6 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Executive Function

Even if you've never heard the term “executive functions,” you've used them before.

They're activities relating to the prefrontal cortex of your brain, and they impact how we behave and handle problems.

People with strong executive function skills are able to think flexibly and adapt to change comfortably .

The executive functions are:

  • Self-control.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Using self-directed speech — in other words, talking yourself through something — to work through an activity or plan.
  • Using self-directed visual imagery — forming a mental picture of something — to work through an activity.
  • Evaluating the amount of effort needed for a task and the internal motivation to persist with the task.
  • Developing new responses based on a synthesis of available information.

These are tools most of us use all the time, but for some students, using these behaviors at the right time can be a challenge. This isn’t just about giving your kid skills for school, but educating the whole child. Executive functions are tools they’ll need to solve problems at work and in everyday life.

As Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child put it in its report on executive function:

“These skills help us remember the information we need to complete a task, filter distractions, resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses, and sustain attention during a particular activity. We use them to set goals and plan ways to meet them, assess our progress along the way, and adjust the plan if necessary, while managing frustration so we don’t act on it.

Teachers at schools for children with learning disabilities can help their students by externalizing these skills as much as possible. Here are some things teachers and parents can do.

Use Visual Cues

Give kids specific cues and visuals, so that your expectations for them are clear, concrete and visually driven. Examples could be a number line or an illustrated list of steps in a process. For older students, let them use learning apps on their smartphones or tablets.

It’s About Time

Make time external for them. Use a clock to practice how much time they need for each part of an assignment, and work on just one part of it at a time. Again, this is where a smartphone can come in handy: use the time app for a short amount of time, just enough for them to finish a small piece of whatever they’re working on. Let them pick the alert tone so they know what to expect.

Remove Distractions and Stay Positive

Don't wait for their internal motivation to kick in. Try to externalize it instead, and focus on developing behaviors that are specific and measurable. You can improve the odds for success with a few extra steps: Turn off the TV before giving them a direction and remove any other distractions. Make your commands simple and positive (or at least neutral) and do just one step at a time. It helps children to get attention from adults, whether it means verbal praise each time a younger child follows an instruction, a token system for school age children, or new privileges for adolescent students.

Focus on Specific Goals

Intervene at the “point of performance.” Let’s say you want your child to bring his or her homework home with them. Focus on that specific goal, and then provide praise or a little reward — TV/web/video game time, for example — every time that they meet it. Pick a goal they can meet frequently, immediately and specifically.

And don’t complain about homework not being done. Your child can only meet one goal at a time if you’re focusing on one goal at a time. Gradually add in the expectation to complete homework, building on your child’s ability to succeed in small steps.

Correcting Behavior- When and How

Use as much positive feedback and positive language as possible when directing your child’s behavior. In the course of a day, try to find five positive things to say for each negative one. Punishment only works when it’s rarely used, is consistent, and planned in response to a specific behavior.

Let’s say you and your daughter have an agreement: She knows that if she stays out past curfew, she loses her driving privileges for a week. That’s a more logical punishment than getting angry and grounding her if she comes home late.

Even if used appropriately, punishment carries risks. On one hand, it curbs bad behavior, on the other; it can lead to lying to avoid punishment, or responding with aggression. Punishment doesn’t work as well as positive reinforcement. Focus on the positive whenever you have the opportunity.

Play Some Games

The Harvard report we mentioned above lists a number of easy, fun activities that can help develop and strengthen executive functions in children of basically any age. Executive functions are very basic, but very important learning and problem solving skills. Here are six ways to develop them in your child.

For infants 6 to 18 months old, games in which they hide from you or you hide an object also help challenge their working memory. Showing them how to play with toys — making a Matchbox car drive around, or rocking a baby — introduces the concept of toys as symbols for real objects.

Children 18 months to 3 years old may have begun imaginary play. You should play along with them. Let’s say they’re running a “restaurant” in your living room. Allowing them to regulate your behavior — they’re the boss, you’re a waiter or cook — can teach them how to regulate their own behavior.

For children between 3 and 5, imaginary play becomes more advanced. Often their games involve other children, and directing the behavior of others helps them with regulating their own behavior. Encourage your child to plan out these scenarios. It means they must think before they act, therefore controlling their impulses.

Between ages 5 and 7, kids become more interested in games that have rules. Even something like red light/green light is a way to develop executive functions: Children need to practice attention and inhibition, and games requiring one player to be “it” will challenge their working memory.

For older children, more complex games — chess, Dungeons and Dragons — can help them develop memory skills and cognitive flexibility. Organized sports can teach them to hold rules in mind, monitor their own actions and the actions of others, and make quick decisions.

Developing these skills in your children — or if you’re at a school for learning disabilities, your students — can take planning and perseverance.

But the extra work is worth it if it means children can enhance their executive functions, preparing them for school, and for life.


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