Thursday, October 24, 2013

Executive Functioning 101 + the Chief Executive Toolbox Giveaway (Value $400+)

You can download for free this expertly organized, well-written E-book about my favorite subject this year: Executive Functioning.  If you consider yourself a busy person with a busy kid- this book is a must-read.

What is a learning disability? Seriously, what is it? On most days, I think I know but then once in a while I have questions.... like...
  •  If people with dyslexia can learn to read using multisensory techniques then why don't we ALL use those techniques to teach EVERYONE? Does anyone think that multi-sensory approaches like Orton-Gillingham is bad for non-dyslexic children?  
Yeah... I haven't figured that one out yet.  But that is the point of an Awareness month.  It's always a good idea to stop and start asking questions and learning even more.  This year, I feel like I'm learning a lot and it's all about executive functioning.

I talk so much about executive functioning these days that I quickly forget that there are so many people who are not familiar with this term.  Thus slowly but steadily, I have been trying to introduce this idea to you all. But first, let me tell you this: Working on your child's executive skills, will NEVER be a waste of time. Understanding executive functioning is just plain good parent and teacher education.

And so guess what? I think we are not teaching these skills enough. And why not?  Well, I am thinking that it is because executive functioning is "not on the test."  And we all know it's not but let's think big picture here for just a minute - if my kids' executive functioning is terrible then who cares if they get into college!  They may not be able to manage finals and term papers and even worse, they may struggle to snag and hold onto an awesome job.  Disclosure: I was one of those kids. There were some really tough classes that I had to beg the prof to let me drop due to "personal problems" (problems with my executive functioning!)

Flashback! Sophomore year in college. Did you ever wake up late and have to run to your final exam? That was my Philosophy class.  I can't believe I passed it.   Get more from this infographic included in the free e-Book.

So thus, let us establish here that this is a post for everyone because executive functioning is a life skill and a learning ability that all children need to sharpen

That said, there are some of us who really need to be reading this, and printing this out, and showing to their spouse or teacher or student's parent or more.... give them this article if you see a child who struggles like this:
  • identifies with Mercer Mayer's stories way too much
  • can't figure out how to get started on work
  • can be found picking at nails or sharpening pencils when not motivated to finish his work
  • forgot the 2nd direction and only remembered the first
  • could have a brilliant science mind but can't set up a science project for his life

If this sounds like you or your child, then listen up. I have a Tool Set of Executive Functioning Skill-Builders that will blow you away!

Your Toolset - The Manual-

Caution: Read this before fiddling around with your tools. 

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has been my BFF this year.  I am so grateful.  This year is the same year that I found out that Dyslexia was a permanent sleepover guest in our home. This is also the same year that I have declared my home to be a zone free of Homework Stress. I have been able to hold myself together through this because I have been very focused on the big picture: my kids' future and mine. I include my own future too because I don't want to help them so much when they're older. (There I said it)

My method is quite simple- I just think of what kind of EF levels they will need later and what they're like now and then we go from there.

How will my child write a term paper? How will he manage his laundry load if he's dorming? Should he even go away to college? How will he wake himself in the morning? How will he juggle next day's homework AND a long-term project without my prodding? When do I stop prodding? This is why I ask you to read up about Executive Functioning via NCLD.  This month, they made it really easy for us.....

My kid can relate to this infographic that can be downloaded separately or together with the e-book. He is not in love with setting the table AND his little brother IS better at it than him.

Teaching the Teacher then the Child

I love getting information at  They create well-crafted materials that you can use to inform yourself and others.  This month, visitors to their site have been able to download a free full-color 28 page e-Book dedicated to Executive Functioning.  The book includes an "infographic" (mini E-Book with lots of pictures) that speaks directly to children via a character named Josh who is in sixth grade but his cartoon image is small enough to relate to younger kids too.  After depicting a typically disastrous day for a child struggling with E.F., the infographic provides a visual to help explain why children like Josh have a hard time. 

I wonder if we can get the kids to memorize these categories by putting it in an acronym.  OPSAS? STOPA? TOPAS? SPASO? Maybe not SPASO...

As a parent, I am very grateful. When a child with average to high intelligence asks you some very personal and sometimes painful why and how-questions about his challenges, I need help.  The "clogged funnel" analogy that the infographic used was very helpful.  He got it.  He loves funnels.  Any kid with a marble run knows what a clogged funnel looks like!  They know that it will all go down somehow but not without some facilitation.  My hope is that with better information and better tools, they can be their own facilitator.

The NCLD has brought you the e-book but I have been working hard to organize my newest toolbox category: LIKE AN EXECUTIVE.  Here is my list of favorite tools from my family's executive toolbox!   AND.... Know that all these tools listed below are going into a ginormous giveaway toolbox package for one very lucky winner!  BUT first- I want to tell you this upfront- right now.  I told all of the below companies that I was going to include their product in my article and that if they wished, they could throw in something to this Chief Executive Toolbox giveaway.  I had no idea that EVERYONE would say yes but that is how much they care about Learning Disability Awareness Month and Executive Functioning- So please visit their Facebook pages and slap them a cyber high five! They deserve it!

Know Thyself and Employ Thy Strategies

WHAT: Peapod (MEDIUM) by Abilitations
INVEST: $89.99
Slap them a cyber high five here

You would think that my kid is the luckiest kid in the world because he has access to a lot of top-of-the-line tools but you know.... he's a kid.  He's a boy who feels embarrassment just like any other boy.  But taking the stigma out of a "helper tool" needs a good PR consult.  And did I tell you that I used to be a publicist? So step 1 to destigmatizing tools is to first establish and name the need the child is feeling.  "You got ants in your pants" is okay but I try to tell my kids that getting pressure from outside helps keep their brain awake and ready to absorb information and then I suggest that they step into something like our Peapod so that not only can they see what I mean but also FEEL what I mean.    

In my full review, Susan Roberts, pediatric occupational therapist, explained to me that the deep pressure from the Peapod is calming.  Thus for a child who is hyperactive and jumpy, the Peapod is going to calm them down to the point where they may be able to focus. That is the best reward of helping yourself because I really believe every kid wants to succeed. It's our job to convince them that they have so much control over their own success - they just have to find and use what works for them. We can help them with that.

 Flip Your Switch On and Stay On Until You're Done

WHAT:  The Tran-Quill Pencil Kit (plastic version) by ARK Therapeutic
INVEST:  $36.50
Slap them a cyber high five here

Would you do more sit ups and harder sit-ups if I were holding your ankles vs. you sticking them under your couch?  If you answered the former, I think you are going to fit in the category of "most people." Simply because pretty much every human wants feedback. And that is what this pencil does. It is buzzing in your hand. You really can never forget it isn't there. If you drop it, you and everyone else in the room will hear BZZZZZZZZZZZ.  But in your hand, you're pretty much the only person getting the "feedback." In my full review, occupational therapist Susan Roberts told me,"There are 25 tiny muscles that start and end in the hand and the vibration strengthens those muscles," she said. "It makes you more aware of those muscles and therefore allows you to use them more efficiently."

I don't know about you but my son is all about efficiency (well, at least the way he sees it).  I keep telling him that if he's not using his tools, he is using Unleaded gas when he paying for Super Unleaded.  But the kid doesn't drive.  I need to find some more metaphors. 

Setting Yourself Up for Success

WHAT: Smencils and Smencils Color Pencils by Educational Insights
INVEST: $14.95 for Classic Pack of 10 and $14.95 for Colored Pencils Pack of 10
Slap them a cyber high five here

#2 loves his Smencils.  He loved them so much that I can't even find one to show you a picture of him using it.  But trust me, he's made the Smencil Mustache time and time again.  That is the great thing about Smencils.  They are scented but not like your co-worker who just has no clue that he is wearing too much cologne. The smell proximity of a Smencil is just enough to cover your child's work area (meaning right above the paper and right under your child's nose).  The the natural feel of the pencil, Smencils scent is very clean and natural and kind of yummy.  But again, the scent never overpowers enough to get your kid hungry.  It's just enough to help wake up your senses using the lesser used olfactory highway.

How Long Does it Take You to _____________?

WHAT: Auditory Timer by Different Roads to Learning

INVEST: $6.95 and the winner will also get a $25 gift certificate
Slap them a cyber high five here

What is this little ol' timer doing with these executive bad boys? Well, I have to say that the timer I have in my hand here is one of my favorites! IT IS SO EASY- EVEN KIDS CAN USE IT (and not break it).  In my mini-review, I wrote how I love that you can countdown and count up so easily.  And it's almost two years later and I still love this thing. My kids do too.  It also stands up on it's own or sticks to your fridge but our timer is usually near our Executive Training Center (formally known as the "Homework Center").  I time my child doing a big multiplication problem and then I say, "Okay, it took you three minutes to do this problem and you have four more.  How many more minutes do you need?"  Then I set his 8 inch Time Timer to twelve minutes and I get back to my pom-pom making.

I think sometimes kids get stressed because they can't visualize an end to something.  Knowing how long something takes will help get them through it.  With a simple timer and stopwatch like the Auditory Timer, kids can learn how to forecast how long something will take. That is one step closer to the executive goals of organizing and prioritizing, right?  Even better, this timer is a stopwatch but it doesn't look like one.  I think that is better on the nerves.

Watch Me Watch Myself (Or Watch You Watch Yourself)

WHAT: Time Timer Watch Plus - Adult or Kids Watch (Winner chooses size) by Time Timer LLC
INVEST:  $69.95 -$74.95
Slap them a cyber high five here

I am so glad I am wearing watches again.  I'm so sick of looking at my cell phone to find out what time it is. But getting myself to sport a watch again had to be special.  So of course, it had to be a Time Timer watch.  How can I resist that perfectly cut and disappearing red pie that grows smaller as I get older, minute by minute....   Seriously, I can do so much with this thing. Not only can I read the time but I can set a daily alarm and most importantly, set a recurring timer (2minutes, 2 hours... your choice!) that can ring or vibrate or both! 

This is all part of my grandmaster plan to personally demonstrate to my son that I'm dealing with my flibber-ti-jibit- willow-the-wisp-ishways to the best of my abilities. I mean, he's gotta know that his whirling dervishness is totally inherited.  I also find that I can use the my Watch Plus to help me be Timer Mom On-the-Fly.  Video game limits and rewards can be meted out without me bringing a timer around. (I used to do that!)  Read my homage to le gran Time Timer here where you'll read the expert opinion of Alison Berkley, an phenomenally special special-educator.


Like I always tell everyone, this doesn't replace the real thing but if you want a glimpse of the magic, try out the app and stick it onto yourself somehow.  Ask your child to do homework with it and without it and discuss the differences. This is how I make homework the core of our executive training curriculum.

Program Yourself (or Your Child) with Your iPhone?

MotivAider iPhone App by Behavioral Dynamics
INVEST: $2.99
Slap them a cyber high five here.

Sometimes I wish it were possible but all kidding aside, there is something to be said for trying to program yourself, a procedure that many call "self-talk." But seriously though, I am a "hands-on learner" and so is #1.  Thus, if we are sitting there programming our phones to display every five minutes the phrase: Am I On Task?  Would it actually help?  I say: YES! Read more about the Motivaider in my full review that includes the insight of Beverly Whalen-Schmeller, School Psychologist at Metro Nashville Public Schools.

I like how "Desired Behavior" and "Personal Message" are different. It makes you think a little about your real goals.

In fact, I am using this app right now as I am writing this story to you because the world and its inhabitants are just so interesting. Just within the past two hours, I have learned about a cool magic product line, my friend's child was diagnosed with Dysgraphia, and my other friend's child is having behavior problems.  I want to be a part of all these discussions ASAP but luckily I have Mr. MotivAider app to help me stay on target! And I could use the extra help of a notification (Android) or a message display (iOS) to tell me to keep writing this post!

You Can't Learn When Your Body is Not Calm- Self-Regulation

WHAT: MeMoves by Thinking Moves
INVEST:  $59.95 for DVD Program
Slap them a cyber high five here.

Seriously, who can learn when they are frazzled or distracted? And yet, I have been guilty of trying to "drum" things into my kids but I know better now. My kid must be calm if anything is going to stick.  Karin Buitendag, Director of Occupational Therapy at the STAR Center led by Lucy J. Miller, a globally recognized treatment and research facility for Sensory Processing Disorder told me that MeMoves could be used to get kids to regulate and settle down. "It's not something like yoga or anything else," said Karen who explained that kids could just sit or stand by their desks and do the exercises.  There is no need to move around. How convenient, isn't it? Because the less transition the better for some of our kids. Why make life hard?

But really, there is something about using both hands and arms that says to others and to the self- "I am here. I am participating. I am calm. I am ready."   I have seen it in countless toy play like LEGOs, Design TilesSifteos, Plus Plus... when you are using both hands, you are regulating yourself somehow and from my mom-observational viewpoint, my kids just look so much more alert. MeMoves rocks!


A Good CEO Takes His Executive Assistant Everywhere He Goes

WHAT: On-Task On-Time Timer by Timely Matters
INVEST:  $49.95
Slap them a cyber high five here

I do this every single day. I get up walk to a room to get something. When I get there, I do something else. Then I go back to where I was only to realize that I didn't get what I was supposed to get!  I don't know about you but the moment I realize that I forgot what I forgot, my head undergoes a surge of negative energy and I feel like s**t.  I am sure our kids feel that way.  But, while we might say to ourselves, "Damn, I'm so stupid!" and sort of mean it, when our kids say they are stupid out loud, my heart stops because my gut tells me that they really believe this.  And that is simply not acceptable.

This is why I encourage my kids to use their On-Task On-Time Timers and if they are going to use them, they must CARRY THEM a.k.a "Your Memory" AROUND WITH THEM.  Sure your memory is not the shape of a gigantic kitchen timer with a handle and turning picture cue and dial.  I know that but if you think about your working memory like it's a post it note (see e-book photo) up top, you know that it really is about holding knowledge to be used for later.  I can't help but think that the act of carrying around is a self-helping habit that they may generalize in other settings.

First time flossing thanks to On Task On Time Timer.  Look at that face. I wonder what he's thinking!

GAMES Help Kids Learn to be Their Best CEO of their "Corp"orations!

So isn't there an executive skill called "Shifting"?  Uh, yes there is and guess what, there is also a MENSA Award winning game named Mine Shift

When Being Shifty is a Good Thing

WHAT: Mine Shift by Mindware
INVEST: $19.99
Slap them a cyber high five here.

I love this game! It's huge fun and so easy to set up and just start playing.  But here is what is even more cool about it- it's a non-stop exercise of strategic play.  Susan Schwartz, veteran learning specialist at Friends Seminary in New York City helped me examine Mine Shift for my full review.  She said that the draw to players was the constant shifting process. She added, "You are building that storehouse of executive thinking, flexibility, planning ahead," she said, "and you begin to develop a sensibility about the game and you can make things shift."

 You can read the full review here. Just know that this is one of those strategy games that successfully appeals to both girls and boys. Boys love the cool Mine references (if I hear the word "Minecraft" one more time....) and the girls (and I) love the embedded jewels.


Think Ahead and Visualize How You'll Get There

WHAT: Laser Maze by ThinkFun
INVEST: $24.99
Slap them a cyber high five here.

I love that many of the pieces in this puzzle remain static but you have these variables that require your executive decision. As the puzzles increase in difficulty, a player is encouraged to think things through and visualize his steps in advance.  I like watching my child solving these problems with his eyes. If I look closely, I can see his eyes darting around.  It's really cool. Some kids will draw an imaginary line from one mirror to another mirror and some kids will talk to themselves to work out the solution.  I absolutely love watching my kids do this.  It's this wonderful process of planning and self-checking that is happening here.  How rewarding would it be to see that your laser made its way to the right place?  Expect a full review later with one of my favorite child development experts, Professor Jonathan Lauter at Mount Sinai School of Medicine whose initial thoughts were that he could see how Laser Maze encourages children to think several steps ahead.  (Gosh, if #1 and #2 could do that every day... if I could do that every day..... )  

The draw of the laser is powerful.

Players want to see the laser so badly, that sustaining one’s motivation to finish and managing frustrations can be a real challenge here. This is what I love and hate about logic puzzles- you are always playing against yourself which of course is hardest to do but then again, that is always going to be our kids' struggles in life.  The struggle to deal with themselves. I know I am my worst critic! (though my mom places a very strong second... on some days we're tie)

Is sleeping in your school uniform a sign of better executive functioning?  I can't believe he did this a couple of days ago...

Starting this Fall....  Join Me in Tackling Executive Functioning

Call it executive functioning, executive skills, time-management... .. there are lots of words that refer to our struggles in this area.  The question is when will you start working on these skills and if the time is now, take a step back and look at this entire post.  Could 2013 be your year to take on executive functioning?  If so, I hope you'll agree that I've put forth the coolest tools at your disposal!  Building executive functioning skills has never been sooooo much fun!

I am sorry to add even more but I just had to cut out this snippet from an awesome article I found in the NCLD website.  I highlighted my favorite part.  The author is the former head of school of The Gateway Schools which many New Yorkers know to be a totally top notch private special education primary and middle school.  Click here to read more:


And now try to win the Chief Executive Toolbox!
Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below.   
educational toy, best educational game, best educational toy, learning tools, toys for learning, toys are tools, child development, therapeutic toys, special needs toys, gifted children toys, games for gifted kids, 
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Want to get it on Amazon? Here you go.... use my links please!  Just click onto the pictures of the tools that speak to you!

For purchasing the ARK Tran Quill Pencil, click here

Things I want to say:
Toys are Tools is soooo grateful to have the National Center for Learning Disabilities support these deep dives into the world of executive functioning.  Please also know that all of my toolbox recommendations are still just my thoughts (not NCLD's) based on my research. Even though I did have first aid certification when I was in high school, I don't think this qualifies for me to give any medical advice. I am just a parent with a lot of curiosity and lots of bad days/moments-of-learning under her belt.  Please also know that the links you see under the Rafflecopter widget are links using my special tag that if you use to get to a site like Amazon to make a purchase, then you'll be supporting me without any additional cost to you.  Thanks in advance.  Now get started on this unbelievable prize!
Please don't forget to follow my Facebook Page- It's my fave social media platform and I usually post there first!


  1. I definitely think ADD and ADHD could be considered a learning disability. Though it can be treated medically and other learning disabilities cannot, if untreated it can get in the way of a child properly learning because they are unable to focus and organize properly.

  2. Ha! I'm still a little confused about phonemic awareness...but I know both my school age child struggled with it. And one of my daughters has a language processing disorder. This and decoding was very difficult for her.

  3. Oh my gosh! Everything in this tool kit is AWESOME!! So hard to pick, but I think the watch with the timer is soooo great! And would be a perfect tool for my children. In fact, I may have get that one anyway! Thanks so much for hosting such an amazing giveaway!

  4. What an amazing post! You've been busy my friend! My favorite item in the whole tool box is the Tran-Quill Pen. I think it's an amazing idea to help kids for whom writing does not come easily.

  5. My son was diagnosed as having phonemic awareness issues. To me the difference in phonemic awareness and phonics is not being able to hear the difference between hat and hate (long A vs. short A) and that using phonics to try and sound it out does not work (at least in my son's case)

  6. I define a learning disability as anything that causes you to have a stumbling block that you have to overcome in order to continue learning something. And yes, I truly believe that ADHD is a learning disability as it gets in the way of learning by putting up stumbling blocks along the way.

  7. Both my sons have a learning disability Besides helping them out at home it takes a good teacher to help them out also. I would love to win this so I could help them out better at home

  8. hard to choose a favorite, but I suppose PeaPod. It just looks yummy. And we all crave deep pressure in my family. Sigh.

  9. Phonics includes relating letters to sounds, while phonemic awareness is a more basic ability to hear/process individual speech sounds.

  10. I define a learning disability if you need alternate ways to learn something.
    Yes, ADHD is a disability too.

  11. I associate phenomic awareness as hearing the letter sounds in a word. Phonics is also knowing that different letter combinations can make more than one sound.

  12. I really like the games. I grew up playing board games and I think it helps you think in different ways when you play games.

  13. My favorite is the Tranquil Pen and I define a learning disability as anything that impedes the learning process and the difference in phonemic awareness and phonics is phonics is letters and sounds while phonemic awareness is how a person relates to letters and sounds (just what I thank I don't know really)

  14. That Peapod looks awesome. I would love to get one for the sensory room that they have set up at my daughter's school!

  15. I define it as something that makes learning more difficult than for the 'average' child - and goes beyond taking longer to understand something

  16. I have been reading about What is the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics? Phonics is what sounds letters make. Phonemic awareness is how sounds translate back to letters, and how to make inferences. My daughter can get 100% on spelling test, but cannot figure out how to spell a word she has not seen - even if only slightly different than a word on the test.....

  17. Laser Maze because it encourages children to think several steps ahead.

  18. I would consider a learning disability to be something in the way a brain functions that makes learning more difficult than it would be otherwise. I do consider ADHD to be a hindrance to learning! And I know from experience that children with ADHD often struggle with executive function.

  19. The lazer maze game looks amazing. I know it would appeal to my son's interest in creating something. (Plus: lasers!)

  20. Great group of tools! My son needs MeMoves right NOW!

  21. The Mineshift game looks really fun. My son is sometimes resistant to strategy games That force him to plan ahead, but the word "mine" in the title should help a lot (thank you, minecraft...)

  22. Fantastic post and amazing tools. Thanks for the enlightenment! My daughter fits so much of this profile. I had never heard of executive functioning before, thanks so much, literally this could change everything for us! I think a learning disability is anything that gets in the way of kids from doing the best they can when they want to. I've read a lot from Dr. Ross Greene, who says kids do as well as they can, until things get in their way and keep them from their potential. An idea that has helped us through some rough parenting struggles, but these tools seem like the missing link to 'clear the fog' that I often feel like my daughter is in. Thanks Jenni

  23. I always thought that phonics were simply the "rules" of what letters make what sounds. We all learn the same phonics,or rules, but phonemic awareness is how each individual is able to use those rules on a regular basis. The awareness is what allows us to be able to read and spell.