How to improve executive function (screen time!)

One of the big reasons that super smart kids do not do well in the work world is their limited executive function—the skill that tells you to stop eating berries and run away from a lion. Natural selection has made us into executive function geniuses (though we still cannot multitask  with any competence, at least we know what to do first.)

Despite limited executive function  Aspergers kids can float through school largely unscathed because of their high IQ. This is because school is very structured and if you are very smart, you can compensate for the fact that you forget to do homework or you forget to bring a book home the night before a test. School is a place where you don’t have to make a lot of decisions, you are rewarded by simply following the rules.

But in the work world, jobs that are simply following rules eventually are consumed by technology or to people in developing countries with super-low labor rates. (For example, I hired someone for $3/hour to find me all the people on Twitter who say they are ENTPs because I knew ENTPs would be interested in my course about making money by selling your ideas.)

So the good jobs are where we get paid to prioritize. Sometimes it’s prioritizing work. Sometimes we prioritize ideas, or relationships, or problem. But the better jobs require us to be good at looking at a lot of information that is not equal and prioritizing it well.

So, how do you get good executive function? You could get people to help you. That’s what I do. I pay three assistants to do various parts of my life so I don’t miss the most important thing. And I married someone with incredible executive function who has sort of agreed that he can tell me what to do moment to moment, and I can tell him how to plan long-term (something unrelated to executive function that I’m great at).

For kids, though, training helps. The more opportunity you can give your child to practice executive function in discreet, controlled ways, the better.

My son practices when he takes care of his goats. They love him and for the most part follow him like dogs, but sometimes, they wander off and get into trouble. My son has to decide:

Which goat does he go after? The lead goat or the second goat who does more damage?

Are they hungry enough to be lured back with tree leaves or corn stalks? Will he need to rope them in?

Should he protect something from the goats (are they near the vegetable garden) or should he let the goats eat what they found so they will stand still and he can catch them?

My son’s stress level goes way way up when this happens because executive function is hard for him. (My husband, on the other hand, thrives on an animal emergency because he’s so good at executive function.) Still, by practicing, my son improves because he gets direct, clear feedback about whether he made the right decision in the moment.

Another way to get this sort of feedback is through video games. Engaging, challenging and interactive games help kids learn to make good decisions quickly with incomplete information, according to Sandra Calvert, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University and the director of the school’s Children’s Digital Media Center. Calvert specifically cites executive function as something that improves from screen time.

One of the reasons that kids who play hardcore games do better in life than kids who don’t is because the problem solving required for those games is the same type of problem solving that stretches the brain’s executive function. You need to decide which issue is most important. Sometimes something is about to blow up (starred item is the term Gmail uses), and sometimes you have to solve one problem to move on to the next (interdependencies in Microsoft Project).

In the information age, executive function might be the single most important skill in the whole workforce. You can’t learn executive function in school, where teachers tell you what to do and when to do it. But you can learn executive function in hardcore gaming arenas in a homeschool environment.

So go there. Explore. The skills gained from gaming will ripple across all aspects of your children’s lives.

30 replies
  1. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    What are hardcore games, Penelope?
    My 5-year-old son loves playing games and watching Youtube video about his games and toys on iPad. Is Plants vs Zombies hardcore?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Good question. Lisa Nielsen runs an online discussion group from teens and she asked them what is the definition of a hardcore game. Here’s the answer she got from Erik N. Martin :

      “Ahaha, well it’s sort of a silly term, really it’s more about how you play any game – for example I have over 100 days of time logged in World of Warcraft, which means I’m pretty hardcore *brushes off shoulders*, but someone could be equally committed to Angry Birds, which is generally considered a “casual” game. Hardcore means a lot *lot* more learning and focus is required to win.”


      • Lucy Chen
        Lucy Chen says:

        So that implies the more time we spent playing, the better, because we learn more and are more focused on learning?

        But when does playing games become not good, become a bad thing?

        I used to play WoW, my then-boyfriend used to play it, too. That’s when we just started working full time. I only played little, because I spent my after-work hours studying for CFA, while he played all night and weekends. I also know other friends who played and still play a lot when they are fully grown adults, and they have not gone far in life or career. It seems they don’t have the drive, and haven’t found their meaning in life, or they only find sense of achievement in games like WoW. Outside that, they feel empty.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          My husband plays wow every night when he comes home from his successful career at spacex. It helps him relax after a stressful day.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    It turns out that I’ve become very good at chasing after the goats, if you will, in my job as an engineering director in a software company. But I find it exhausting. I want to put processes in place so that things run smoothly overall and the times when the goats get away are the exception, not the rule.

    Why, then, do I end up working with so many peers who think that a day chasing goats is a great day? I swear, they subconsciously set up situations where the goats can get out just so they can go chase them, just because it feels so good to them.

  3. Annie
    Annie says:

    I’d love recommendations for some good games. My 6yo loves minecraft. But my 9yo with executive function issues is not into it. We have no gaming system yet either. Thanks!

    • sarah
      sarah says:

      My 9 year old son loves this game:

      It’s a free online game where players design and build planetary exploring vehicles, then engage other players in battles on the surfaces of alien worlds. No gore, just some explosions and a lot of engineering and tactical challenges. The 3D graphics are really nice, too!

  4. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    Did you ever let the kids play World of Warcraft? I remember you were thinking of saying no, then seemed to change your mind.

  5. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    haha! your driver’s license story sounds very familiar.

    does it also include things like inability to schedule appointments, read a map and remember to feed yourself? or is that just my general incompetence

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      Vanessa, my experience as an executive assistant was really enjoyable because I could take care of all those things that escape high earners/rockstars of the professional world.

      It’s like being a nanny for an adult(s) and it’s awesome :)

      That said, I want to earn enough money to hire a nanny for my household. We forget to do small stuff that ends up being a big problem (like cooking food on time before we’re starving or remembering to wash clothes before we need them).

      • jessica
        jessica says:

        One of my best friends lives in South America. She has a nanny and a cook/maid and it’s normal. Everyone in upper middle class has them. She focuses on her relationship with her kids (and shopping and planning trips ;). It’s a great thing for a mom!!

  6. Liz Ness
    Liz Ness says:

    (I am an INTJ and love this sort of information.)

    My son is an INFP and decision-making isn’t something he’d prefer to do. So, this post, besides being a tip for developing executive function, is a wonderful pointer for helping my son lean into his discomfort and develop a skill outside of his preferences. To me, that’s simply GREAT! =)

    Thanks Penelope!

  7. Matthew Boswell
    Matthew Boswell says:

    Just wanted to leave this youtube link to the marshmallow test. One of the classic psych tests of executive function.

    It is pretty cute and a good example. Those who could priortize in the moment and hold of the short term reward got a better long term reward.

    Any strategy game (preferably player vs player) is great for executive function. I have played a lot of games in the past and now only play one for the purpose of keeping executive function in shape. I have never used luminosity or “brain training” games because they seem subpar in complex thinking and game aesthetics.

    Board games also serve a great role in training executive function especially if your child is young. One of the best things you can do is notice how they are making mistakes and then make those same mistakes yourself so the child capitalizes on it. They will learn faster then if you tried to let them figure it out.

  8. Liza
    Liza says:

    I’m doing PhD in Cognitive Science and i wanted to make a couple of clarifications, from the perspective of my knowledge (although it’s not my specialisation).

    First, it’s really great that you talk about executive functions.

    Executive functions are great. They predict life success at the age of 4 (the famous Marshmallow experiment It actually predicts a bunch of things, but it’s a long story.

    There is still a debate whether kids who have better executive functions in the first place tend to play video games more (because they are good at it), or those are games that improve it. But it looks like indeed, playing video games on its own does improve EF, at least some components.

    It is also true that playing video games improves quick decision-making.

    But those are two different things (not totally unrelated though).

    The latter is called “probabilistic inference”. It helps you to quickly access relevant factors, weight them right, and from that infer the most probable outcome (or most effective decision). Video games improve it, as there, like in life, you have to quickly access incoming stimuli, figure out which are relevant in this particular case, and you get a constant feedback. So you learn to make good inferences. Quickly. Here’s a paper about it

    But it’s not the same thing as *executing* these good decisions. Executive function are executive, because their job is to manage other processes. The closest notion of it in everyday life is “self-control” (although it is only the part of it, but the largest part). This includes inhibition (stop eating berries), updating working memory (include a lion into the current situation) and shifting to a different activity (run). Now, the inference that lion is dangerous, that he sees you and probably will attack – a probabilistic inference. Maybe you know that the best thing is to run (good inference), but too scared to move and can do nothing about it (not able to control affect – bad executive functions). That’s what you have to do in video games as well – inhibit irrelevant stimuli, switch to the relevant and hold your attention there as long as necessary. Otherwise you die (in most cases), very powerful didactic method. Here’s a paper about it

    The good news is that playing video games apparently improves both.
    The bad news is that only action video games do. And those are the most cruel ones – so-called “first person shooter games”. And they enhance aggressiveness.

  9. Lyndap
    Lyndap says:

    My teenaged son is great at deciding what dangers exist in the virtual, video game world and eliminating them. If only he was able to transfer that skill to the real world and his school work.

  10. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    This is a good list of executive function skills that I copied from Davidson Institute:

    -inhibition of impulses, stopping to choose an appropriate response

    -previewing likely consequences of action (both short- and long-term)

    -holding and manipulating information in working memory

    – sustaining attention despite distraction or fatigue

    -planning, both short and long-term saliency determination, figuring out which details are important

    -task initiation

    – getting started on a chosen task

    – depth of processing, choosing a level that is not too superficial or too consuming

    -tempo control, maintaining an appropriate speed and rhythm for work

    -development of automaticity, making a skill routine so it takes no conscious effort

    -satisfaction, perceiving and deriving pleasure from reinforcers

    -organization, both internal (thoughts) and external (materials)

    -time management : predicting how long things will take, planning, and acting

    -flexibility : adapting strategies or plans in response to mistakes or new information

    -self-monitoring : observing one’s own performance and comparing it to standards

    -emotional self-regulation : being aware of and managing feelings

    -metacognition : being aware of one’s own thought processes

  11. wally
    wally says:

    I have never though of this. I can understand this need to strengthen this skill. I would love to find games that are good for my kids and also fun for them. I do not play video games but my husband does. I like the analogy of the goats. What games would u recommend for a 6 yr old?

  12. karelys
    karelys says:

    We leave the PS3 controller laying around hoping Murphy will figure out how to use it on his own. It’s much different than a touch screen.

    He sits down to “play” with my brothers and my husband during game night. (They give him an unplugged controller.)

    The other day he turned on Call of Duty and made a kill.

    Of course Chris is as happy as if his team made a touch down.

    I was worried this game is bad for him. But I noticed he makes guns out of anything since he was a baby. Like chewing a fun out crackers.

    Anyway, I am hoping to find games that challenge him to think and coordinate his hands to his thoughts. In the mean time he can learn cause and effect by diddling with the controller on his own.

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