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Instead of talking about what executive function skills are, let’s begin by talking about how your child is likely to behave if he hasn’t developed these skills yet:
– He will have trouble following through and completing instructions
– He will have a hard time concentrating and staying focused
– He will be disruptive and will always seems to be in conflict with others
– He will find it difficult to resist temptations
– He will have trouble doing what he is asked to do (your child’s behavior will come off as defiance)
– His reaction will often be disproportionate to the actual situation. In other words, he will tend to overreact and will generally be unable to deal appropriately with his emotions
– He will frequently throw tantrums
– He will frequently display impulsive behavior
– He just won’t seem capable of listening
– He will expect to always have his way, or else…
“Misbehavior” or “disruptive behavior” in children is not always what it seems. While a child with executive function issues might inappropriately be defined as “strong willed” or even as “a child with behavioral disorders”, the truth is that working on developing your child’s executive function skills can have a great impact on his behavior.
The good news is that there are several scientifically proven tactics you can use at home to improve your child’s executive functions.
Understanding why executive function skills matters
Executive functioning refers to a set of interrelated cognitive processes that affect your child’s emotional, physical and psychological well-being. Executive function abilities are responsible for your child’s ability to “function” appropriately and also have an impact on her behavior and her ability to effectively carry out a task or to complete a given project.
– Executive functions are responsible for your child’s ability or inability to handle her emotions and to display self-control
– Executive functions influence your child’s ability to solve problems
– Executive function abilities determine your child’s capacity for paying attention
– Executive functions are behind what (and how much) your child remembers.
– Executive functions have an impact on the development of your child’s motor skills.
Research has highlighted three core dimensions of executive functions:
1) Working memory
Working memory refers to your child’s ability to remember things. It is the ability to keep the information she has received in her mind and to perform the necessary actions in line with that information.
Working memory explains why your child is unable to follow through when she receives too many instructions – some of those instructions get lost along the way. If your child has executive function issues, she will find it difficult to complete tasks and to perform tasks that require her to use previously acquired information. In other words, reasoning and problem-solving will be real challenges because of her inability to mentally work with information that is no longer present.
2) Inhibitory control
Inhibitory control is your child’s ability to remain focused despite distractions. It is his ability to do know what is required of him and to choose how he reacts and behaves. Inhibitory control refers to your child’s ability to know what to ignore (or avoid) and what to pay attention to.
If your child has inhibitory control issues, he will be easily distracted, find it difficult to keep still, find it difficult to control his emotions, and repeatedly speak whatever is on his mind without giving much thought to whether or not it is appropriate or hurtful.
3) Cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is your child’s ability to look at situations from a different perspective or her ability to approach the same problem from different angles. It refers to your child’s ability to demonstrate creative thought. Cognitive flexibility also refers to your child’s ability to understand that different rules apply in different contexts.
If your child has cognitive flexibility issues, he will be unable to think of alternative ways to deal with a situation. He will keep trying the same wrong strategy to solve a problem and will eventually end up frustrated. This child will also show “inappropriate behavior” because he will be unable to clearly differentiate which rules apply to which contexts. In other words, he will be unable to understand that “school rules” and “home rules” are not the same, or that the supermarket is not a playing field.
Your child’s executive function abilities therefore determine his success both in school and in life. The good thing is that you can strengthen your child’s executive function skills from age 3 and, it’s not too late if your child is older – executive function abilities continue to develop until around age 25.
How to boost executive function abilities in your child
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has developed an extensive list to help parents enhance their kids’ executive function skills. The following examples draw from this resource, but you can check out the very large list depending on your child’s age here.
1) Help your child practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a great activity to help develop children’s executive function abilities because it helps them learn to focus. Montessori-based tips to help your child practice mindfulness are available here. Visual-based breathing exercises are also a great way to help your child learn to focus on her breathing and help her learn to respond to strong emotions. Practicing Yoga can also help develop your child’s executive function skills, and there are plenty of awesome age-appropriate yoga resources available.
2) Use games and songs
Games that require your child to listen to instructions and follow those instructions are great for developing his attention skills. Some of the games that help do these are musical chairs, Simon Says, and Red light Green light. Board games that help work on your kid’s concentration and require him to think, remember, and strategize are also great for developing his executive functions. Puzzles, mazes, and card games are great depending on your child’s age. Good examples of board games that help develop your child’s executive functions are: Labyrinth and Looney Labs Aquarius.
Sing-along songs also help exercise executive function skills because they encourage your child to listen, memorize or follow instructions (for example head-shoulders-knees-and-toes).
Matching and sorting games that require your child to match or sort different objects also help exercise his executive functions. The “Nurturing Constructive Boredom: Over 101 fun activities to boost your child’s concentration and autonomy” is specially designed to help your child practice specific tasks to develop his/her focus and concentration, fine motor skills and independent thought.
Other games that can help include Crazy Eights, Qwirkle and ThinkFun S’Match. Imitation games, construction toys, imaginary play and role-playing games may also help foster your child’s executive function skills.
3) Work on your child’s emotional intelligence
Teaching your child to identify, name, and manage her emotions in a socially-appropriate manner goes a long way in developing her executive function skills. An emotionally intelligent child can determine, in many cases, how to respond to an emotion-provoking situation. Remember that there are many age-appropriate resources to help teach your child to manage her emotions.
4) Story telling
Story telling has been found to be a powerful resource that can help develop your child’s executive function skills. Telling stories helps your child reflect on the experiences in the story and the order in which these experiences occur. Many children prefer reading the same book over and over but this helps develop their working memory (listening to the story and knowing exactly where each event in the book falls – what happens first? what comes next? then what…)
Helpful suggestions to improve your child’s focus, working memory and self-control skills
1) Start sharpening your child’s executive function skills as soon as possible
Even the youngest kids benefit when you propose activities to help them learn to practice their functioning. Making it a habit to ask for your child’s opinion, giving her age-appropriate tasks, encouraging her to participate in games that help develop her cognitive skills are all important activities that you can start even before your child turns two.
The earlier you start proposing the appropriate activities to your child, the more likely it is for her to develop her executive functioning skills.
2) Incorporate activities that require executive functioning throughout the day
Instead of trying to set up a time to focus on your child’s executive functioning skills, incorporate the ideas proposed above (and get further ideas here) throughout the day. For instance, imaginary play, talking to your kid about emotions, games such as hide and seek, memory games, storytelling, role playing, etc. are activities you can easily incorporate into your daily routine.
3) Hold reasonable expectations of your child
Did you know that your child is more likely to succeed in school and life if you hold high expectations?
Several studies have shown that kids thrive when their parents believe they are capable of achieving great things. However, high expectations do not mean expecting more than your child can give. It means having reasonable expectations that are in line with what your child is capable of achieving, and gradually increasing those expectations as he gets better. Your child needs to encounter success to feel good about himself and his abilities, but that success must be genuine.
4) Provide environments that foster your child’s creativity and problem-solving skills
Recent studies have found that you can improve your child’s creativity and problem-solving skills by fostering constructive boredom.
Creative boredom is about providing an environment in which your child is free to decide what to do and when to do it, within a given environment. These types of environment can foster your child’s independence and allow him to develop his problem-solving skills. The article Activities to Foster Your Child’s Creativity and Make Boredom Constructive provides ideas you can use to develop an environment that fosters your kid’s creativity.
5) Don’t give up
Don’t forget that your child’s “mastery” of his executive functions may be a long time coming. To make it seem like less of a struggle, make executive functioning activities part of her daily routine. Remember, though, that no two kids are alike and while it may be simple for some kids to develop these skills, other kids will struggle and require repeated practice before they are able to focus and solve problems by themselves.
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