Sunday, March 22, 2009

Exective Functioning Skills - Activities you can do at home

This week I decided to begin some additional cognitive skills activities with my two children. I have been doing even more research than usual on the topic of executive functioning skills and decided that I could create my own version of the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test using the Blink card game set and a few others items.
The Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is designed to help children and adults reason through possible options and determine through a process of elimination what “rule” applies. The reason this activity is so important is that studies show that executive functioning skills are not like other skills where mere exposure is sufficient. Executive function skills require active analysis by the student or adult through repetition and trial to encourage development and growth. “Telling” the child the answer defeats the purpose and even may inspire learned dependence and at worst could even cause a decrease in these skills over time.

Here’s what the goal is: Find a match to a single card from four available cards. The match can either be same color, same shape or same quantity. You need to decide which rule is applied and then the child needs to figure it out. You apply the same rule for up to 4 hands dealt. Then, you switch the rule to something different.

Come up with a creative way to let them know they selected correctly. We use a Staples Easy Button. You push the button when the correct answer is made and it says “That was easy”. As simple, noncommittal “beep” by the adult is sufficient for incorrect answers. This is not too judgmental and yet clearly identifies that they selected incorrectly.

After each selection by the student, immediately set up a new set of cards. Do NOT let the student continue guessing with the same set. This is pure guessing and does not work the strategy of the process of elimination and would, in fact, undermine the purpose of the activity at best and at worst would encourage a bad habit of guessing.

Here is an example: set four cards set out including 1. Three red tear drops, 2. One green lightning bolt, 3. Four blue flowers and, 4. Two grey triangles. The card that you have as the master card is a one grey tear drop. If you have preselected the “rule” to be color then the correct answer would be #4, if quantity was the “rule” then #2 is correct and if shape is the “rule” then #1 would be correct.

Repeat with new cards but using the same rule so the child can use a process of elimination to figure out which rule you are using. After four attempts they should have figured out the rule. Encourage then to tell you which rule they are checking each and every time. Once they make the correct selection for the rule have them tell you the rule that was applied. Repeat the steps one more time once they have discerned the correct rule to reinforce it.

To continue the game, select a new rule and repeat the steps above. You may also use objects or other card configurations as well. The SET cards would work. With SET the possible rules would be number, color, shape or shade – four possible options. With this variation you would want to give the child up to 5 attempts to discern the correct rule.

We have also been able to find various shape and colored buttons from our local school supply store. Using these we have been able to make certain rules including: same color and same shape, different shape and same color, different shape and different color, same shape and different color.
We have found the buttons to be really challenging because it is an either/or combination rule. As a parent the buttons are a little easier as I can draw them quickly from a pile and there is less down time for my children while I am preparing the set up. Down time is a brain break and does not accomplish the same thing as keeping the brain actively involved.

Be aware that this game will also work the mental faculties of the person setting up the cards or items being used. I would recommend doing a task like this for about 6 minutes. Go longer only if the child requests it and ALWAYS end on a success.

Don’t forget to have something that you child really finds fun as that signal they are correct. Research shows that when there is a release of dopamine, any new learning that precedes its release is “locked in”. This is also why you want a bland “beep” as the response to an incorrect response. You don’t want to punish with harshness, but a neutral correction will avoid a dopamine release on wrong responses.

Many games on the market today use very funny and exciting sounds for incorrect responses. Many of these sounds are so interesting that they could, inadvertently, have an undesired release of dopamine and undermine the learning process.

Be aware that an activity like this can be done with a child as young as two or three. Start with only one or two possible rules for the very young and increase the rule choices as they regularly get the correct answer. Correct answers should be achieved within the same number of tries as there are rules options.

Before beginning an activity like this, make sure the student can identify each of the elements they should be considering. Recognition of shapes, quantity, color and any other feature may need to be addressed first to ensure likelihood of success and decrease frustration for your child.

If you have more than one child, once the older student is proficient with this task at a basic level, they may become the teacher for the younger student at that level, while continuing on as the student for more challenging tasks. This will accomplish benefits for both children concurrently. Make sure the older student adheres to the guidelines of not telling the answer, giving much praise or reward for correct responses, and a non-committal “beep” for incorrect responses.

For more ideas and information about executive functioning skills and other skills that help make learning easier and more fun, please view other areas of The Brain Trainers site for information on Cognitive Skills Testing and Brain Training Programs (on-line as well as trainer lead), Instructional and Informational DVDs and Books, Educational Games and Activities and more.


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