Are We Expecting Too Much Of Our Kids? Executive Function and The Problem with the Good Old Days

Parents will often recall the “good old days” of childhood, especially if they’re seeing their child struggling at home or in school.  It can be tempting to recall an era when seemingly kids did what they were told to do when we see an unruly child in a restaurant. It’s likely most of us have overheard some version of, “When I was growing up, I knew to listen to my parents….or else…”

Are kids really so different today?

One thing is for sure: The demands of our kids’ environments have evolved over time.

Since 1977, the number of kindergartners enrolled in full-day programs as opposed to half-day has nearly tripled. The average amount of homework for 1st – 3rd graders has more than doubled over the past 2 decades.

As curriculums are loaded to accommodate the increasing pressure of high-stakes testing, teachers find themselves with in-class material left at the end of the day. Originally intended for instruction together with the teacher, these assignments make for stressful homework.

Elementary school students are increasingly expected to sit in school for longer periods of time. They’re often assigned homework and are participating in more activities, with about 6 out of 10 children participating in extracurricular activities in the US. The assignments sent home are often simple and minimal, though to a child struggling to focus or to physically remain in a seat all day, the homework may not feel minimal.  When a child is not able to do what we ask of him, we will often see unwanted or oppositional behaviors. When our expectations exceed a child’s ability or skill set in school, we see increased resistance to school and teachers.

Between the ages of 5 and 7, it is actually developmentally expected for children to have a hard time controlling their impulses. In fact, from an executive functioning perspective, poor impulse control is a dominating characteristic of 5-7 year olds. How do we manage the ever-increasing demands placed on teachers?  What about all of those long-term goals we have for our child?

Maybe we don’t have to remove the expectations, but rather accommodate increased creativity in how they are met.

Consider that as kids transition to middle or junior high school, they meet the block schedule. This means planning ahead, selecting books and materials from their locker to carry with them throughout the day, and making multiple mental shifts as they change classrooms, changes in scenery, peer groups, and teachers. They confront varying teaching styles and experience the challenges of social problem solving.  Prior to entering high school, a seed is often planted related to post-secondary education, vocational direction, their long-term future and goal setting.   

These are all significant endeavors for even a typically developing 11-13 year old. During this stage of brain development, executive functioning allows for improvement in impulse control and inattention; however, goal setting and planning skills are only beginning to take form. Working memory will not be considered relatively stable until about the age of 15, and peak planning skills do not develop until the age of about 19 or 20.

Kids rarely develop exactly according to a textbook plan, and are often strong in a handful of skills while others may be lagging behind.  That may mean that your child may be able to meet some expectations and not others. He may be passing a selection of his classes and failing others.

Rather than asking why our child is choosing to neglect his work, or worse, why he is lazy, we can ask whether our expectations match what our kids are neurologically capable of. Are we providing the flexibility he needs in order to meet the ever-increasing demands of the environments our children are being asked to navigate?  Are we identifying the skills we need to teach or help strengthen, and are we making the best use of our child’s strengths?

Here are some tips you can use to help your child navigate a demanding environment:

Be flexible. Every child is unique. What works best for one child may not work well for another. Keep this in mind and be flexible as your child explores new activities and faces new challenges. It may end up that your 5 year old turns out to be a great dancer on the soccer field sideline. Maybe she’s not the goal-scoring, attentive and aspiring Olympian you imagined…yet.  If she’s just not able to focus on the game, both of you will get more out of your enthusiasm and marvel of her amazing running man skills in cleats than repeated yelling for her to get in the game. Maybe next year. In the meantime, be excited if she does have a moment when she is able to participate.

Stick to a routine that works for your child. You may need to try multiple plans or routines with your child to figure out what works. Does she need some time to space out on her iPad after school in order to recharge her focus for homework? Does she do better getting homework out of the way immediately? Often, if your child is able to identify on her own what is difficult for her, she will be able to think of some very effective solutions for working around obstacles.

If your child has a hard time keeping up in school and arrives home exhausted, try scheduling activities or sports with weekend schedules or on a day during the week when family responsibilities are light.

Aim for limited distractions. It can be difficult for a child to accomplish a task if there are other things competing for their attention. When considering sports or activities, it may be that small groups or individual instruction is most helpful. Small teams or groups may help your child stay focused and provide the benefit of individual support or instruction from the adult in charge.

If you feel that your child is facing challenges that are significantly impacting his or her success or well being, or you feel your child could use some help adapting to the demands of his or her environment, our Executive Function Clinic may be able to help. Contact us today to discuss scheduling an intake.

Posted in Articles, Executive Function, Parenting, Preschoolers, School-Aged Children, Teens.