Philip David Zelazo, a leading expert on the topic, defines executive function as ‘the deliberate, goal-directed control of behavior.’ These skills of self-regulation are the foundation supporting critical goal-oriented tasks such as learning and accomplishing new things, managing unexpected situations, and creating meaningful relationships—all things most parents want for their children.
- Kids need intrinsic motivation
If your child struggles at times with underdeveloped executive function, it is entirely possible—even likely—you see some very strong skills in addition to the weaker ones. If provided with proper support and intervention, it is increasingly likely your child will undertake goals for himself that are similar to the ones you have for him. This is what we would consider to be intrinsic motivation. Executive function becomes more seamless with development, repetition, and experience, and achieving goals or success starts to seem more attainable to the child. Isn’t it more exciting to work toward our goals when success feels possible?
- Stress has an enormous impact on success
The prefrontal cortex, where executive functioning ultimately occurs, is also the last part of the brain to fully develop and is the most vulnerable when your child is not at her best. If your child is stressed, sad, lonely, depressed, tired, anxious, angry or physically unhealthy, executive functioning suffers. This is true for adults as well. How many times have you listened to your friend (not you, of course) complain with regret after reaching for the chocolate at the end of a stressful workday? Or maybe you’ve been cranky on days you didn’t have time to do your usual workout and found yourself feeling scattered at work, and CAN’T stifle that snarky comment you immediately regret.
Kids are impacted similarly, but imagine your child is already struggling with delays in some areas of executive function. Consider impulse control, for example: a child will appear aggressive, impulsive, or chronically frustrated (what we call bad, lazy, unmotivated, manipulative, defiant, etc…) if met continuously with expectations for which he lacks the skill to manage. He appears even worse if he also happens to be tired or stressed because he knows Mom and Dad, or perhaps teacher, believe he’s simply choosing to be ‘lazy’ or ‘defiant.’
- Your explanation for a child’s behavior guides your intervention
Regardless of whether a child carries a specific diagnosis, understanding executive function and offering appropriate support can help prevent or alleviate emotional suffering.
Consider the way small children are coached through tasks such as learning to use a fork or learning to walk. If a 14 month old drops her fork the first time she tries to use it, do we tell her, “You failed eating, sorry,” and then move on to teaching her how to use a knife? Probably not a good idea. You would encourage her to keep trying, perhaps by modeling how to eat with a fork. If she dropped her fork on the floor, you’d wash it or grab a new one from the drawer. At no point did you give up on her and deem the experience a failure. You didn’t give her an ‘F’ and move on to cutlery the next day. The point is: she learns a skill because you work with her until she’s got it. In some cases, helping may mean engaging a professional to help. Either way, you would simply persist until she gets it.
So, why don’t we teach this way as kids get older? In school, many models of learning are not able to accommodate persisting along with each student, waiting to move forward until a student has been coached all the way through. We look at how they did with an adult-prescribed intervention and hand over a report card at predetermined intervals to indicate a child’s ability. Then the group continues to move through lessons.
If a particular student is still sharpening his ability to, let’s say, filter out distractions or sit in his chair for a full class period, then we will most likely see his performance continually decline as the group continues to move forward, each skill building on the last. He will begin to feel the effects of falling behind, heightening his stress levels.
So what can you do?
Adele Diamond has drawn a framework from various neuroscientific studies regarding the best activities to teach and support executive function.
Dance, play, art, music, sports and storytelling address motor and cognitive functioning, as well as focus, social needs, belonging, and need for physical health and activity. Playing games that prescribe task ordering, creativity, problem solving and learning sequential routines are excellent activities to strengthen these skills.
Playing in a natural environment, solving problems with a playmate, practicing impulse control when it comes to acting quickly out of frustration, the tendency to be rigid and reject compromise with a playmate will help young children exercise and strengthen executive function and the frontal brain. Art projects promote creativity and mastery of the unpredictable as children try new things and explore unfamiliar ways to create. If children are fearful of consequences for failing, they will be reluctant to take these chances or to be brave, eliminating these opportunities to practice and improve skills.
Your goal is not to be the perfect parent; it is to be a nurturing parent. You don’t have to solve every problem; aim to be a helper to your child. When you catch yourself feeling anxious about that one maladaptive behavior you swore you would never allow in your house—potty words? Biting? Slamming doors? –remember (with relief) that you don’t have to power- struggle-it out of existence.
Of course, you are still holding your child to expectations. And in a lot of cases, a child who must work extra hard to play catch up on some of their lagging executive functioning skills is being held to even higher expectations. It’s the way you help a child meet those expectations that is important. You’ll have the privilege of helping to nudge along the maturity of those skills and a front row seat to watch your child at her best, which you never knew could happen when she was making mistakes.