Scattered, disorganized, impulsive, dysregulated, and unmotivated – these are just some of the terms describing kids who may have difficulty with executive functioning skills. What’s that you ask? Executive Functioning Skills are skills that help kids wait, listen, and then prioritize what to do. Many kids are mislabeled as kids who won’t…when in reality they are kids that can’t. They lack the cognitive abilities to remember directives, plan, and stay on task to complete their work. They may act out impulsively or are rigid and lack flexibility. Many times undesirable behaviors develop because kids (and adults) habitually avoid those tasks that are too difficult to perform. Although executive functioning skills are largely neurologically and developmentally based, there are ways in helping kids from an early age learn to adapt to the demands of their day and develop the habits of being successful. These skills will last a lifetime, and have been proven to be more important than a child’s raw IQ alone. To learn more about EF skills check out the website from the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. Below are some of our favorite apps to play with children to foster executive functioning skills.
Cookie Monster’s Challenge by PBS Kids is for the very young, and intended for kids 5 and under. But before getting into details, I just want to say that this game is a blast! Kids love it, and adults will enjoy it too. The shared laughter alone is worth the price of this app, and a great way to teach that learning is fun! It is such a pleasure to play – both for interacting and watching. Kids literally develop the skills of waiting, listening and being able to organize and adapt to subtle changes in direction in one sitting. Repeated play helps form habits of responding and that is what you are after in having a student who is ready to learn. Gameplay centers on earning pieces to Cookie Monster’s Crazy Cookie Contraption so that he can access and eat cookies (surprise!). There are twelve levels to finish, each filled with mini-games that challenge memory, attention, following direction, problem-solving, and self-control. Learning to persist when faced with failure is part of the game. When giving the wrong answer, cookie takes you back to the last successful task completed to give kids their momentum back. Some of the mini-games include: What’s missing in a picture (visual memory/finding and applying rules), pressing a button when one only sees a certain animal (retaining direction, flexibility, and impulse control), remembering what order instruments were played (working memory, auditory processing). There are 10 mini-games in all, and hands down the favorite will answer the quintessential question of whether “to touch the pig or not to touch the pig.” It will send all into a fit of giggles.
One of my all time favorite games is from Kiko Labs, and it is the gold standard for fostering executive functioning skills in young children. Intended for children 5 and under, I have recommended this app for kids that are older with great success. This app is researched based and developed by neuroscientists from both Harvard and UC Berkeley. Kiko Labs is vigilant in updating the app to keep it fresh and fine-tune the details. So enough already, what’s the name of it? Kiko’s Thinking Time – Cognitive Skills for Preschool and Kindergarten is a subscription-based model, and you can get a month, 3 months or a year’s subscription for less than a light up toy that may last a week. It has been awarded both in 2014/2015 the SBIR award from the US Department of Education, and you cannot get a higher recommendation than that. There are currently16 games, with the promise of adding more in the future. What makes this app rock is the ability to keep data on up to four children in the following areas: Memory, Selective Attention, Spatial Abilities, Reasoning, Flexibility and Inhibitory Control (Impulse control). In the parent’s section, one can view not only the games that have been played but also the degree of change in the six areas of focus. I do wish there was a way to buy the app outright and pay for updates or additional games. This would make it easier for clinicians in the field or classrooms where the teachers purchase their apps. On opening, the task is to complete 6 rounds of play. The amount of time required to make it through the selected games is short, not only ensuring completion but also leaving time for a child to assimilate the skills and generalize to situations in practical life. This also keeps kids from being prompt dependent and builds skills over time, committing practice into positive habitual patterns. Kiko Labs also has an app that one can buy and try. It includes 6 games, Thinking time Pro- Cognitive Skills for Early Learning. It has the same data collecting capabilities, but not as many skill-building games. With learning games, one needs to provide enough variety for kids to generalize skills.
Both these apps are Highly Recommended for every child and a TWA Top Picks. Learning to navigate a sensory rich but the sometimes overwhelming world and respond appropriately is a hard thing to do when you are just starting out in the world. These are games to play with your child and share in the wonders of learning. By sharing the experience, you model desirable behaviors…such as saying “Whoopsy Daisy” when you make a mistake and go back again. By doing so you are teaching that mistakes happen, and we use it to learn, and not as a tick mark for failure. Both these apps highly respect both the innate intelligence in children and their capacity to learn, adapt, and grow.
Jo Booth OTR/L has been an Occupational Therapist for over 35 years, and currently practices at EasterSeals of Sepa, Montgomery County Division mainly focusing in Early Intervention. It is an APS (Approved Private School) and home outreach based setting. She has also worked in Adolescent and Adult Rehabilitation. Writing reviews for Teachers With Apps has been a tremendous opportunity and experience to share and learn with others.