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

Vanessa Siedle

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

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
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
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
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

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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