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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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