I can get exhausted keeping track of everything for all our kids. Life certainly gets easier when they learn to manage their own lives more. But that skill set won’t just happen on its own. It needs to be fostered. Helping our kids develop their Executive Functioning (EF) skills will make everyone’s lives easier and help set them up for success.
I have seen more and more available information on Executive Functioning, probably because it’s one of those things we desperately want our kids to work on. We need them to be able to remember, think about things from different angles, problem solve, organize, plan, set goals, and have self-control. These functions of the brain take place in the prefrontal cortex (which doesn’t fully develop until around age 25). Remembering that this part of the brain hasn’t fully developed allows us to have some empathy and patience when our kids struggle with remembering, or organizing, or problem-solving, or emotional self-regulation. And that’s also why we need to give them lots of chances to practice and hone their brains.
The key components of EF are:
- The ability to focus, remember, or organize
- Setting goals
- Planning ahead
- Regulating self and emotions
- Thinking abstractly with flexibility and creativity
Executive Functioning skills can greatly impact our child’s ability to form meaningful relationships, their school achievement, their behavior, health, and choices. Adverse experiences in childhood can hinder the development of these skills.
To develop EF skills kids need:
- Positive relationships and social connection
- Adults who engage and support them
- Adults who model health
- Appropriate stress levels
- Play and physical exercise
- To face challenges with support
A few ways to foster this development:
- Guide kids to self-manage or monitor their school work or schedule: Planners, lists, calendars, and reminders are all great ways to help us organize our lives. Starting in elementary school, we can guide our kids to use these to manage their own lives. Some kids will be better at this than others, but we can sow the seeds at young ages and give more and more independent responsibility as they get older.
- Allow kids to make choices and have control in their lives: To help our kids develop their ever-important EF skills, we need to give them chances to make decisions with lots of small choices. Anything we don’t need control over can be a kid’s decision. From what color shirt they wear, to which vegetable they choose for dinner, to what they pack in their lunch, to how they want to raise money to buy something. Giving them choices helps them think about things and gives them control over their lives.
- Goals: Help your kids set their own goals or set weekly or weekend goals together. Help them evaluate if the goals are realistic and manageable and what steps they need to take to achieve the goals. Let them see you doing the same in your own life. If they struggle, help them see times they did hard things and accomplished something.
- Have positive conversations about growth mindset and perseverance: Grit, growth-mindset, and resilience are all different, but they are similar concepts. We can talk to our kids about never giving up and that challenges help us grow. Ask them what they can learn from setbacks. Mistakes help us learn and grow. Failure is not final.
- Allow for rest and downtime: Ever notice how after school some kids just need to power down for a little bit to rest? We can easily get worn out using our EF skills and we need to provide opportunities to rest and regroup. Unstructured play is huge here, and not just for the little guys.
- Encourage healthy friendships and relationships: Surrounding ourselves with healthy and positive people can help us be our best selves. Unhealthy relationships can have a negative impact on our mental health overall life.
- Have hypothetical conversations about what-if situations: Future talk or talk about situations that could happen can help our kids critically and abstractly think, as well as problem solve. What would you do if *this* happened? How would you handle *this* scenario? These conversations can be a fun family experience.
- Play memory games: Games can help with memory, focus, and creative thinking. We can play family board games so they can learn to see how others are thinking and how they can use that knowledge to win. Make sure these things are as close to real life as possible. Sure, doing memory games on an iPad can help, but it doesn’t exactly mirror real life use of EF.
- Openly model how you manage yourself: Not only should we show our kids how we manage our own schedules and to-dos, but we should also model how we manage our feelings. It’s healthy to show our kids we also experience big, overwhelming feelings and what we do to manage those.
- Self-Regulation: Learning to self-regulate is a huge part of growing up. We can help our kids learn to self-regulate by modeling healthy ways to manage our own feelings, being empathic when they experience big feelings, labeling and processing emotions with them, and helping them find ways to solve problems or overcome uncomfortable feelings.
Remember: Empathy and connection are the foundations of our relationships with our kids. The stronger our bond, the more likely our kids will accept our help in helping them develop these skills.
By: Emily Scott, PhD
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