Parenting Conversation: Executive Function Skills
24th January 2022
Have you ever wondered how we are able to focus, multitask and hold back on impulsive outbursts?
Whilst we might not demonstrate impeccable social skills all the time, most people are able to focus their attention, control their emotions, master time management and nurture friendships in a way that contributes positively to civil society. Contrary to popular belief, these life skills, known as “Executive Function” and “Self-Regulation” are not present at birth, but are something we develop through external stimuli and educational interactions from infancy. It is not Nature, but Nurture.
Executive Function and Self-Regulation skills are mental processes that enable us to handle multiple tasks successfully. Through them we develop our working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These are all essential skills for life. Developing these skills benefits everyone. It enables people to plan and act in a way that makes them better students, classroom citizens and friends. It helps them grow into capable adults that can juggle a multitude of commitments, and even affects physical and mental health. If children and adolescents are not taught these important skills, you end up with a society of ill-equipped adults who struggle to hold down jobs, maintain their marriages, or raise children successfully. Nurturing these skills at an early age is one of society’s most pressing responsibilities.
How does Executive Functioning work? The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University describes it as an air traffic control system, but in the brain. Much like the slick logistics of a busy airport with its multiple runways, our brain has its own cognitive abilities to control our thoughts, emotions, and actions through multiple neural pathways. “What is going on in our brains is very intricate.” Says Dr Deborah A Philips, Ph. D. Department of Psychology and Public Policy Institute, Georgetown University. “The prefrontal cortex is involved in controlling your behavior with all other interactions in the brain, widespread networks connecting these areas. The more you train this system, the more you strengthen those functions.”
So how can you ensure your child is developing these crucial skills?
Academic and Clinical Psychologist, Dr Magdalena Battles, PhD recommends the following tips to nurture Executive Functions from your home:
- Implement daily routines to establish order and predictability.
- Take part in team sports to develop social skills.
- Set an after-school homework time to develop self-control, planning and time management skills.
- Get your child to use their own calendar or agenda to develop organizational habits.
- Set house rules to develop self-control and consequences.
- Get them involved in personal and family chores early to develop task completion.
- Breakdown big tasks to help them develop planning, organization and follow through skills.
- Play memory games or learn an instrument to develop their memory skills.
- Motivate them to find their own self-motivation.
- Home organization will help them to develop planning, task initiation and task completion.
- Teach self-control techniques through consequences/ rewards for behavior.
- Be the example - if you want children to follow the rules, order, and laws of society then you must be a good example.
- Teach self-evaluation through questions to help them prepare for success and failure.
From birth you can facilitate the development of a child’s Executive Function skills by modelling social behavior and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. The most receptive age is between 3-5 years, and then again as adolescents when they gain further independence and prepare for the adult world.
For some children, these executive function skills are compromised or delayed. They may display challenging behavior with uncooperative attitude and belligerence. It is important for adults to recognize that their skills may not yet be developed, and rather than blame and punish, in fact work on developing their executive function skills in a safe and predictable environment. Specialists can assess whether a child might be suffering from ADHD or other Executive Dysfunction. Online tools such as mightier.com, a controlled safe online application helps children to learn these valuable skills and control their impulses.
The most important thing to remember is that whilst infancy is the optimum time to introduce these skills, it is never too late to learn!
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