Experiential Activities to Improve Cognitive Skills

Last week we shared a role-play activity from John Bergman and Saul Hewish’s book Challenging Experience. Though their book is targeted at serious offenders, their collection of activities are quite adaptable for any counselor or educator looking to help learners improve executive functioning.

Executive Functions are the cognitive processes that enable individuals to engage in goal-directed or problem-solving behavior such as developing and executing a plan, flexibility, attention, memory systems, organizing information, evaluation of situations or self-monitoring.  Weaknesses in Executive Functioning have been found to be an underlying factor in behavioral problems, ADHD, autism and learning disabilities.  Many education experts believe that focusing on executive functioning from an early age helps all learners.

A strength of experiential approaches is their value in helping learners improve these cognitive skills through practice. The authors of Challenging Experience offer many examples of these kinds or practical activities for improving cognitive and social and emotional skills. Here is one of their simple exercises to practice cognitive flexibility (the ability of a person to see different aspects of an object, idea or situation and switch and respond appropriately) and explore emotional and social reactions to life situations.


• Develop verbal and cognitive flexibility.         • Activate cognitive skills.

• Split the group into pairs, each pair consisting of A and B.  Each pair has a conversation.
• A always begins his sentence with the word “Fortunately,” while B always begins her
sentence with the word “Unfortunately.”
• After a while switch so that B’s sentences begin with “Fortunately” and A’s begin with “Unfortunately.”

A: “Fortunately, I have a bicycle.”
B:  “Unfortunately, the tires are flat.”
A:  “Fortunately, I have a pump.”
B: “Unfortunately, a friend borrowed that pump.”
A:  “Fortunately, that friend lives next door.

• What did you feel when you were having the conversation?
• Which of the phrases were more comfortable for you?
• What did the exercise remind you of?

Extension 1:
• Same as above except have A begin telling a story and periodically have B disagree (i.e., “No, you don’t.”)
• At this point A must agree with B, change the story, and continue.  
• After a while switch roles.

Processing: • What was it like when your partner said, “No.”  What did you feel?  
• What was hard about changing the story?

Extension 2:
• A begins with a statement, B responds by beginning with “Yes, but… (and adds some other possibility).
• The conversation proceeds with each partner beginning his sentence with “Yes, but…”

Processing as above.


Challenging Experience: An Experiential Approach to the Treatment of Serious Offenders. John Bergman and Saul Hewish (2003) Oklahoma, City, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes Publishing.

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