You just came from your first parent-teacher conference, and your child’s teacher tells you that your kid displays superior executive function skills or needs more work on them. And your first thought is: what are executive function skills?
These skills involve doing high-function thinking such as planning, having self-control, and following directions. So, it’s anytime your child is organising their things, making a schedule, or controlling their emotions in stressful situations.
These are the skills that kids develop in order to one day become more independent and capable of handling jobs on their own. That is why schools aim to develop and hone these skills.
What you need to know is that no one is born with these skills. So, if your child’s teacher says your kid is struggling with them, you shouldn’t worry. With a joint effort between you and your child’s teachers, they will learn to develop these skills eventually.
And, in this article, we will tackle everything that you need to know about executive function skills, so keep on reading if you want to know more.
No One is Born with Executive Function Skills
Children do not have these skills upon birth. Instead, they have to learn to get them. And, it starts as early as infancy. You doing peek-a-boo and them waiting to laugh before you reveal your face is one example. Or, when you train them to use a spoon and fork when they eat. These examples require the skill of focus and self-control, which your child is learning to do through your guidance.
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But, of course, like any other skill, not every child will be able to learn them right away. Children have different capacities for learning. So, if your kid seems lagging behind, it’s not uncommon. You ought to just have more patience with them until they learn.
There is also nothing wrong with your child if they develop these skills later than the others. Although in some cases, the inability to learn such skills could be an indicator that your child may have ADHD. It’s best to collaborate closely with your child’s teacher to check if they have an executive function disorder.
It’s Not Just One Skill
Executive functioning has three elements: Inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility/shifting. So, learning these skills is not like riding a bike where you learn everything you need to learn about biking in one lesson. It’s not a linear progression. Your child might learn working memory before mastering inhibitory control or vice versa.
And, your kids don’t learn all of them in the first years of their lives. Some fully develop all of their executive functioning skills even into their early adulthood. So, don’t pressure your child if they can’t get all three elements of their executive functioning working.
There is a caution though. Because these skills need to be learnt, you cannot just hope for your kids to learn them as they grow up. If they struggle with certain elements of executive functioning, they do not outgrow such struggles. They bring such inability to their adulthood, which can be very disadvantageous for them.
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Remember: these skills help your kids become mature and independent individuals in the future. So, if you leave them to struggle with executive functioning in their childhood, they might come off as immature and dependent in their adulthood. So, best if you work closely with your child’s teachers to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Executive Function Skills According to Age
Here is a guide to help you determine if your child is learning the executive function skills they need to learn by age:
Your child learns how to control their emotions by taking their queue from you. When they are hungry, they cry but instantly stop when they see you with a bottle or see that you are lifting your shirt to breastfeed. That’s emotional control. They also develop their memory by recognising the faces of their relatives and friends.
At this point, you may have exposed your child to play already, which is where they learn to solve problems, make preferences, and express timely protests.
Your child’s preschool years are when they learn to make deals and negotiate, adjust, stand firm with their points of view, and even convince others to see their points of view.
It’s at this point when your child starts to develop more higher-order executive function skills such as recalling information, integrating information into current knowledge, planning, organising, and even initiating.
Your child’s critical thinking skills have already developed at this age. And, they also learn to appreciate others’ points of view, prioritise, monitor their own tasks, schedule tasks and activities, and even goal-setting.
Your Role is Crucial in Developing These Skills
As mentioned earlier, your child won’t have delays in their executive functioning development if you make a joint effort with your child’s teachers. That means they have a better chance of developing these skills earlier and faster if you teach them at home as well. How? Using these:
When you let your child participate in sports and physical activities, you’re not only exercising their bodies but their minds as well. These activities require children to hold rules and strategies in mind, adapt flexibly to others’ actions, and monitor their own performance and behaviour.
So, go ahead, enrol them in a sport and let them play outdoors. They will benefit greatly from those.
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One of the things your kids learn is to follow instructions, and making them do chores at home is sufficient enough activity to get them to practice that skill. So, even as young as preschool age, you can make them do little chores, like putting their toys back in the toy box. Or, making them wear their own clothes.
Some tasks may be harder to do because they are mini-tasks in one, so checklists help a lot. It helps with their memory, planning, and prioritisation.
And, the great thing about checklists is you can use them for everything – how to do your daily routine, how to plan your outfit, how to fix your schoolbag, and so on and so forth. It’s also some kind of an energy boost to your kids when they see items being ticked off of the list.
Involving Them in Planning
You get them to practice their planning skills, inhibitory control and focus when you involve them in any type of planning. It can be as simple as planning their outfit. You can make them choose the shoes to pair their outfits with or their accessories.
Or, when you’re planning a vacation, you can ask them what activity they want to be included in your itinerary. Or, you can ask them to give you suggestions about what to buy in the groceries.
Keep a Positive Mind as You Teach
The Harvard Center says “safe, stable home and school environments, trusting relationships with reliable adults, and opportunities for social connection, exercise and open-ended play” are all factors that foster executive function development.
So, it’s not enough that you give your children chores, checklists, and decision-making powers. You have to consistently encourage them and express your trust in their abilities.
It’s also important to note that toxic and stressful environments can impede your child’s development of executive function skills. So, when you feel frustrated with your child’s development, do your best to react in a positive manner. Showing your frustration might only pressure them more and take them further away from your goal.
Helping your child develop executive function skills may be a challenge, but the outcomes will far outweigh such challenges. You’ll be glad you had a hand in their development. Who knows? In instilling these skills, your child may one day aspire to become the president.
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