How to Boost Executive Function in Children & Why It’s Important to Helping Them Thrive

How to Boost Executive Function in Children & Help Them Thrive

Dear Parent – I see that you’re frustrated. And I see that your child is too. You wish your child would just listen, follow through and complete their schoolwork; stop getting so distracted and stop over-reacting when things don’t go their way.

What if I told you that what appears to be a behavior issue; something worthy of a time-out, lecture, loss of privilege or other such punishment, might actually be a cognitive issue, requiring quite a different response?

Perhaps you would feel more hopeful, rather than frustrated. That is my intention in sharing with you the importance of Executive Functioning, and how to boost Executive Function in children.

In my work as a psychologist, I love empowering parents to help their children thrive. The starting point is to gain a true picture of what is really going on for your child. To understand your child requires compassion, yes, but also correct information.

Executive Functioning is of vital importance to children’s success and happiness, yet most parents aren’t familiar with what Executive Functioning is, let alone how to help a child who has Executive Functioning issues.

Parents often come to me because their child is:

  • Easily distracted;
  • Doesn’t listen;
  • Acts out and is getting into trouble;
  • Won’t do what they’re told;
  • Appears vague, disruptive or defiant.

When children present such “behavioural problems” often what actually needs to be assessed and addressed relates to Executive Functioning.

Why is Executive Functioning so important?

Executive Functioning is the greatest indicator of your child’s success and happiness in the classroom, at home and beyond.

Studies have even proven that your child’s executive functions between age 3 and 11 are predictive of physical health and mental health (whether they are more likely to be overweight or have substance abuse problems), future earnings, and even marital harmony.

Bottom line: If you want your child to eventually find and keep a job, be a dependable and happy adult, then you need to care about their Executive Functions.

So what are Executive Functions?

Executive Functions are cognitive processes. They are a set of mental skills that help us accomplish tasks, stay calm and think creatively.

Therefore, Executive Functioning relates to our ability to reason and problem solve; to plan, get things done, display self-control; all the mental skills we need to thrive as adults, but that are still developing until age 25.

Fact #1:

It’s your child’s executive functions that are the greatest indicators of mental, emotional and physical health.

Fact #2:

Executive Function issues are overwhelmingly encountered as poor or disruptive behavior and responded to as such.

What are Core Executive Functions and what do they look like in children?

If we think of Executive Function as an umbrella term for important mental control processes; we can understand three components of it; Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Mental Flexibility.

  1. Working Memory

    Working Memory allows us to hold bits and pieces of information in our mind and mentally figure things out. Working Memory helps us reason, solve problems and plan.

    What does this look like?

    You can imagine your child’s Working Memory visually as a post-it note. Depending on their stage of development, they will have a relatively small post-it-note (able to hold just a few bits of information) to quite large (able to mentally work with lots of pieces of information).

    If you ask your child to “get off the couch, go and get your reader, but first wash your hands, don’t forget the soap, and bring me a pen for your diary”, would their post-it-note be big enough to handle those instructions?

    What happens if you find them in the bathroom washing their hands, completely forgetting that they needed to go and get their reader and a pen (which were in two separate locations in your house)?

    While a natural response may be one of frustration, or a suspicion that your child hasn’t listened – or shouldn’t have gotten distracted, your best response comes from an awareness of your child’s Working Memory.

  2. Inhibitory Control

    While Working Memory allows us to hold information mentally; make and follow through on plans, this requires attention. And focused attention requires some Inhibitory Control.

    Inhibitory Control involves self-control, discipline; being able to manage interference and distractions while staying focused on a task.

    As core Executive Functions, our Inhibitory Control and Working Memory work together to help us stay focused on a goal or carry out a plan, as we block out internal and external distractions.

    IMPORTANT: Our kids live, as we do, in a digital smorgasbord, dominated by screens competing for attention. Understanding and enhancing Executive Functioning is crucial for your kids survival in our world today.

What does this look like?

Your child’s inhibitory control relates to whether they can stay seated in class; when their urge is to jump out and run around. In children (and adults) it relates to holding your tongue or saying something inappropriate, showing up to training sessions (when you’d rather stay on the couch), resisting temptations for the pursuit of a higher goal.

There are ways to improve inhibitory control, and it’s important that your child’s age and developmental stage is taken into account.

  1. Mental Flexibility

    Mental Flexibility, or Cognitive Flexibility, is linked to creativity and involves being able to think in different ways, see new possibilities and perspectives.

    Often children can feel frustrated because their original plan has failed and they are unable to conceive of an alternative way of solving the problem.

What does this look like?

Displaying a high level of mental flexibility looks like ‘out of the box’ thinking; new and novel ideas; noticing and taking advantage of opportunities.

A beautiful quote that reflects the reality of poor mental flexibility comes from Alexander Graham Bell:

“When one door closes, another door opens, but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

Wouldn’t you love to help your child see the doors that open; to be able to conceptualise problems and ideas in lots of ways? Life is so much happier when children develop mental flexibility. Kids with mental flexibility usually roll with the punches, get along better with others, and recover from setbacks.

How to boost Executive Function in children.

 Studies show that music, martial arts, singing, dancing and sports improve our Executive Functions.

Specifically, the strongest evidence for improving Executive Function includes:

  1. Cogmed

    A computerised brain-training program is proven to boost children’s Executive Functions.

  2. Mindfulness + Meditation

    The results of a school-based program based on mindful awareness practices (MAPS) found that children with poor executive functions benefited the most from mindfulness and meditation practices.

  3. Martial Arts 

    Traditional martial arts, such as Tae-Kwon-Do, are proven to increase executive function in children.

What other activities can boost Executive Function?

 Harvard University has compiled a downloadable resource for enhancing Executive Function based on age. (Access here.)

What can you do to boost your child’s executive functioning?

 The short answer: plenty.

The biggest block to supporting your child’s executive functions is simply: not knowing what executive functions are.

Now that you’ve read this article, you know exactly what executive functions are and the important role they play. Which means you’re in an empowered position to truly help your child thrive.


Dr Nicole Carvill
About the Author: 
Dr Nicole Carvill (BA(Hons) PhD MAPS) 

Nicole is a psychologist, presenter, author and mother, passionate about helping children/adults to understand how they learn best and to assist them to gain the skills they need to thrive. 

Here is a snapshot of her professional highlights:

+   Presenter for the Pearson Academy on understanding the impact of working memory and attention on learning and life.

+   Awarded PhD scholarship to research how to support people caring for a child, parent or partner with additional needs as a result of an intellectual disability, mental illness or age. I’ve met many amazing and inspiring people so far.

+   Researched the impact of pregnancy on memory skills (and after two pregnancies I know all about the brain drain during pregnancy!).

+   Worked within a Multi-disciplinary Autism Assessment Team under guidance of Dr Richard Eisenmajer at Gateway Support Services.

+   Worked with Preschool children with developmental delays while supporting their families, Specialist Children’s Services.

+   Worked as a Clinician within the Behaviour Intervention Support Team, Disability Services [DHS].

+   Regional Co-Ordinator (Barwon South Western region of Victoria) for Program for Students with Disabilities, Lewis & Lewis Psychological Consultancy.

You can find Nicole and more of her work on her website, http://thinknicolecarvill.com or Facebook.

9 Comments

Robyn

I’ve heard that CogMed doesn’t work. What is the evidence for it? And how do martial arts boost executive functions? I would like to

Reply
kg

Robyn, good points. This article could stand to go further in depth re: HOW the listed things help. I suspect that martial arts helps because there is thoughtful, deliberate movement that involves crossing the midline.

Reply
Jill

I would love to see more ideas on addressing executive function across the ages. As an early intervention provider we try to teach families about this concept of EF but it is challenging. This article is great and I would love to refer families to read it but would love for there to be ideas as well to help. The ideas across the age span will also help them to see more into the future. Now that behavior might be cute but later…

Reply
Natasha

The link to the Harvard lust at the end has pts of great ideas for developmentally appropriate,fun activities that parents can do with their children Jill.

Reply
Michelle

I was very excited when I read the title to this article because I have struggled for many years to improve my sons executive functioning. He is now 18 years old and we haven’t made headway. I was disappointed that when it came to actually giving specific ways to help with EF she says “plenty!” and then the article just ends! Severely frustrated and disappointed.

Reply
Gill

Hey Michelle, you’re not staring regretfully at that closed door, are you?!

Did you try the links provided for the Harvard University resource? I’m off to do the same. Good luck! Xxx

Reply
Katherine

Thanks – I did not see the link but found it when I searched for Harvard. 🙂

Reply
Hester

For parents/EI professionals there is some good material on the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child website with strategies for EF activities by age range. National Center for Learning disabilities have also produced a great ebooklet called Executive Functioning 101 which we have found helps explain things and gives ideas.

Reply
Vanessa Siedle

In response to above comments about not knowing what to do – take a look at the Harvard University link

Reply

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
.
We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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