Free Apps for Occupational Therapy

apps for occupational therapy

Questions about the best apps for occupational therapy come up often. It is possible to address developmental skills through app play. Let’s cover various occupational therapy apps for the iPad or tablet.

Children of today have technology very much integrated into all aspects of their daily lives. Technology is an occupation in and of itself. As occupational therapists, we strive to support functioning and full lives in our clients. Using apps in occupational therapy services serves two purposes: a meaningful and motivating tool to support functional skills by addressing underlying skills, AND as an extrinsic factor impacting function: using a device, filling form fields on apps, scheduling appointments, making calls, and other performance areas. Apps are a part of function because technology is so integrated into daily life.

Let’s look at various areas of development where app use can help support kids, teens, and adults:

Use these apps for occupational therapy to work on specific skills, development, and even functional skill work that is motivating and meaningful to today's kids.

Apps for Occupational Therapy

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. The OT apps for the ipad or tablet can be used in many different ways:

  1. Add them to your line-up of occupational therapy teletherapy activities.
  2. Use the OT apps as a supplemental activity for home recommendations or classroom down-time.
  3. Use the occupational therapy app as a transition activity that continues to develop skills addressed in therapy sessions.
  4. Others may want to use these apps for therapy breaks or as a reward at the end of the session.
  5. Use the apps for occupational therapy homework so that kids are motivated to participate and incentivize OT home programs, fostering the carryover we don’t sometimes see.
  6. 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

The apps listed below are some of the best apps for occupational therapists to use in therapy sessions, and to recommend to parents and teachers, when appropriate. Remember that all kids are different and all have specific needs, so these recommendations may not work for every child or individual.

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 Apps

These handwriting apps are occupational therapy tools that support the underlying skills needed for handwriting. Some apps allow kids to “write” letters using a resistance-free surface on the tablet or iPad. This input can be the “just right” level for some kids. Other Handwriting apps listed address other skills. Let’s take a look at how to use these apps in occupational therapy services.

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 regular, 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.

Apps for Fine Motor Skills

These apps for fine motor skill development might not be your go-to fine motor task when it comes to strengthening hands and promoting dexterity. But for the child that struggles with fine motor skills, a tablet or iPad app can be a motivating and meaningful way to address developmental skills.

With an app, it is possible to address functional, fine motor skills:

The fact is that devices are not going away. In fact, our youth are likely to see all aspects of their future lives managed by screen technology. For kids that struggle with dexterity, hand strength, motor planning, and other motor skills, we can help them to be the most functional and independent individuals.

These fine motor apps are just one more strategy in our OT toolbelt.

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.

executive function apps

When addressing attention, distraction, planning, prioritization, time management, and other executive functioning skills, using apps in occupational therapy is a no-brainer. Kids are exposed to the technology of devices every day and the ability to complete daily tasks using devices is just part of advances in our time.

Use these executive function apps in occupational therapy as a support tool: devices to help with challenges like attention, organization, scheduling, and planning. Or, use these executive functioning apps in OT to work on cognitive skills that enable function; Apps are a great way to practice filling out forms, recalling and typing passwords, addressing online distraction, and other functional tasks that kids and adults are faced with every day. App use is an occupation, or task that occupies our daily lives, in a very real way.

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 sub-lists 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.

Apps for Emotional regulation

There are apps that can be used as self-regulation tools. There are apps to practice social interactions. There are even apps to check-in on emotional regulation and self-regulation needs. These apps for emotional regulation are a great way to support kids and teens emotional regulation and overall wellbeing needs through the use of a hand-held self-regulation tool.

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.

Social Navigator –This emotional regulation app is a great social skills app designed to assist children with social and behavioral challenges. Kids can develop essential social interaction skills by taking a look at their behavior in social situations, and this app is a nice way to build confidence in that area.

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.

Deep Breathing apps- there are many mindfulness and deep breathing apps out there. I even have one right on my watch. With calming visuals, mindfulness apps allow the user to calm down and regulate their emotions so they can function in any situation. Bubble: Breathing Companion is one self-regulation app that encourages emotion regulation through breathing exercises.

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

How to set a table

Here, we’re covering the life skill of setting a table. When we teach a child how to set the table, the chore itself is one that kids can do on a daily basis. So, if you are looking for an executive functioning skill task that breaks down into steps, AND is helpful, setting the table is a great one!

Table setting as a life skill

Before discussing the “how” to set a table, we need to learn the “why.”  Why do we need to teach kids to set a table?  Life skills are important.  If a child does not have intellectual intelligence but has life skills, they can succeed. Of course there are manners, etiquette, and grace involved in setting a correct table placement, however, learning the basics of what needs to be on the table is most important.

In order to be ready to serve the Queen, one needs to know in which order the spoons and forks are placed (there might be seven or eight pieces), where all of the plates go, which side each type of glass goes on, and where the condiments are placed.  When visiting a five star restaurant, cruising, or eating an elegant dinner, you will encounter this type of place setting.  Serving and eating this way is a great lesson in etiquette to be familiar with.  You never know when you might be invited to dine with the Queen or eat at the Ritz!

In a typical family’s home, setting the table likely involves a child’s chore to set the utensils, plates, bowls, and drinking glasses. Setting a table as a chore is a great way to get kids involved in the family unit to help with dinner preparations.

How to set a table

As an adult you probably do this daily without thinking about it.  You know the basic pieces you need in order to have a meal; glasses, plates, silverware, condiments, and napkins.  Often extra pieces are added such as placemats, bread plates, dessert silverware, and serving dishes.

For a child, the command “set the table” may be daunting and confusing, before a regular schedule is established.  Adults often forget how challenging a new task can be, and become easily frustrated at having to give eighteen reminders during this one task. 

As a result, children become overwhelmed and shut down.  Shut down looks like standing and staring, not doing anything, or refusing to perform the task.  Of course it is easier for the adult to just do the task for the child, however, eventually you will want this child to leave the home or be able to survive outside of its’ walls.

Setting a Table: An Executive Function Task

Setting a table involves organization, working memory, visualization, sequencing, and task chunking.

  • Organization: knowing which pieces need to come first, second, third.
  • Working memory: remembering what parts are needed as the task is happening
  • Visualization: being able to make a mental picture of the meal being prepared in order to get all of the correct pieces
  • Sequencing: being able to bring out pieces in the correct order (placemat before plates)
  • Task chunking: breaking the task down into chunks such as collecting all the silverware at once

The above skills are part of executive function, built in the prefrontal cortex, necessary for success.  Without using executive function; disorganization, inability to complete a task, procrastination, inattention to details, and increased time to finish the task can happen.  

Check out this article and FREE executive functioning skills course: Strategies to Help Combat Executive Function Disorder 

Because the prefrontal cortex does not fully develop until the 20’s or 30’s, most children are going to need some assistance and modifications to complete basic tasks.

How to teach kids to set a table

There are different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (learning by doing), and repetition.  Everyone learns differently. Visual picture cards are an excellent way to teach children any skill. 

Table Setting Worksheet

In the resource below, you can download a step-by-step executive function worksheet designed to teach kids to set a table as a chore and life skill task.

The printbale resource also includes table setting visual cards. These Check out the picture cards on OT Tool Box for helping kids set a table.

These picture cards serve as a visual reminder and framework for a task such as setting a table. They can be laminated, colored, and/or Velcro can be added to the cards so they can be moved and placed as needed.

The table setting worksheet resource includes three parts:

  1. A task breakdown worksheet to break down the steps of setting a table
  2. Visual cue cards to help kids with the schedule and parts of setting a table.
  3. A visual schedule where the table setting task cards can be attached, to support with transition and routine building

Have your child look at the picture cards provided and decide what items are needed for their table setting.  Once this is decided, have them put the cards in order of what needs to be done first. 

There is some variability in setting a table correctly, however some items will need to come before others.  Here is an example of an order of operations for picture cards:

  1. Placemat
  2. Large plate, small plate
  3. Silverware – spoon, fork, knife,
  4. Glassware
  5. Napkin
  6. Condiments
  7. Food
  8. Eat

Think about what variables work for your family or each particular student. Not everyone uses a placemat, has a bread plate, serves the food family style in dishes on the table, uses dessert silverware, or puts condiments on the table. 

Some children just need a visual reminder of what to include on the table.  Other children will need a visual picture of what the table should look like when completed.  They need to be able to copy a diagram.

This also can be colored, laminated, or customized to make an exact replica of the type of silverware and place settings a family uses.

The third type of lesson involves breaking down the task into chunks on a goal ladder.

A “setting the table” chore/goal ladder may look like this:

  • Top of Ladder: Dinner time
  • Rungs: set the table, fill water glasses, put food on table, eat

Table setting chore for kids

Once this task has been mastered in all of the broken down pieces, it can be added to the overall chore list.  

Chores are an excellent way to teach:

  • responsibility
  • task sequencing
  • organization
  • life skills
  • time management
  • independence
  • overall executive function

In addition to teaching the above skills, chores are excellent for heavy work in order to organize the sensory system and arousal level.  Heavy work activates the proprioceptive system, which provides calming and organizing for the body. There is a reason the military has their staff do chores, exercise, and heavy work as a daily regimen.  It not only builds necessary life skills, but provides organization and focus of the sensory system.

To learn more about heavy work, check this out:

Daily visual schedule for setting a table and other chores

Check out this article by Colleen Beck of the OT Toolbox for more information on visual schedules:

Life skills: setting a table

Life skills build independence, responsibility, manners, and self-reliance. Teaching or learning a skill, such as setting a table, is not as easy as it might seem.  It involves breaking the task down into chunks or rungs on a ladder, adding visual picture cards as reminders for all the working pieces, sequencing the activity into the correct order, and finally adding it to the daily chore schedule. Activities will need to be graded (made easier or more difficult) depending on the needs of your learner, their skill level, and task mastery.

Use this system to teach any and all life skills tasks!  Dressing, bathing, laundry, cleaning, putting toys away, organizing, or any other task can be taught using picture cards, goal ladder, and visual schedules. 

*The terms, kids/children are used throughout this post for readability, however this information is relevant for students, patients, teens, etc.  The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

Free Table Setting Visual Cards and Worksheet

Set a Table Worksheet and Visual Cards

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    Victoria Wood

    Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

    Free Goal Ladder Worksheet

    In this post, you can get a goal ladder worksheet. But what is a goal ladder? And how can you use a goal ladder in goal setting for kids? Today, you’ll learn about how to use a goal ladder to support goal setting for students, and anyone wanting step-by-step support to achieve goals.

    Free goal ladder worksheet to help with goal setting for children.

    What is a goal ladder? 

    A goal ladder is a tool used to set and achieve goals.  Each rung of the ladder represents a smaller goal that leads to the bigger goal.  By making smaller sub-goals, this is more motivating, less intimidating, and more manageable than one huge overwhelming task.

    This post shares more about using a goal ladder to support kids in achieving personal goals.

    The goal ladder is a visual representation of the task and goal I would like to achieve.  People with good executive function love lists and spreadsheets. This is how they naturally stay organized.   People struggling with their executive functioning skills could benefit from lists in order to stay on top of goals.  

    At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a free goal ladder worksheet. This can be used with kids, teens, and adults to help with goal setting and breaking down a goal task into manageable chunks. Use the goal ladder along with SMART goals to support goal accomplishment.

    What is a goal?

    A goal is something to achieve or be accomplished.  It is important to set goals in order to find direction.  People with good executive function skills often set and achieve goals as part of their daily routines and habits. 

    Many times people who have difficulty with executive function do not know how to set goals or how to achieve them.  The entire task seems overwhelming, therefore nothing gets done.

    Supporting executive functioning skills, specifically planning, prioritization, task completion is all part of the goal setting process. Try these activities to challenge and support executive functioning skills:


    The best goals are called SMART goals.  Not only are they really smart in terms of being successful, the acronym SMART is helpful to remember all the necessary parts to a goal.  Each goal should have the following characteristics in order to be successful: 

    • S: specific – did you detail what it is you want to achieve?
    • M: measurable – how are you going to measure success?
    • A: is this goal attainable or too lofty?
    • R: is this goal realistic?  Can you actually swim across the Atlantic in six weeks?
    • T: timebound – Do you have a set timeframe for this goal to be measured?

    How to start brainstorming and writing a goal

    Determine the overall goal: for example, I would like to eat more vegetables.  

    If I leave the goal this simple and vague, how will I know I am eating more vegetables or when I have met this goal?

    Let’s make this a SMART goal to make it more attainable

    • S: specific – I would like to eat 5 more types of vegetables
    • M: measurable –  I will eat ¼ cup of each vegetable one time per week
    • A: attainable – I will not try and eat a whole cup of vegetables
    • R: my doctor says I need vegetables for my overall health
    • T: timebound – I will do this over the course of 4 weeks

    Therefore my large goal might sound like this, “In four weeks I will eat ¼ cup of 5 different vegetables each week to improve my overall health and well being.  

    Because this is a large goal and I really dislike most vegetables, I am going to have to break down this goal into smaller chunks in order to make it manageable and attainable.  This is especially important for children, as they are more receptive to short term objectives with rewards at the end of each objective.

    How to break down tasks to achieve a goal

    Because I do not like vegetables, I am going to need to break this down into smaller pieces to get it going.  If the end goal is to eat five vegetables, maybe I need to start with a list of vegetables I already eat, as well as a list of all of the other options available in my area. 

    Then research ways to cook or serve these vegetables to make them more appealing.  What about a reward system that will motivate me to try these new veggies? 

    I could start with a variety of vegetables each week or just try a couple at a time.  There are many variables in breaking down a goal.

    • Break the larger goal into steps (good for a multi-step task)
    • Break the larger goal into time-based accomplishments (Select a date to accomplish the large goal and work backwards, selecting dates to accomplish each step)
    • Break down the goal into learning processes (first learn about this, then practice. Then learn about another aspect. Then practice.)

    Goal setting for kids

    Why is goal setting so important for children? Kids are easily overwhelmed by tasks in front of them, which often leads to shut down or refusal. By kids setting goals, it gives them direction.

    Adults/teachers/therapists set goals for children as a way to measure progress.  Without goals it is easy to get lost in all that a child can not do.  With a SMART goal in place, it is much easier to track data, discover obstacles, and make necessary changes.

    It is important for people to choose their own goals.  This makes it more meaningful and relevant (The R in SMART). Choosing one’s own goal also helps it to be more motivating.  When children feel in control of some aspect of their lives, they are more likely to succeed.

    Helping kids choose their own goals

    To anyone trying to learn twenty new tasks at once, choosing a goal can be overwhelming. Start by asking the child what they want to accomplish.  This may be too broad of a question, therefore choices may need to be offered. Also ask the parents/caregivers what they would like their child to master. 

    Too often therapists choose and start working on goals that are not meaningful or relevant to the child or their family. As a treating therapist I have spent time spinning my wheels trying to teach students to fold laundry, load the dishwasher, sleep in their own bed, or eat certain foods, goals that were not important to their family. Once I asked the family what goals they wanted their child to achieve, my treatment became much more relevant and focused.

    Make a list of goals and tasks that need to be learned. With the help of the caregivers and children, prioritize which goals are more important than others. Once the goals are selected, use the goal ladder to break it down into measurable chunks, focusing on no more than one to three goals at a time.

    Check out these quotes about goals for more inspiration on goal setting.

    How to use a goal ladder

    A goal ladder can be a powerful visual representation of each step of accomplishing a goal. Kids can use a goal ladder to work on multi-step goals or larger tasks that otherwise seem daunting.

    There are several steps of using a goal ladder to accomplish tasks:

    1. Get Specific on the Goal- One important first step in using a goal ladder is getting specific on the goal. Another important piece to the puzzle is the “buy in” from the child or student. Are they involved in setting up the goal? When kids are involved in the goal setting process, they are more motivated because the goal is meaningful to them.
      • Write down the goal at the top of the goal ladder.
    1. Determine the “why” behind the goal- Help the student or child to determine “why” the goal is meaningful to them. Is it a personal interest? Is the goal for their health or education? Is the goal important because they are learning about something interesting? When personal interests, passions, and talents are incorporated into a goal, it has that “why factor”. When we determine why something is meaningful to us, it has more staying power. That “why” is something that we can return to when the goal process slows. For kids, we can help them see why their goal is important in the bigger picture.
      • Help kids identify their “why”
      • Write this down so you can refer to it in the future. This letter to future self is a great activity to predict and identify future goals.
      • Consider all aspects: wellbeing, social-emotional, development, personal interests, etc.
    2. Break the goal down into smaller steps- The ladder imagery is perfect for a larger goal because it really points out that each step leads toward a bigger goal. There is no way to get to the end result without putting in the work of moving up each step.
      • Start out with the long term goal at the top of the ladder, using the rungs below for the short term objectives and rewards.
      • Write down the steps to achieve the big goal on the goal ladder. Each rung of the ladder is a smaller goal that has it’s own objective.
      • Remember SMART goals along the way!
      • Incorporate rewards for each goal rung.
    3. Brainstorm potential obstacles and be ready for them. Kids can help with this process. What are some reasons that they may not accomplish a step on the goal ladder? What can they do to prevent that obstacle? Or, how can they deal with obstacles as they come. Being prepared for the falls from the ladder will help to set the user up for success.
      • Consider obstacles for each rung on the goal ladder.
      • Be prepared with solutions.

    One of the biggest issues for goal setting with kids is that the goal sometimes fails. You might ask yourself: “I set goals but they fail, why?” Let’s take a look at potential obstacles to goal setting.

    Example of a Goal Ladder

    In our example goal ladder, we’ll continue with the theme of eating more vegetables.

    The top of my ladder might say, In four weeks I will improve my diet to eat ¼ cup of 5 different vegetables to improve my overall health and well being.  

    The subsequent rungs might look like this:

    1. Make a list of the vegetables you currently eat
    2. Make a list of all of the vegetables available in your area
    3. Select 5 vegetables to try during the next 4 weeks
    4. Find 2-3 recipes or ways to serve each vegetable
    5. Try one vegetable the first week, reward yourself with cheesecake if ¼ cup is eaten
    6. Try a second vegetable the next day.  Continue to eat the first vegetable if able.  Reward yourself with a chocolate bar

    Continue the rungs in this fashion until 5 vegetables have been added in 4 weeks.  

    *This goal can be modified to be even more specific.  Maybe I need it to say I will eat 5 different vegetables EACH week, or continue to eat them in my regular diet after trying them during this 4 week trial.

    Goal setting is important and a SMART way to teach skills!

    In the goal ladder worksheet below, you’ll notice some details that impact successful goal accomplishment:

    • A larger goal is identified.
    • There is an end reward identified.
    • The user identifies steps to accomplish the overall larger goal.
    • Each step of the process has it’s own end date and reward.
    • Users can check off each step as they achieve it.
    • They can then re-group and see what the next step on their ladder is so that they climb toward the bigger goal.

    Free goal ladder worksheet!

    Pair this printable goal ladder worksheet with SMART goals for kids, teens, or adults to accomplish those big tasks!

    Free Goal Ladder Worksheet

      We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at anytime.
      Victoria Wood

      Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

      Executive Function Activities for Fall

      Fall executive function activities

      In this blog post, you’ll find executive functioning activities for Fall. This time of year is a great time to support executive functioning development. We’ve shared a lot of executive functioning tips and tricks here on the website, so why not use all of the wonder of Fall and work on skills like impulse control, attention, problem solving, task initiation, and more?

      Fall executive function activities for kids

      Fall is such a great time of the year! If you live in a climate like mine, from apple picking to visiting a pumpkin patch to going on a day trip to see the beautiful leaves, it’s a great time of the year to get outdoors! Fall is also a great time of year to work on executive functioning skills.

      Fall Executive Functioning Activities

      Fall can be an exceptionally busy time of the year. Between kids and teens settling into their school routines to fall sports, there is a lot going on. However, there are also many opportunities to work on executive functioning skills during these fun moments! Enjoy these fun, family-friendly opportunities to enjoy the fall weather!

      Apple Picking Executive Function Activity

      Apple picking is a fantastic family activity. Does your local orchard have a map? Have your child or teen read the map and direct the family where to go in order to get to the apples you want to pick. But how does picking apples help with skills like time management, impulse control, problem solving, etc.?

      This helps develop their ability to develop a plan and execute their plan, as well as manage emotional demands, especially if younger family members become frustrated!

      It can take great problem solving to find an apple that is not over-ripe, or under-ripe, that is in reach, and will fit into the bag or basket. How can you break own the task of navigating a busy row to find a tree to pick from? Then, how can you determine which tree to select? Then, can you fill your bag with apples before becoming distracted or giving up? All of these mini-decisions and repetitions in cognitive skills are practice for other tasks requiring executive functioning!

      When you get home, decide on an apple recipe to make as a family! Divide roles among family members based on skill set. Have someone gather the materials (planning and organizing, working memory), read the instructions (initiation, inhibition, working memory), measure (monitoring), and so on!

      Cooking is an engaging executive functioning task that supports development in many areas. To support and promote development of EF skills, try these tips:

      • Break down the task
      • Use a task tracker
      • Write down steps and cross them off as each one is completed
      • Talk it out as a group (including problem solving, what’s next, what I’m doing right now, etc.)
      • Clean up as you complete each step

      Support Executive Functioning Skills at the Pumpkin Patch

      A visit to a local pumpkin patch is bound to be a great day. Have your child or teen make predictions on how much specific pumpkins weigh, plan out the activities you will do (since many pumpkin patches have additional activities), and navigate the narrow rows with those cumbersome wagons! This is certainly an activity that will work up an appetite—check out these pumpkin cupcakes!

      After your trip, plan out how each family member will decorate their jack-o-lantern. Whether with paint or carving, this is a favorite activity for many children that involves skills like planning, inhibition, and initiation.

      Use these tips to support executive functioning skills when pumpkin carving:

      • Draw a picture of your jack-o-lantern before beginning
      • Make a list of the supplies needed
      • Cross off each supply as they are used
      • Use kid-friendly pumpkin carving tools
      • Use gloves if tactile sensory input is an issue
      • Talk it out: talk through problems as you go
      • Use a task tracker to complete each step of the process
      • Discuss possible problems that may arise while carving
      • Break the steps down
      • Take breaks between each step

      Executive Functioning Activities at the Corn Maze

      Another popular fall activity is a trip to a local corn maze. This can be modified based on the corn maze’s difficulty level, as well as whether the location offers a map.

      You could work on things like emotional regulation (because the maze is bound to be frustrating!), planning, time management, initiation, inhibition, and so on! For younger children who might not be quite ready for a corn maze, purchase some corn and create a cool stamp art project!

      Some tips to support EF challenges at the maze:

      • Be sure the maze is age-appropriate
      • Lay out ground rules
      • Go with a partner
      • Use a map if available
      • Use a marker to draw where you’ve gone on the map
      • Be ready with coping strategies for emotional needs

      A final note on Fall Executive Functioning Activities

      These activities show how fun and engaging it can be to work on executive functioning skills! Many of these activities also show how activities can be upgraded and downgraded based on a child’s abilities and needs.

      Studies show that executive functioning skills can be a key predictor of a child’s success, especially at the middle school level. While fall is full of opportunities for fun, perhaps integrating some of these activities will encourage your child to develop their executive functioning skills so that they can be successful in all areas of their life!

      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.

      To-Do List for Kids

      To do list for kids

      In this blog post you’ll discover Strategies to Help Combat Executive Function Disorder including a task completion worksheet, designed as a to-do list for kids. This task tracker worksheet allows kids to keep track of their daily tasks, through development of executive functioning skills like task initiation and task completion.

      Free to-do worksheet for kids to work on task completion and other executive functioning skills.

      To-Do Lists for Kids and Executive Function

      First, let’s cover executive functioning. Does it have to do with how high powered executives function? Not, really, but there may be some meaning behind their title, “executive.” 

      According to the reviewers at Psychology Today, executive function is a mental process to help people, plan and execute their goals. They include attention, working memory, problem solving, task initiation and impulse control. 

      Development of Executive Functioning skills

      About development of executive functioning skills: These functions are believed to be housed in the prefrontal cortex. Because it is right at the front, we know it has to be important, right? Correct. These are the important life skills that one needs to succeed in life. These skills start in infancy but do not fully develop until the 20’s or 30’s! This is the reason your college student is so scattered, impulsive, and needy.

      My own observations lead me to believe the prefrontal cortex is becoming developed later and later in a person’s life. Thirty years ago, these processes were well developed by 18. Now “children” well into their twenties are relying on their parents and teachers for advice, or using maladaptive coping strategies for assistance. 

      How does this relate to the high powered executive? 

      In order to become and thrive as an executive, often at the top of their field, people need to have excellent task management skills, emotional regulation, organization, leadership, and the ability to multitask. Interestingly enough, these are all of the buzzwords included in job descriptions and resumes, because they are the measure of success in a job. 

      Children and adults who struggle with these executive function skills are likely to have difficulty managing their time, starting and finishing tasks, following mult-step directions, and staying organized. The coworker with the messiest office, who is always losing things, is often struggling with executive function. 

      Does this mean people with executive function disorder (EFD) are less intelligent than their counterparts? 

      Not necessarily. While high executive function skills can often be paired with a higher IQ, people with a lower EF learn to cope with their inability to perform these tasks. They use strategies to compensate, and often succeed.

      This sounds a lot like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)! It does. Often those diagnosed with ADD have executive function disorder as part of their set of symptoms. They also exhibit additional symptoms such as impulsive behavior, difficulty with emotional regulation, inability to maintain attention even in an optimal environment or with a preferred task. 

      For more information on executive functions and the disorders associated with them, this article in psychology today is informative and thorough in describing EF skills and related challenges.

      How to support Task Completion

      Now that I have identified that half of my caseload has executive function disorder, what strategies can I use to combat this and help develop these skills? 

      Once you identify which of the executive functions are not well developed, each can be worked on individually, or a program of strategies to assist your student with overall executive function is useful. 

      The OT Toolbox has some great free printables to assist with strategies for executive function disorder. 

      Kids To-Do List

      Below, you can access our free Task Completion Checklist. This to-do list for kids breaks down tasks into a list with check boxes. Kids, and the support system they are utilizing (teachers, parents, therapists, caregivers, etc.) can identify and itemize the tasks that the student needs to achieve on a daily or weekly basis.

      The kids to-do list is broken down into a list so that the user can see each step. The printable daily task list is open-ended so that steps can be listed out on each line, or multiple steps can be indicated in a single task.

      For example, when a student needs to gather their backpack to go to school in the morning, there are several steps to that daily chore. The individual steps can be indicated on the to-do list.

      Use the to-do list in a few different ways

      • Add daily tasks
      • Break down complex tasks like getting ready to leave the house in the morning
      • Add tasks that include several steps
      • Include tasks that need to be done several times/day such as turn off the lights when you leave a room

      These can be used as stand alone activities, or part of your student’s strategy notebook. In this notebook several activities and strategies can be collected and placed in plastic sleeves for easy access and reference. 

      This printable to-do list can be used with older individuals as well, from teens on through adults.

      This printable to-do list can also be utilized to support the adult with executive function disorder.

      More Task Completion Strategies

      If your prefrontal cortex is developed, or you have good executive function, you probably already use strategies to stay on top of your game. I can think of ten strategies I use to make sure I don’t forget anything.

      1. Lists on my phone 
      2. Calendars 
      3. Reminder messages on my phone 
      4. Written schedule 
      5. Routines 
      6. Alarms 
      7. Sticky notes 
      8. Asking other people to be accountable to remember their own appointments 
      9. Putting things away in the same place each time 
      10. Staying organized and clean 

      Even though my executive function skills are well developed, stressful situations can destroy even the best skills. Therefore I have many strategies in place so I do not forget important events, where I put things, which students I am seeing, what is on the grocery list, and so forth. 

      This comes naturally to me as I am an organized person. For others, this will be challenging, and needs to be taught. Start to develop these strategies and coping mechanisms while your students are young. 

      There are other resources available on the OT Toolbox, such as the impulse control journal by Colleen Beck. Details about The Impulse Control Journal:

      “This 80 page impulse control journal for kids to keep track of their day 

      • 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

      Click here for more information on The Impulse Control Journal to support completion of daily tasks.

      Do not despair! Most children grow up to be functioning adults. They leave the nest (or basement) eventually, and find their way. We can however do our part in teaching these strategies early and consistently, so they fly out of the nest instead of falling head first. 

      Free To Do List for Kids

      Want a copy of this task completion worksheet? Print off this to-do list for kids and support development of executive functioning skills, for any age!

      Free To-Do List for Kids

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        Victoria Wood

        Victoria Wood, OTR/L has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

        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. Co-regulation plays a role in this aspect as well.
        • 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 the skills of turn taking in conversation, or how 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:

        These emotions playdough mats can be used to teach kids emotion names and emotions they may have felt in the past. Kids can create the facial expression that matches the emotion name, building self-awareness 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.

        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?”
        • Work on turn taking skills for use in conversation and play with different modifications and adaptations based on the individual’s abilities and areas of development.
        • 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

        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 and sensory 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.

        One way to connect emotions to behavior is to start by identifying emotions, facial expressions, and feelings that are associated with these names and features. These emotions play dough mats create a multisensory means to teach these skills.

        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 Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit.

        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

        Emotional Regulation and Executive Function Strategies

        Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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          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