How To Enhance Executive Functioning In Your Child

If you are the parent of a hyperactive, inattentive, or forgetful child, you know how destructive such behaviours can be: Schoolwork goes uncompleted, rooms remain messy, toys stay strewn around the house where they could easily cause injury, etc. No matter how much you scold, encourage, or plead with your child, he (or she) just doesn’t seem to learn; moreover, he often overreacts to any perceived criticism along the way.

What most parents of “difficult” children do not realize, however, is that the kind of traits and habits described above may not in fact be a behavioural issue—and if that’s the case, punishment is unlikely to be effective. Instead, in some children, these actions (and inactions) are the result of poorly-developed Executive Functioning skills. (If you haven’t heard this term before, don’t worry: Most people haven’t. Research into Executive Functioning as an aspect of child development is a relatively recent phenomenon.)


Does My Child Need Help With Executive Functioning?

The following signs often indicate that a child needs assistance with developing better Executive Functioning skills:

– Your child seems to be easily distracted, even when engaging in enjoyable activities;

– Your child frequently “doesn’t listen;”

– Your child often acts outs;

– Your child has difficulty following instructions;

– Your child’s educators report that he or she is disorganized, disruptive, or defiant in class.

            If your child has one or more of these “behavioural problems,” it’s likely that he or she is suffering from poor Executive Functioning.


The Importance Of Executive Functioning

Executive Functioning skills can improve much more than just your child’s outward behaviour. In addition to being integral to academic success, research has revealed that a child’s Executive Functions between age 3-11 have important implications for that child’s physical and mental health. People with well-developed Executive Functioning skills are less likely to become overweight, to have substance abuse issues, or to have unhappy marriages. Likewise, because Executive Functioning is so important to academic and job performance, those with excellent Executive Functioning skills typically earn better wages.


What Are Executive Functions?

Executive Functions are cognitive processes that affect a person’s ability to focus, plan, remain calm and objective, and think creatively in order to reason and solve problems. These processes are naturally somewhat limited in young children owing to their underdeveloped brains; however, we can still recognize and enhance each of the “core” Executive Functions in children: Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Mental Flexibility.

Working Memory

Whenever we solve a problem, we rely on our “working memory” to hold the pieces of information relevant to said problem in our minds while we attempt to devise a solution (and plan to implement said solution). The working memory of very young children is usually quite limited, which is why young children have a hard time following long strings of instructions, e.g., “After you make your bed and brush your hair, pick up those toys you left in the living room and sit down for lunch.” Some children, however (most notably those with ADHD), retain this inability to follow complex instructions well into their school years, making it difficult to follow along in class.

Inhibitory Control

In order to follow through on an action or plan, we need to control our inhibitions: We can’t set our work aside every time something interesting or distracting occurs. We need self-control, discipline, and above all else, the ability to “filter out” background stimuli. Unfortunately, children with poor inhibitory control lack these skills, through no fault of their own. When they feel the urge to get up and run around, they will do so, even in class. If they hear something interesting on TV, they will set their homework aside and gravitate towards the more engaging source of stimuli. When they think something, they will often say it without regard to whether or not it’s appropriate.

Mental Flexibility

Mental Flexibility (also referred to as Cognitive Flexibility) is the ability to think creatively, to imagine multiple possible solutions and understand diverse perspectives. Children with limited Mental Flexibility often become frustrated easily as they are unable to imagine different possibilities when their initial plans fall through. If your child appears to give up easily when he or she doesn’t understand a problem or task on the first attempt, don’t assume that your child is just being lazy; it’s probable that he or she has a hard time thinking of new and novel ideals.


How To Help Your Child Develop Better Executive Functioning

Children who develop a keen Working Memory, Inhibitory Control, and Mental Flexibility are more resilient, better able to work happily and independently, and often enjoy more enriching peer and family relationships. Fortunately, there are a lot of “kid-friendly” ways to boost these core functions; studies show, for example, that many common childhood hobbies (such as music, dancing, sports, and martial arts) can significantly improve Executive Functioning. There are also computer programs available, notably Cogmed, that have been specifically designed to boost Working Memory in children. Additionally, mindfulness and meditation exercises (many of which have been developed for children in recent years) have been shown to improve all of the core functions described above. Finally, Harvard University has created a convenient, age-appropriate downloadable resource for enhancing Executive Functions.

Once you understand what Executive Functions are and how each of the core functions works, you can no doubt find a range of creative ways to work Executive Function-enhancing activities into your child’s everyday life. Remember—the biggest challenge for most parents of children with poor Executive Functioning skills is simply not understanding what Executive Functions are. Now that you’ve primed yourself with the basics of Executive Functioning, you’ll be able to go forth and devise a personalized path to success for your child.

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