How to Improve Your Child’s Executive Functions

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By Nicolette Ingram

Improving Executive Functions

With the necessity of parents overseeing remote learning during the COVID 19 lockdown, many parents not only had a new-found appreciation for the work of our teachers but may have gained further insight into some of the learning struggles their children experience.

While spending more time helping kids with classwork, I imagine lots of parents might have been surprised by how difficult kids can find it to concentrate and organise themselves to complete tasks. Maybe some parents were not surprised in the slightest and knew their kids had difficulties in these areas. With school now back in the classroom, perhaps you’ve got some time and head space (!!!) to consider why this might be the case and learn about ways you can help your child with these skills, so let’s talk about executive functions.

Executive functions are processes that allow us to set reasonable goals, plan and organise behaviour to achieve those goals, to think flexibly and understand abstract concepts, initiate appropriate actions and inhibit inappropriate actions, and adapt behaviour according to specific situations.

The region of the brain that controls these functions is the prefrontal cortex, which is located at the front of the brain and is among the slowest developing brain regions. While executive functions develop quickly in early childhood and into adolescence, they continue to develop into the mid-20s.

Executive functions allow us to:

  • Prioritise tasks
  • Start and/or complete tasks
  • Set goals and organise our thoughts
  • Manage our time
  • Switch our focus from one thing to another
  • Adapt when rules or routines change
  • Follow directions or a sequence of steps
  • Think flexibly and consider other viewpoints
  • Recall information we have just heard or read (rather than it going in one ear and out the other, or scanning a page with our eyes but not taking anything in)

So now we know that things like homework are perhaps really challenging for kids because their prefrontal cortex and executive functions are still developing.

They might not be prioritising tasks based on their set goals (knowing that finishing homework is more important than watching TV), they might not be planning ahead (considering that studying tonight is important for success in tomorrow’s test) and perhaps they’re having trouble inhibiting automatic responses (for example, doing fun things such as bouncing on the trampoline instead of finishing homework).

How can we support a child’s executive functioning?

The first step is to promote emotional, social, cognitive and development.

Some examples of how to do this include;

  • Fostering social connection and open-minded creative play. Extracurricular activities (such as team sports, girl guides, interest groups) are really important here! The creative play element can be achieved with the support of adults
  • Reducing the stress in a child’s life. Importantly, this involves addressing its source and enabling the child to learn how to cope with it. This will also equip them to deal with future stressors, and build their resilience. The adult’s job here is to be competent and calming
  • Ensuring your child is getting daily physical exercise, ideally a team sport. Sport requires and consequently strengthens many executive functions (such as planned and organised behaviour, sustained attention and working memory). It also provides a sense of pride and achievement and encourages social connections
  • Ensuring tasks are at the optimal complexity level for your child. They should be challenging, but not so hard that it becomes frustrating for your child. Increase the task complexity step-by-step
  • Participate in activities aimed at building your attention and concentration ‘muscles’ with your kids. There are lots of mindfulness apps designed for kids (such as Smiling Mind or Stop, Breathe, Think)

The second step is to scaffold their executive functions while they are developing, as if you are scaffolding a building that is still in its construction phase.

For example;

  • When is your child’s attention and concentration at its best during the day? Encourage them to get their homework done at that time. Some kids work best after a snack and short break after returning home from school, but other kids work best early in the morning before school
  • Incorporate structure and routine. Schedule homework time and rest time into your child’s day and keep this routine consistent from week to week. Scheduling free time will assist with keeping your child’s focus on the task at hand. They won’t need to focus on their iPad game, as they’ll know that they’ve got dedicated free time coming up where they can focus on it. The breaks will also assist them in having a rest and regaining their focus
  • On the weekly schedule, indicate the times at which a parent will be available to help with any homework challenges. They can write questions on a sticky note as they arise and they can then refer to the sticky note when a parent is available to help
  • Ideally, homework should be done in a quiet area, that is clutter and distraction-free. Only the objects required for your child to complete their homework should be on the desk or table, and the TV should be switched off. If your child tends to get distracted by their phone or iPad, offer to help them by keeping it safe in another room
  • Encourage your child to start with the most demanding or challenging task first
  • Assist your child in breaking larger activities into smaller, more manageable tasks
  • Write a ‘to do’ list with your child for each homework session. They can tick off each task once it’s complete. If your child is in high school, assist them in prioritising their homework tasks by numbering them
  • Find your child’s motivating factors behind their school attendance. Talk to your child about what they want to get out of school? What do they hope to gain or achieve from going to school? They might hope to become a space scientist one day, for which they will require a high ATAR, or they might simply go to school as a way of achieving a strong and secure social network (for which they will still need to pass each year level!). These are your child’s goals for school. Make a creative poster of these with your child and hang it above their desk
  • Assist your child in organising their school materials using colour coding and binder books
  • Show your child the valuable art of highlighting and summarising important information

If you think that perhaps your child is having more difficulties in these areas than his or her peers, it is recommended that you speak with your GP.

It may be relevant to make enquiries as to whether a neuropsychological assessment or specific, targeted counselling is indicated.

Phone our practice on (03) 5224 1222 for enquiries.