Supporting Executive Function Skills at Home
We hear a lot about executive function (EF) skills these days and the role they play in helping kids succeed both in school as well as in life outside of school and beyond. In my last blog I highlighted some important ways schools can support EF skills more intentionally. In this blog, I’d like to focus on a few ways parents can support their children at home, namely, by practicing autonomy-supported parenting, modeling our own skills, and through day-to-day activities.
Executive function is often considered the 3rd leg of the “hidden curriculum,” comprising the social, emotional and cognitive skills necessary for children to succeed in both life as well as school. EF skills, which include working memory, cognitive flexibility and self-regulation, show rapid growth in early childhood and in periods of adolescence and are closely tied to the development of the region of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. These skills tend to peak at around age 25 when the development of that region of the brain is complete.
One important way parents can help children exercise their EF skills is by practicing what is called autonomy-supportive parenting. Stephanie Carlson, developmental psychologist and co-founder of Reflection Sciences, refers to autonomy-supportive parenting as “Goldilocks parenting.” The idea is that parents and caregivers can provide children with just enough support to help them solve a problem independently. In practice, this means asking yourself as a parent “Is this something my child can do without my help?” and "To what degree can I offer support while still helping them feel a sense of accomplishment?" Depending on the answer to those questions, you can become more mindful of providing just the right amount of support and help them build EF skills as well as agency and competence.
Modeling is another important way of helping children see and hear how others employ EF skills. As an example, the next time you encounter a problem or decision you have to make, try talking out loud as you think it through and weigh your choices. While it is common for young children to do this as they problem-solve, as we grow older this kind of verbalization usually becomes part of our inner dialogue. As a result, children only see the decisions we make but don't hear the thought process that went into the decision-making. "Talk alouds" and the opportunity to hear your thinking helps them experience your problem-solving process.
Finally, there are many day-to-day activities we can do to exercise our children’s EF muscles. Board games involve turn-taking and self-regulation, puzzles and strategy games are great challenges that provide lessons in cognitive flexibility and self-regulation, and real-life challenges like following a recipe or going supermarket shopping are great opportunities to practice working memory. When my kids were small and we just moved into a new house, it took some time to get used to a leaving the house routine and I'd often have to return to the house to make sure I locked the front door. To help me, I enlisted my children to make a checklist of standard tasks to do before leaving the house, which included all the ones I kept forgetting. I kept it on the sun visor in the car, that way I could go through the checklist before pulling out of the driveway. This activity provided the opportunity for them to see how I needed tools to keep myself organized--a skill I continue to work on!
These are just a few ideas to help parents think about building a child's EF skills at home. There is a growing amount of research around this important set of skills and if you suspect your child might be struggling, it is worth talking to your child’s teacher or school counselor. Together, you can think about your child in different contexts and help form a full picture of your child's skills relative to their developmental stage. Finally, given that EF skills can decline after the ripe old age of 25, doing these exercises with your kids as opposed to hoping they'll learn them on their own reminds us how much effort it takes. And who knows, might even help us retain our own EF skills as well.
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