dots ABC Kids Games- This free app is great for toddlers, preschoolers, or young children working on precision, dexterity, and fine motor work. the app addresses letter and number formation.

    Tiny Roads- This free app allows children to connect objects while working on precision and finger isolation.

    Montessori Fine Motor Skills Game School Numbers- This fine motor app helps users work on eye-hand coordination, precision, and finger isolation while working on numbers, letters, and shapes.

    Use these free executive functioning apps in occupational therapy sessions to build skills like working memory, attention, and focus.

    Free Apps for Executive Functioning Skills

    CogniFit Brain Fitness- This Google Play app uses memory games, puzzles, reasoning games, educational games, and learning games to train memory, attention, concentration, executive functions, reasoning, planning, mental agility, coordination and many other essential mental skills.

    Lumosity: Brain Training- This free executive functioning skills app uses games to exercise memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving.

    Memory Games: Brain Training- This executive functioning skills app uses memory and logic games  to improve memory, attention and concentration. 

    Alarmy- This free alarm app allows users to set alarms for attention building, and scheduling.

    The Google Tasks app- This free app creates checklists and sublists and allows users to add details about the areas that users need need to focus on in order to accomplish tasks. The app helps users to stay on track with due dates and notifications.

    The 30/30 app- This free app helps with executive functioning skills such as starting tasks, staying organized, and prioritization in tasks. This app is useful to address procrastination and motivation on bigger tasks or projects.

    Forest- This app helps with procrastination, productivity, and motivation.

    Study Bunny- This free productivity app helps students pay attention and focus on studying and larger school projects or tasks.

    Habitica- This task completion app allows users to track habits, and add gamification to tasks to build motivation and help with productivity.

    HabitNow- This free habit tracker app helps users to track habits and build habits to improve productivity and time management. This is a great app for scheduled activities or daily tasks such as chores or morning/evening routines.

    Brain N-Back- This working memory app helps to train working memory.

    Clockwork Brain Training- This memory training app helps with working memory and concentration through games and puzzles.

    Use these free self-regulation apps to help kids identify emotions, and feelings and help with coping tools.

    Self-regulation Free Apps

    Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame- This self-regulation app uses a fun Sesame Street monster to help little ones calm down and solve everyday challenges. Available in English and Spanish, the coping tools app helps your child learn Sesame’s “Breathe, Think, Do” strategy for problem-solving.

    Trigger Stop: Sensory and Emotional Check-In- This free self-regulation app is available on Google Play so they can identify and communicate sensations and emotions or feelings in the body so they can express them in a healthy way.

    EmoPaint – Paint your emotions! is a free self-regulation app available for IOS in the Apple Store or Google Play. The paint app allows users to represent emotions or bodily sensations through art, by painting them interactively on the screen.

    Moodflow: Self-care made easy!- keeps track of your emotions, moods, thoughts and general well-being with a self-rating system, emotional language, and a system that allows for identification of how coping strategies help with emotional regulation.

    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.

    When Executive Function Skills Impair Handwriting

    Handwriting and executive functioning skills are connected in many ways. Here are tips and strategies to improve executive function skills and writing.

    Handwriting is a complex task.  To write a sentence, a child needs to process information, recall important information, plan what he wants to write, initiate the writing task, perform the motor tasks to move the pencil to form letters, organize motor output on the page, manage paper/posture/pencil mechanics, realize errors, and be flexible enough to accept and correct mistakes.

    All of these “parts” of handwriting might sound familiar to the parent, teacher, or therapist of a child with executive function defects.  Executive function is our ability to “get things done”.  It is a set of skills that allow us to organize information, plan, learn, multi-task, remember things, prioritize, pay attention, and act on information.

    Handwriting and executive functioning skills are connected in many ways. Here are tips and strategies to improve executive function skills and writing.

    Handwriting for a child with executive functioning problems can be quite challenging. Handwriting requires visual perception, sensory processing, cognitive components, motoric output, awareness of mistakes, and the ability to correct them just to complete written work.

    Now, image asking a child with executive function difficulties to write a 5 sentence writing prompt.  After an 8 hour day of school.  In the environment that the child feels most comfortable to exhibit behaviors (home with his loved ones)…it can be a messy scenario leading to a homework breakdown.

    Handwriting and executive functions


    What is Executive Functioning?

    One issue that may be causing a child to write well at school and produce completely illegible or totally sloppy written work at home is a deficit in executive functioning skills.

    Kids who have trouble managing their executive functioning skills might have trouble with learning, organization, task completion, getting homework done, not losing their essential items, remembering to take their lunch box home each day, and so many other everyday tasks. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that play a huge part in our daily tasks.

    These essential mental tasks include:

    This post contains affiliate links.

    Executive Functioning Skills Checklist

     So, when it comes to difficulties in the areas listed above, there are certain ways that we see those struggles come to life. In the child with executive functioning disorder or challenges in any one area of executive functioning, it can be helpful to have an executive functioning skills checklist, or list of ways that EF impacts writing. Here are some of the ways that you may see executive function impact writing.
    Executive functioning skills and handwriting with tips for helping kids at home and in the classroom


    Handwriting and Executive Function Skills

    When asked to complete written work, a lack of executive functions or a inability to utilize executive functioning skills may occur.  The child may show resistance to the writing topic, trouble initiating, and difficulties with written work output.  Here are signs of executive function problems in handwriting:
    • Difficulty generating ideas
    • Trouble articulating ideas
    • Problems putting their ideas onto paper
    • Difficulty forming the letters to produce written text
    • Simple or minimized written output despite verbally responding to writing prompts
    • Inappropriate pencil grasp
    • Trouble initiating writing prompt
    • Difficulty organizing work space
    • Crumbled paper
    • Tearing paper when writing or erasing
    • Poor letter formation
    • Difficulty with line and spatial awareness on the paper
    • Slow writing speed
    • Complaints of mechanics of writing (pencil needs sharpened, need better eraser, uncomfortable seat)
    • Slow writing speed
    • Written work does not answer the question or answers only part of the question despite verbally stating a full response.
    • Repeats self in written work (in an open ended writing prompt type of task)
    Tips and tricks for helping kids with executive functioning problems with handwriting

    How to help kids improve executive functioning skills to improve handwriting and homework

    • Break down writing tasks. Separate an assignment into smaller parts. 
    • Make a plan. Visual cues are key. Use a highlighter and numbers to create a “to-do” list.
    • Make short one step tasks and determine how long each should last.
    • Consistency. Complete written work and homework in a specific place.
    • Organized work space. Try these tips for organized homework.
    • Materials in place. Limit the options for pencils/erasers.
    • Use a timer to work on small steps at a time.
    • Provide guidelines for written work.
    • Mark off each task as it is completed.
    • Behavioral chart for homework completion.
    • Reward system with actionable rewards: Instead of a toy or sticker, a child can choose to earn earn time to stay up 15 minutes later on Friday, choose the family’s dessert for one day, or pick what to watch for family movie night.
    • Dictation: Child dictates what he wants to write and parent/teacher/aide/another student completes the writing portion.
    • Try typing vs. written work.
    • Visual checklist for mechanics: Capitalization, punctuation, complete sentences, grammar, spelling, line awareness, spacing, letter formation.
    This post is part of our Easy Quick Fixes to Better Handwriting series. Be sure to check out all of the easy handwriting tips in this month’s series and stop back often to see them all.  


    How to Improve Handwriting and Executive Function

    One way to work on the handwriting issues that we commonly see, along with the executive functioning struggles is to combine these. Using checklists, mind maps, and visual cues can help the child with executive functioning difficulties to “see” the big picture of what they need to accomplish.

    The Impulse Control Journal does just that. It is a printable journal that kids (and teens or adults) can use to figure out what’s going on with attention, organization, planning, prioritization, and other mental skills. It can help them with areas like habits so they are able to accomplish the everyday tasks like planning out a chore or an assignment.

    The Impulse Control Journal breaks down executive functioning…but it does it in easy and fun ways and doesn’t make the process overly distracting or overwhelming. Just pull out or print off the pages you need and use them over and over again. The best thing I love about this journal is the fact that the user is totally involved in the process. It’s not just making plans for the child (or teen/individual), but they have a real say in their situation and the ways to work on certain areas.

    They are truly involved in the process of working on executive functioning skills.

    And, the journal offers a way to work on handwriting with short lists, check boxes, mind maps, and more. So, by addressing the executive functioning skills and handwriting together, the process provides a real opportunity for change.

    Impulse Control Journal the OT Toolbox