Recently I have heard teachers and therapists use this particular word a lot to describe their students. This phrase has been thrown around numerous times in schools, parent interviews and in therapy. “Oh, so and so’s executive functioning is so poor.” As parents, you might be thinking “What the heck does that mean? While secretly being too scared or nervous to ask. It’s just a big scary big word that many people “in the know” like to use nowadays of their students, which leaves parents thinking “oh goodness, my child must have something terrible!”
To try and ease the drama and stress, I thought I might unpack what this word means and give you tips as to how you can help your child increase their executive functioning ability. Executive functions are the cognitive skills we need to control and regulate our thoughts, emotions and actions when facing conflict or distraction. There are three categories of executive functions:
Self-control – ability to resist doing something tempting in order to do the right thing. This helps children pay attention, act less impulsively and stay focused on work.
Working memory – the ability to retain information in our minds where it can be used to make connections between ideas, to make mental calculations and to prioritize.
Cognitive flexibility – ability to think creatively and to adapt to changing requests/situations. It allows us to use imagination and creativity to solve problems.
Given that executive functions play a key role in children’s development and their success into adulthood, it makes sense to find ways to support the development of these skills in the early years. Here are some ideas that you can do with your child to help them develop this ability.
- When you see your child facing a conflict with another child. Leave them space to resolve the problem on their own. They should start practicing this at the age of three (when they go to Kindy).
- Activities such as connect 4, rush hour, jenga, mind trap and chess. Any board games/games that involve strategy, memory and attention are all useful activities that will develop executive functioning ability.
- Doing some case studies with them. See if your child can solve conflict with imagination and creativity as well as reasoning.
- If your child is a toddler then Peekaboo is a good game. This works on memory, because they challenge the baby to remember who is hiding, and they also practice basic self-control skills as, in some variations, the baby waits for the adult to reveal him or herself. In other versions, the baby controls the timing of the reveal; this provides important practice regulating the tension around an expected surprise.
- Hiding games are a great way to challenge working memory. Hide a toy under a cloth and encourage the infant to look for it. Once infants can find the toy quickly, hide it, show the child that you have moved it, and encourage the child to find it. Make more moves to increase the challenge. As the child remembers what was there and mentally tracks the move, he or she exercises working memory