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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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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