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Executive Function SkillsThis article on executive function skills was co authored by two very special friends of the Social Learning Center, Jason Soisson and Brendan McNamee. Thanks for working with me on this article!

As summer comes to an end, we are thinking about how to help our kids, clients, and students get ready for the transition back to school. When we think about “school,” we often fall into the trap of just thinking about “reading, writing, and math.” To be successful at these, as well as, other subjects while navigating the social arena, one needs to have well developed executive functioning skills.

What are Executive Function Skills?

Executive function (EF) is “the cognitive process that regulates an individual’s ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently and make decisions” (1). There are many cognitive factors that play into one’s EF abilities such as working memory, inhibition, attention, and emotional control. We have seen lots of articles about “how to improve one’s EF skills,” but very few focus on how to reinforce one’s EF skills through the use of something kids actually like doing.

We thought a lot about this concept, and with the help of several friends of the Social Learning Center,  we have put together some tips on several EF abilities that are critical for not only being a successful social and academic person, but for having success when playing online games as well.

Over the past three summers, we have run a Minecraft camp where we have talked about various social and EF concepts that go into being a successful online gamer. Read below to see how two areas of EF, attention and emotional control, impact online gaming as well as tips from real kids for kids who are playing Minecraft and other online games. These tips can also be reinforced by parents, teachers, and other clinicians.

Executive Function Skills: Attention in Minecraft

Attention, one of many executive function skills, is the concentration of the mind on a single object or thought. We use attention every single day for things such as homework or playing Minecraft. Attention is important because it helps you focus on the basic tasks of everyday life. If we weren’t paying attention, then tasks would be very disorganized and would make people feel disorganized, frustrated, and stressed. This is why we are here to tell you about how attention is is needed in playing Minecraft.

Why do you need good attention and the ability to shift your thoughts when playing Minecraft?

Attentive Awareness

When playing, it’s very important that you are aware of who is around you (e.g a creeper) because if it’s a hostile mob you may have to defeat it.

We use attention when playing Minecraft to recognize and observe others’ emotions. For example, if you are playing with someone online and you see they are becoming upset or frustrated, you should try to help calm them down and find a solution. Without paying attention to the emotions of those you are playing with you may end up having a bad experience online and your situation may get worse.

Switching Attention

Sometimes, especially when playing at home, you need to be able to shift your attention from Minecraft to homework or other things parents need you to do. This can be hard for many individuals.

Explore More >> Easy Transitions through Activity Disengagement

Five Tips for Better Transitions

Tips on Shifting Attention

Here is one tip on how to help shift from playing something exciting like Minecraft to doing something less fun or enjoyable:

Determine Time Allotment

Before starting your game, make a plan with your parents as to a “reasonable” about of time you need to play.

Request More Time

If you need more time than the allotted time given you can say,

“Can I have 5 minutes to finish what i am doing?”

(Inside tip: You may also talk with your parents about a reasonable amount of extra time in case you need that).

Consider a Timer

You should also set up a time frame for yourself as to the time you began playing and the time you should get off.

Explore More >> Tips to Help Develop Time Awareness

Minecraft is an amazing sandbox game if you are ready to attend to both onscreen and off screen situations.

Executive Function Skills: Emotional Control in Minecraft

There are other important parts of executive functioning that goes into being a successful Minecrafter. Emotional control is the part of our executive function skills that keeps us going towards a particular goal. It is having the ability to stay calm even when faced with situations that can cause angry or anxious reactions. We have also learned it is tied closely with inhibition and self monitoring.

Why is having emotional control important when playing Minecraft or any other online (or offline) game?

It’s an important EF skill to have so that if you die, you don’t get too stressed out (it’s just a game after all). If you are playing in “hardcore,” you need to have good emotional control. If you die or if mobs or other players kill you, you need to have good emotional control (this also pertains to if you are in survival mode). Although you can respawn in “survival” mode, you still should not have a huge emotional reaction because people will have uncomfortable thoughts about you if you are playing with others. Even in the video game world, you still want to stay calm and not stress out.

Tips to Regulate Your Emotions

Here are some tips from us on how to regulate your emotions when playing Minecraft:

Ask for Help

When you are feeling stressed, it is important to ask someone for help such as if the game is lagging.

Don’t Freak Out

React in a calm way that makes other people have comfortable thoughts about you.

Take a Break

Take a 15 minute break for every 2 hours of play time. During your break, here are some things to do:

take deep breaths,

drink some water,


get comforting objects,

read a book, or

go outside.

Find a Solution

If something is too hard, try searching online for strategies or tips, or even youtube videos of other players completing that task.

In closing, there is certainly a time and place for playing video games and we recommend families have a schedule for “screen time.” What we have learned both through writing this article and in our executive functions class is that attention and emotional control is important when playing games such as Minecraft and other video/online games. Many people think executive function skills just pertain to how kids organize their backpack or lockers. What we have come to learn is executive functioning skills are needed to help us in everyday life, make social connections, and to communicate with others both in person and online.


(1) Johnston-Tyler, Jan. The CEO of Self: An Executive Functioning Workbook. Lexington, KY: EvoLibri, 2014. Print.