Executive function is sometimes described as “the CEO of the brain.” It’s responsible for seeing an idea or project through from start to finish, which involves scheduling, organizing, prioritizing, anticipating obstacles, and much more - sometimes all at once! Does that remind you of anyone else? Perhaps you think of yourself, conducting the symphony of a hectic weekday school morning, navigating a full inbox at work, or shuttling back and forth to all those extracurriculars in the afternoon. I’d argue that visualizing executive function as “the superhero parent of the brain” is just as accurate.
At this point you may be thinking, "I do a lot, but what does that have to do with my son turning in his history project two weeks late?"
Executive function isn’t what we get done, but rather how we get it done. If the history project can be considered the content produced, then executive function skills help with the process of moving through the project to its completion. How you go about juggling your many roles and managing your ever-growing list of responsibilities has much in common with how children manage their schoolwork. The difference is that children continue to develop executive function skills well into their 20’s, meaning they still have a lot of growing left to do.
How you respond during this period of growth can have a significant impact. Take this example: when your child is faced with an executive function skills challenge - say, completing her chore list or transporting all her materials to and from school - what is your gut reaction? It’s common for moms to use their own super-human executive function skills to help their children along. After all, we want to see them succeed! However, when we pause and glimpse ourselves in the rearview mirror, driving to school for the third time that week to drop off our child’s homework, we have to ask the question: What are our children really learning? Are we helping them develop their own executive function skills, or are we playing the superhero in the story, coming to the rescue too early?
Despite how strongly we feel the urge to spare our children the sting of forgetting a homework assignment or waking up late for school, the hard truth is that in doing so, we prevent kids from learning their own strategies to manage themselves and their work. Instead of developing self-reliance, children learn to depend on mom’s fully-formed executive function skills to get by. The good news? You can use your own executive function strengths to help your children build skills and become more independent.
3 Ways Parents Can Foster Executive Function Development
Borrow a few of these techniques from executive function coaches:
1) Ask lots of questions.
Did your child impress you by completing his chores without you having to ask more than once? Celebrate this little victory with him and, most importantly, ask how he was able to take care of business without your help. Did he promise himself video game time if he completed his chores first, or did he use motivational self-talk to assure himself, “It’ll only take five minutes"? Ask how his good strategies could help during homework time, too. On the other hand, let’s say he struggles to finish chores without a second (or third, or fourth) reminder. Ask what he thinks is getting in the way and allow him to come up with a few solutions for getting the job done. This approach will likely be more productive than a fifth reminder or simply taking care of the chore yourself.
2) Model good time management practices out loud.
We already do a lot of this management in our heads: for example, we know when we have to pick up the kids from practice, or how much time we estimate for dinner, or how long it will take to run to the store and back. As adults, we see the importance of knowing how much time things take so that when we plan our steps, we aren’t constantly pushing the clock or running perpetually late. Making your internal thought processes external can help children make the connection between good time management and a smooth-running day. For example, when taking one child to the library you might say, “How long do you think we’ll take to find a book at the library? We have to pick up your brother in an hour and it takes us about 15 minutes to get there, so 45 minutes sounds about right.” The same goes for any aspect of executive function: the more you make your behind-the-scenes thinking more explicit, the greater opportunity there is for your child to learn.
3) Patience is key.
Whenever we learn something new, it’s important to remember that skills don’t develop in a linear fashion. The road to change can be quite rocky, especially at first! It’s a road full of triumphs, setbacks, and yes, even disappointments and missteps. Children need room to make mistakes because that’s precisely how they learn. Sometimes they need to realize the flaws in their current way of doing things in order to build the motivation to change. Having difficulty remaining patient as your child begins to learn and internalize executive function skills? You’re definitely not alone! Here’s a small tip: reach deeply into your memory banks and think back to the time when you were your child’s age. Try to remember your own struggle in developing executive function, whether that takes the form of a messy locker, a late assignment, or a big exam you forgot to study for. Remember the lesson you learned, the adult who helped you through it, and reflect on how far you’ve come since that tumultuous time.
Finally, have kindness for the person you used to be and recognize that your child is on a similar journey to building those crucial skills. Remember they will get there, and now you’re armed with a few strategies to help them along the way.
Alexa Nappa, Ed.S, NCSP is an executive function coach with Beyond BookSmart and a licensed, nationally certified school psychologist. During her graduate studies at Tufts University, Alexa worked one-on-one with undergraduate students, and also delivered presentations on the topics of effective time management skills, study strategies, and work-life balance. She has worked privately in the community, tutoring high school students in the critical areas of long-term project planning, prioritization, organization, and building effective study habits for college preparation. In her role as a school psychologist, she has specialized in providing support to students with a variety of social, emotional, educational, and behavioral needs. Resulting from these experiences, she believes that every single student can make progress with the right understanding, guidance, and encouragement.