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Everything is harder for a child with poor executive function skills. They have a harder time paying attention to the details that they need to solve problems, they are easily distracted so they take longer to finish tasks and they struggle with self-control issues.
If your child has poor executive function skills, they are also likely to display more “disruptive behavior” because these children have a harder time differentiating between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, or even between behavior that is acceptable at home, but not at school.
Science says that executive function skills play a major role in your child’s social and academic success.
Executive functions refer to several processes that affect your child’s emotional, physical and psychological well-being. Adele Diamond, Professor of neuroscience and executive function expert, says that executive functions revolve around:
- Working memory, meaning your child’s ability to process information and remember things.
- Inhibitory control, meaning your child’s ability to display focus and attention.
- Cognitive flexibility, meaning your child’s ability to reflect on different ways of solving a problem and choose the most appropriate one. It also refers to your child’s ability to understand that different contexts/environments can have different rules.
The development of executive function skills begins in childhood, but not all children develop them at the same time. In other words, children’s brains mature at different rates, which may explain why your child is still struggling with issues such as tantrums, self-control, and focus and attention problems when other kids seem to have moved past that stage.
The good news is that you can work on the development of your child’s executive function skills at home. Here are five easy ways to get started:
Easy tips to improve your child’s executive function skills
1) Give only one instruction at a time. A child struggling with executive function skills has a hard time processing information. When they receive multiple instructions, most of that information gets lost along the way. That’s why reducing or breaking down instructions can be beneficial for a child who “never understands information” or “never finishes what they are expected to do”.
2) Make sure that your child has understood what they are supposed to do. Children with poor executive function skills have a harder time processing information, which means that it can be harder for them to solve problems other kids their age can easily deal with.
In other words, if your child has an executive function problem, it will be harder for them to visualize what they need in order to solve a problem. Asking them to say out loud what they are expected to do, and the exact steps they will take to reach their objectives, is an easy way to make them work on their ability to reflect on what they need to solve problems.
3) Make it easier for them to remember stuff. Children struggling with executive function skills forget things easily. These are the kids who will keep forgetting their stuff at school, or even keep forgetting where they kept their things!
The good news is that there are easy ways to get them to remember things more easily. Using visual to-do lists is a fun and easy way for your child to remember the things they are expected to do.
The great thing about visual to-do lists is that you can use them with almost anything – before and after school routines, what not to forget when preparing one’s backpack, visual guides to remember what to bring back home after school, and so on.
4) Use games and songs. One of the biggest indicators of poor executive function skills is a difficulty focusing and concentrating on the tasks at hand. If your child has this problem, they will be easily distracted, have a hard time following instructions and repeatedly forget what they were expected to be doing.
Games and songs that force them to listen to and follow instructions will go a long way in the development of their executive function skills. Such games include Simon Says, musical chairs and Red light Green light.
Any games that can help your child think, remember information, and strategize will also strengthen their executive function skills. Examples of good games include Spot it! Labyrinth and Looney Labs Aquarius.
Rhymes and sing-along songs are also great for helping your child work on their attention and memory.
5) Strengthen your child’s self-regulation skills. A child with poor self-regulation skills has a harder time controlling their emotions. Such a child is likely to lash out or withdraw into themselves when faced with emotion-provoking situations.
This is common behavior in early childhood, because many children are yet to learn how to deal with big emotions. That is why it is important to strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence skills. An easy way to do this is to help them understand both their emotions and those of others by:
- Regularly commenting on people’s emotions: “That guy sure looks mad, I wonder what got him so upset”.
- Commenting on books that you’re reading: “Look how sad that made him feel”.
- Talking about your own emotions: “Being late to work makes me really anxious”.
But talking about emotions alone is not enough; it is simply a means to help your child open up about their own emotions and to show them that emotions are normal and can be managed effectively. Age-appropriate resources such as The Emotions Kit is filled with ressources to help your child learn to navigate difficult emotions.
If you are worried about the development of your child’s executive function skills, remember that the easiest way is also the most natural one: letting your kid participate fully in all your family’s activities (chores, decision making, problem solving, sports and play) is the easiest way to help them practice those skills.
If you need more tips, Harvard University has an extensive age-by-age guide to help you enhance your child’s executive function skills.