Integrate Critical Thinking Skills & Executive Functioning

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A popular phrase in educational circles these days is “teaching critical thinking skills“. Our state believes that this skill is so lacking in our students that they have added critical thinking skills to the middle school and high school curriculum.

A popular phrase in autism circles is “executive functioning skills“. Anyone with a child who has autism is familiar with the struggles the child can encounter while doing even the simplest task.

Colleges and universities report that students are coming to college lacking the basic skills that aid them in problem-solving and life skills. So what can you do about it?

Integrate Critical Thinking Skills & Executive Functioning

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Help Your Child Develop Critical Thinking Skills

As someone who has been working with children for over twenty years people often think that I am some sort of “super-mom”. Nothing could be further from the truth. When my husband and I had my daughter I was just barely out of college and I made plenty of mistakes raising her. One of the biggest mistakes that we made was sending our daughter off to college without paying proper attention to her executive functioning and critical thinking skills. I knew we were in trouble when she called asking how to do her laundry. That was just the first of many tasks that she had to learn how to do on her own. Some far more critical than having dirty clothes. All of our children can benefit from practicing their problem-solving skills.

Help Your Child Develop Executive Functioning Skills

For children on the autism spectrum, introducing and working on these skills is crucial. Most children with Autism Spectrum Disorder will have some issue with executive function. Particularly with tasks that do not interest them. I work with quite a few pre-teens and teens who are now doing well at school and are making progress with their social skills, but one problem can stop them in their tracks.

I would like all of your children to benefit from my mistakes. Starting in elementary school you can introduce activities that will help your children develop the skills they need to solve problems and think critically. We made this activity for one of my former clients who is doing well at school and at home except when he has to use his critical thinking and executive functioning skills to solve a problem. When he faces a new challenge or problem he freezes and doesn’t know what to do. By practicing what to do in different situations he is becoming more capable and confident.

A Jar Full of Problems: Integrate Critical Thinking Skills & Executive Functioning

We came up with a variety of scenarios that require critical thinking and/or executive functioning skills. You can choose the ones that fit for your child and add some of your own. Below is a sample of just some of the questions. We have questions in a variety of areas including the community, home, and school. Download the PDF here.

Integrate Critical Thinking Skills & Executive Functioning

Cut out the “problems” or scenarios. Fold the slips of paper up and put them in a jar. Once or twice a week, have your child or student choose a slip of paper and solve the problem they chose.

In order to practice good problem solving, you first need to define the problem, then generate possible solutionsevaluate and select the best possible solutions and finally, implement the solutions. Avoid telling the children how to do a skill or what to think about a problem. Instead encourage them to brainstorm their own solution or method for getting a job done.

Every child is unique with their own strengths and challenges.

Remember that every child and every situation is unique. The answer to “You forgot to bring your lunch to school. What should you do?” will be different depending on the school and the child. At some schools, you can go to the office and they will loan you lunch money. Some schools will allow the kids to share their food while others do not. For an anxious child calling home may be the answer. Help the children define the problem and come up with different solutions and then pick the best one. In a group situation, ask the children to discuss the problem together.

Some of the “problems in the jar” relate to life skills that rely on executive functioning skills. If you don’t know how to do a load of laundry where can you get that information? Try to steer the children away from having “Ask Mom or Dad” as the solution unless that is the most appropriate solution for that child in that scenario.

Critical Thinking Problems Jar

With a little practice, your children can become experts in problem-solving and life skills.

Resources for Developing Critical Thinking Skills

10 Great Activities that Engage Your Students

Critical Thinking Worksheets

Fun Critical Thinking Activities

Resources for Developing Executive Functioning Skills

20 Activities To Improve Executive Function

Teaching Ideas for Executive Function Skills

Executive Functioning Activities At Home

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6 Comments


  1. You’re so humble. There is no doubt in my mind that you were and continue to be an outstanding mom. That aside, I think this idea is absolutely incredible. I wish my kids were old enough to do these specific tasks. Though they are going through an executive functioning and problem-solving bootcamp as my mobility decreases and (unforunately) my morning sickness increases.

    Reply

    1. You are so sweet, Alana! Thank you for your kind words. I am sure you are finding ways to build problem-solving skills with your little ones that is age appropriate.

      Reply

  2. The jar full of problems is brilliant! I love that it can be adapted to suit individual children’s needs, and results in a bit of a challenge for the family as well. So great!

    Reply

  3. These are excellent questions for children of all ages. I’d love to hear how a toddler would respond versus say a teenager, let alone someone on the autism spectrum. What is great about this is that it teaches us that there may not be a right or wrong answer, as long as the end goal is met and completed.

    Reply

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