Executive Functioning at School and at Home
Your child comes home and tells you about a homework assignment which is almost due, but the required books and materials are nowhere to be found at home. Suddenly, your child remembers that they were about to pack them at the end of the school day when they were distracted by a friend inviting them for a playdate… and the materials didn’t make it from cubby to school bag. You find yourself scrambling to find the homework and lament to yourself, “Not again!”
Does this situation ring a bell with you?
The above scenario depicts some of the areas where executive function comes into play in your child’s life experience. Executive functioning, which is recognized as a critical component of cognitive and social development, incorporates a skill set that includes working memory, mental flexibility and self-regulation. These are the skills that facilitate our ability to focus on a task and problem solve. The Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child describes executive function as “the ability of the brain to hold onto and work with information, focus thinking, filter distractions, and switch gears.” We can all acknowledge that lacking in these skills can play havoc with an orderly and organized life.
The good news is that children have the potential to develop these capacities as they grow and mature. Implementing strategies to manage executive function effectively is part of a process that evolves over time and at different rates, according to individual learning styles.
Here are four ways that you can support the development of these cognitive and behavioural capacities.
- Put on the Brakes
Many children find themselves emotionally overwhelmed by tasks requiring executive functioning. Through guided questions, you can help them gain awareness so they can figure out why things happen. This, in turn, leads to insights and the perspective to make emotionally controlled choices. By teaching students to put on the brakes before they react, they are able to slow down and assess the best way to approach a situation. Practising mindfulness is one of the ways we help students slow down and think.
- Plan, Prioritize and Organize
At school, we use planning and organizational strategies to develop executive function skills. Using a large visual calendar helps children to plan in advance for better time management. Visual cues such as a picture of a tidy work area can help students replicate the desired behaviour until it becomes automatic.
You can take on activities like this at home. As a starter, create some checklists with your child. For example, a checklist could include what they need to pack in their school bag — this will help to establish morning routines that work for your family. Help your child to learn how to prioritize what is for “now,” what is for “later” or what is for “never.” This will allow students to focus on doing what is immediately necessary.
- How to Start and Finish Tasks
For children who struggle with time management, timers and alarms help to cue them into starting a task independently. Seeing time elapse motivates them to begin working and effectively filters out impulsive responses to distractions. Many children also benefit from breaking tasks down into mini-goals.
At home, identify the task that needs to be done, whether a big project like cleaning a bedroom or a smaller job like tackling the homework folder. Break down the task into mini-goals and set the timer! By working until the set time has passed, your child has tackled the biggest issue with procrastination: getting started. This tool can gradually be phased out once the desired pattern becomes second nature.
- Promote a Flexible Mindset
What is certain in life is that there will be change, so let’s help our students and children be prepared! Adapting to change is often a challenge as transitions create unfamiliar situations and uncertainty. Giving advance warning of a pending transition allows children plan for the change. Talking about the change in positive terms and recognizing that “different” is not synonymous with “bad,” helps students develop a flexible mindset and the ability to view change in a dynamic and positive way.
At home, there may be also changes afoot — perhaps you’re expecting another child or you’ll be going away on a business trip — let your children know what they can expect and explain why these changes are happening.
According to scientist researcher Philip D. Zelazo Ph.D., the way we parent and support our children in developing their executive functions both at school and at home can help them with the “planning and generating of strategies to manage complex actions” that require focus, self-regulation and mental flexibility. These are essential skills for any child to successfully navigate the many demands of daily life and social interactions.
We look forward to being your partners in helping your children to experience and grow these important skills.
Principal, Himel Branch