Students practice and build executive function skills in whole-class games.

Brain Games: A Set of SEL Kernels Practices

Students practice and build executive function skills in whole-class games.

Level: PreK/Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, Middle School
Duration: ≤ 15 minutes
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Planning For It

Why Do This?

  • If students practice and build executive function skills, they can organize their thinking and behavior to meet goals in order to engage deeply in learning with each other.


When You Might Use This Practice

  • Integrated into daily schedules as a routine or used as-needed throughout the day
  • During a designated SEL block of 10-15 minutes per day for Kernels practice or as time allows
  • During a morning meeting, a middle school advisory period, class transitions, after recess, or at the end of the day


Time Required

  • ≤ 15 minutes




Learning Objective

Students will:

  • Practice and build executive function skills


Additional Supports


SEL Competencies

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision-Making

How To Do It

Reflection Before the Practice

How well do you focus, remember all the things you have to do, or practice self-control when faced with a challenging or tempting situation? What strategies and practices help you to use these skills (e.g, mindfulness, making a to-do list, taking deep breaths)?

Note: Click here to download and print a card version of this practice that can be added to the other Brain Games practices to make an easy-to-hand-held collection. See the SEL Kernels pack for additional activities.


Overview of Brain Games

Big Idea

  • Playing Brain Games helps us to build our “brain powers,” or executive function (EF) skills.
  • Executive function (EF) skills are the mental processes required to focus, plan, and control behavioral responses in order to reach a goal.
  • They’re important because… They help students to listen carefully, follow directions, use self-control, and think flexibly. These basic skills are foundational for academic achievement, interpersonal skills, perseverance, and critical thinking.

Three Brain Powers

  • Focus: The ability to sustain attention and ignore distractions when needed.
  • Remember: The ability to keep track of, update, and use information over short periods of time.
  • Stop and Think: The ability to control impulses and to “think before you act.”

Where Can I Find the Brain Games?

Below is a list of Brain Games by Power:

Tips for Success

  • Before playing, take time to introduce the three powers and discuss why they’re important. Practice the hand signals together, and brainstorm when they can be used at school/home.
  • Model with a small group first. Try out the game with a group of 2-3 students while the rest watch.
  • During and after the game, talk about feelings that arise. Help students recognize feelings are a normal part of school and life.
  • Celebrate Brain Powers all day. Talk about them and how they’re used throughout the day, and notice and celebrate when students use them!

After the Activity, Debrief (more specific questions on each game practice)

  • What was hard or easy about this game?
  • What skills did you use to play this game?
  • Did you use any strategies to play this game?
  • When are other times during the day that we need to use these skills and strategies? At home? At school? On the playground?

Over the Year…

  • Ask deeper and more meaningful follow-up questions in your debrief. Ask students to share why it might be hard or easy to focus, remember, or stop and think in the context of real life situations.
  • Have students volunteer to lead the games.
  • Ask students to create their own adaptations and share them with the class.
  • Break students into teams to play games and develop cooperation skills where possible.
  • Adapt the hand signals to fit the interests and age groups of your students (e.g., turn fist next to temple as if switching on a part of the brain = Focus Power for older students).



This practice is part of the SEL Kernels project developed by the EASEL Lab at Harvard University.

Reflection After the Practice

Do you observe changes in your students’ ability to focus, remember directions, control their impulses, or to think before they act? Which games are more challenging for students? Which games are easiest for them? Why?

The Research Behind It

Evidence That It Works

Children who are able to effectively manage their thinking, attention, and behavior are also more likely to have better grades and higher standardized test scores.


Why Does It Matter?

Children use cognitive regulation skills whenever faced with tasks that require concentration, planning, problem solving, coordination, conscious choices among alternatives, or overriding a strong internal or external desire—all key skills for behavioral and academic success.

These skills enable children to prioritize and sequence behavior (e.g., put their pants on before their shoes), inhibit dominant or familiar responses in favor of a more appropriate one (e.g., raise their hand rather than blurt out the answer), maintain task-relevant information in mind (e.g., remember the teacher’s request to wash hands and then put coats on before going outside), resist distractions, switch between task goals, use information to make decisions, and create abstract rules and handle novel situations.

“Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.”
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