When a child gets frustrated, stressed, overwhelmed, or upset, their ability to navigate through this turmoil is correlated to their ability to regulate behavior, emotions, and reactions—also called executive functioning.
Working toward goals, overcoming adversity, and self-advocacy are examples of successful executive functions that all children should be coached to achieve.
Executive functions are intuitive for some, but for others—particularly those with learning differences—they may experience additional disruptions in executive functioning. Starting and finishing tasks, staying organized, and managing stress in a way that’s healthy are all aspects of executive dysfunction that may seem impossible to correct. However, through practice and mindfulness, parents can help their children improve their executive functioning skills.
Keep reading to find out what key executive functioning skills can help your child succeed, and what skill-building activities parents can work on with their children to help encourage their development.
Solution-Oriented Problem Solving
Problem solving is an executive function skill and one we start to develop in early infancy. A baby may notice that their favorite toy is missing so they get up and look for it. As a child gets older, problem-solving becomes more complicated. They may get into a conflict with a friend and need to figure out a solution.
There is no one way to teach problem-solving. You can talk to your child about negotiation, finding an alternative solution when they are arguing with a friend. Your child can learn about problem-solving through play, figuring out that they need to climb stairs to get to a slide.
Make sure to foster plenty of open dialogue, especially when a teaching moment arises. From playing puzzle games to observing characters diffuse conflict in their favorite shows to hosting judgment-free conversations during dinner—there are always opportunities to examine a problem and break it down into smaller parts to learn.
Regulating Emotions, Not Repressing
When they see their child despair in the face of a problem, a parent may want to intervene and offer a solution (or succumb to the stress as well). But the trick is to find a happy medium between telling them what to do and letting them struggle on their own, which in turn encourages self-regulation.
Self-regulation is a valuable executive functioning skill that essentially enables us to stay in control even when emotions are running high. Children who struggle with self-regulation may experience more conflict in their interpersonal relationships. Their behavior can be unpredictable and even confusing for parents, which in turn can be frustrating for all parties involved.
Self-regulation is best practiced with gentle coaching and plenty of praise. When a child comes to you with a problem, try to guide them to find the solution for themselves. When you see them starting to get worked up, help them understand that what they’re feeling is normal. Not only that but seeing you keep a level head gives them a cue of what effective emotional regulation looks like.
Do not panic if your child has a meltdown or shuts down emotionally. These moments offer plenty of opportunities for growth. Once things have cooled down, consider acting out a role-playing exercise so that they can have a second chance to express themselves. The simple act of putting words to their feelings reinforces their importance, making a child feel heard and understood.
Staying Organized and On Task
Organization, task initiation, and task monitoring are three interdependent executive functioning skills. Without structure, routine, and a plan—not to mention a straightened out workspace—starting the work can seem daunting, and staying focused can also present a challenge.
Task initiation is the ability to stay motivated and take on new tasks, even when faced with challenges. It is a skill that children and adults alike struggle with. Task monitoring is the ability to juggle multiple tasks at once. It involves time management, as a child must gauge how much time they need to get everything done and communicate those responsibilities with parents.
You should try to assist your child at their level. Hone a routine and help them identify a way to stay organized so that keeping track of what needs to be done is easy.
Find a way to communicate the problem that fits their unique style of learning. Explain instructions in terms they understand and give them time to process things. You should also talk to your child's teachers about giving your child extensions on assignments.
An easy way for a child to develop monitoring skills is to write a schedule. Try to let your child create their own schedule and then give them feedback on it. Encourage them to check the clock and keep an eye out for how long it takes to complete certain assignments versus others.
The Most Important Executive Functioning Skills
Opportunities to encourage executive functioning await you at every turn. They’re transferable, cutting across activities to teach your child how to get the most out of any environment. Problem-solving, emotional regulation, and staying organized and on task are just a few examples of skills that can be developed almost anywhere.
A specialized curriculum at school could help advance these skills further. At Eagle Hill School, students with language-based learning differences are taught by experienced teachers who help students navigate through learning challenges, preparing them for bright futures ahead. Contact us to learn more.