Using Games to Help Students Develop Executive Function Skills
Collaborative games can help students develop skills like critical thinking, emotional control, sustained attention, and working memory.
“The professor lost his invisibility potion and needs our help getting it back. He said to message him.” I whipped out my phone, and my students’ eyes widened. “Hi professor. We are ready to solve the mystery,” I narrate-typed. My students were so surprised to see me texting in front of the class—to a fictional professor, no less—that they jumped out of their seats and raced over to verify what I was sending.
I was using a mystery activity called The Professor’s Missing Potion, in which automated chatbots move the mystery forward by offering new clues as previous clues are solved. When I got a response to my text, my students were beside themselves. In sixth grade, they were still not clear on the finer point of chatbots. “You are seriously messaging this guy, Ms. Culp? Who is it?”
“We need to solve the mystery, people—focus,” I insisted. My students proceeded to spend about two class periods completely absorbed in a task in which they needed to collaborate, think critically, and reflect in order to reach a common goal.
I’ve always been personally interested in games and puzzles, but I’ve also been the teacher who equated games with wasting class time. After a year of virtual instruction and a demoralizing transition back to in-person learning, though, I was ready to try something new.
In my hybrid role as a case manager for students with IEP plans and writing support teacher, I coach students in executive functioning skills. Executive functioning (EF) encompasses a set of mental skills that cut across disciplines, like prioritizing, organizing, task initiation, working memory, and goal-directed persistence. Trying to teach students how to apply these skills to schoolwork can be dull and unmotivating, but after seeing the natural engagement and genuine skill practice that my students derived from a game, I decided that all students should participate in such a worthwhile activity.
Using Games to Develop Students’ Executive Function Skills
I set up a full “Games Unit,” with this rationale: Games require us to employ the same EF skills we need to be successful in school.
We reviewed the skills rubric through which they would be assessed. The rubric was a hybrid of the International Baccalaureate “Approaches to Learning” and general EF skills. It focused on four major skill clusters: critical thinking (developing new strategies), communication and collaboration, sustained attention (including the ability to inhibit responses to distractions), and emotional control (again, including response inhibition). The rubric also incorporated reflection before self-assessing on metacognitive skills.
I selected six challenges for this unit. With each activity, I taught an introductory version of the game, the class made a first attempt, and we paused to debrief. With each round, I would add a new rule or complexity to the game, and then we would discuss what was going well so far. At the end, each student reflected more formally through the rubric’s self-assessment questions.
My favorite game: Team 3
EF focus skills: Goal-directed persistence, emotional control
Why this game is high-leverage: One student is blindfolded and must build a vertical structure out of blocks. Another student can see the design blueprint but is not allowed to speak. A third student acts as intermediary. All three need to come up with new strategies to accomplish the mission. Students must work through frustrations and develop new modes of communication.
My students’ favorite game: Snakesss
EF focus skills: Working memory, sustained attention
Why this game is high-leverage: Snakesss involves some players who are being honest and some who are being deceptive, like the games Mafia and Among Us. The game play feels easy to students, but ultimately they practice persuasion, a core academic skill: How can they convince people to agree with them without being too obvious?
At the end of this mini-unit, I asked my students to reflect upon what they had learned. Here are a few of their responses:
- “Critical thinking was essential to this unit. I had to think about what was being asked of me and how I could complete these tasks. We had time to apply these skills and focus!”
- “Playing games taught me to have more patience with someone.”
- “I learned that collaboration is useful when we need to get new ideas.”
- “Playing games taught me that I am a pretty good leader when it comes to trying to figure something out.”
Next year, I plan to integrate these skills weekly rather than in a self-contained unit; I don’t want to signal that EF skills are tangential to learning—they are, in fact, essential.
A Few Tips
Frontload the rationale for your students: These challenges are not free time—“The brain patterns you are developing are valuable in all of your academic endeavors,” you might say. This is fun, and this is serious.
Resist the urge to overexplain: The point is the students’ productive struggle with the game. Be transparent with kids. “I want to give you a hint, but it’s important for you to be able to come up with a new strategy on your own. Can you help each other?”
Relish the first debrief: You might say, “We’ve been struggling with this game, but we’re going to improve the more we play. So let’s stop here. What is going well so far? What is not going well? Who can think of a new strategy? Why do you find yourself disengaging?”
Small groups work best: My classes had five to seven students, which was the perfect size for most of these challenges, but a general education teacher would be wise to use this as a station, pull small groups, or get multiple copies of each game. Some classes may benefit from games designed for large groups, such as Salad Bowl or Mafia.
Use a student-friendly rubric: I used I-statements with clear cutoffs between four levels of achievement to frame where students were at. This made it easy for them to self-assess and build metacognitive muscle.
Extensions: While self-contained games are great for a quick classroom activity, consider using a longer mystery challenge like The Professor’s Missing Potion or Exit: The Game, or look for a free online escape room game; you could even consider an escape room field trip. These activities truly challenge students to collaborate in small groups toward a goal. You can also reach out to local game stores for more educator resources.