6 Ways to Enhance your Child’s Executive Function

executive-functioning.jpg

Imagine an orchestra filled with unruly performers –  the string section is not listening to the brass section  and everyone's playing at a different pace –  the conductor needs to set the tempo, bring all of the groups together, and produce a harmonious song. Executive function is the conductor of the brain - minus the wild hair and baton - and its job is to organize information, direct attention, and prioritize resources. 

Executive function directs the mental processes that help children learn and make healthy decisions. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, executive function depends on three brain functions: working memory, self-control, and mental flexibility.

Many children struggle with executive functioning including kids who have ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and mood disorders. However, kids can sharpen their skills and improve functioning through meaningful experiences that require self-regulation. 

Here are six evidence-based strategies to help boost executive function:

Scaffold New Skills

Provide substantial support when your child is first learning a new skill, and gradually step back as your child increases in proficiency. For example if your child has to design an experiment for a science fair, help break down the steps that need to be completed and create a timeline to finish the project. Discuss the process, then give your child increasing opportunities to complete the steps independently. 

Memory Boosters

Kids who lose track of long-term projects will benefit from daily planners and electronic alerts, kids who are perpetually late can self-monitor by using wall clocks and wrist watches, and kids who have trouble retaining spoken or written lessons can improve their performance by recording audio or taking notes. Learning how to compensate for working memory deficits by making information externally visible is a valuable skill that will enhance your child’s achievement and self-esteem. 

Play Strategy Games

Children learn best when they are invested in an activity. Card games like spades, board games like chess, and computer games like Minecraft are great activities for improving memory and flexible thinking because they require focused attention, quick decision-making, and tracking the progress of multiple players. 

Engage in Sports and Physical Activities

Participating in a team sport,studying martial arts, playing tag, or jumping rope with friends all enhance concentration and impulse control because they require remembering complex rules, attending to other players’ actions, and focusing selectively. 

Play Music, Sing, Dance, and Act

Performing in choir, band or school plays improves memory because children have to recall musical phrases, blocking, and lines. When children create imaginative skits and rehearse rhythmic movements, they learn how to focus and think flexibly.

Teach Long-Term Achievement with a Reward System

Children who struggle with impulsive behavior, disorganization, and low motivation can learn to improve their performance through practice. If your child lacks internal motivation, you can inspire positive changes by providing structured goals and incentives. If your child gets frustrated by having to wait for a prize, offer small rewards for daily achievements and larger rewards for maintaining progress over time.

With structured practice, your child can learn how to orchestrate the chaos of life into beautiful music. 


Elana Hunter, LPCC-S is the Clinical Director of Cleveland Health and Wellness Center
This article was originally published in Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine, February 2018.

Childhood ADHD and Success in School

“Mom, I forgot my permission slip!” “Dad I’ll do my homework later, I’m playing Minecraft!” 

Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have neurological differences that center around inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Fortunately, the executive functioning skills that are affected by ADHD can be strengthened with intervention. Here are proven strategies to help your child manage their symptoms and reach their full potential in school. 

Create a support team. By partnering with your child's school and mental health professionals, you can provide supports to help your son or daughter excel. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the most effective treatment for ADHD includes a combination of school support, behavior therapy, and medication. However, each child is different and your child might only need one or two of these interventions to thrive.  

Hone your child's superpower.
Many children who have ADHD struggle with low self-esteem because they focus on their deficits. Pointing out your child's strengths such as creativity, enthusiasm, and a willingness to take risks can help change their self-perception. Many people who have ADHD possess hyperfocus– sometimes referred to as an ADHD superpower – the ability to focus intensely on activities that are interesting or enjoyable. 

Consistency and routines are your child's best friends.
Establish a clear structure that includes a predictable sequence of events that take place before school, after school, and at bedtime. Be sure to include time for play and exploration. You can help your child create visual reminders of tasks that need to be completed, and design a comfortable homework space where your child can study with limited distractions. Introduce new routines gradually by adding one step each week until your child gains mastery. For older students, apps like Focus Booster can send alerts and notifications to help with memory and time management. 

Leverage your child's interests to enhance learning.
If geography flashcards bore your daughter – challenge her to design travel brochures and plan a trip to learn the states! If your son starts to daydream when he has to write a book report – encourage him to perform a news broadcast about the story to collect his thoughts! Activities that are exciting or enjoyable will capture your child's attention and enhance learning. Most kids focus best in short bursts and benefit from movement breaks when they start to fidget.   

Positively reinforce responsible behavior.
The opportunity to earn incentives can inspire positive changes in your child's behavior. Offer small rewards for daily achievements, and larger rewards for maintaining progress over time. If your second grade son turns in his homework he might get to choose his favorite meal, but if he turns in his homework consistently for a week he could earn a trip to the movies or a slumber party with a friend.

Coordinate with your child's school 
If your child is struggling academically, find out if they qualify for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. Forming a collaborative relationship with your child's teacher is one of the most important steps you can take to support your child academically. Communicate your child's strengths and challenges, and ask for regular updates on your child's progress. Some accommodations that boost achievement include sitting near the teacher, using headphones during independent work, and expending energy by handing out papers or feeding the class pet. Research suggests that participation in extracurricular activities also boosts self-esteem and social skills. 

Partner with Mental Health Professionals 
Psychiatrists and therapists who are trained in the treatment of ADHD can provide effective treatment. Medication can help children with ADHD focus and think more clearly, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Play Therapy can help children develop skills for listening, following directions, managing stress, planning ahead, and thinking through consequences before acting. 

With patience, consistency, and understanding your child can thrive in school and beyond!

Middle School Stress

Middle_School_Stress.png

Surviving middle school can feel like juggling, and keeping all the balls in the air can be stressful: academic accomplishments, social demands, and changing appearances (hello puberty!). The best way to avoid a meltdown is to recognize the early warning signs. Here are tried and true tips to guide your tween through these years. 

Warning Signs of Too Much Stress: Overwhelmed Kids 101

  • Lying to avoid homework and escape into video games:  "I forgot my textbook at school.” 
  • Complaints of stomachaches and begging to stay home from school (when the pediatrician can't find anything wrong)
  • Moodiness, irritability, and defiance: “I won't, you can't make me, leave me alone!”

    Focus on Effort: Grades Will Follow

Instead of emphasizing grades, focus on how they are learning. Mastering soft skills at this age will give them a strong foundation for the future: listening, concentrating, asking for help, managing time, and developing relationships with teachers and peers. Learning how to learn will be applicable to every aspect of their lives, in high school, college, and beyond. 

Build Strengths: Where Does your Child Naturally Excel?

If your child tends to focus on their weaknesses, draw attention to their strengths. If your sixth grade daughter is a confident dancer and mathematician, she will be better prepared to handle a low grade on her social studies presentation. Instead of thinking, "I'm a failure," help her contextualize the experience: "I'm a talented dancer and mathematician, but I need to work on my public speaking skills.”

Promote Perseverance: Everyone Feels Frustrated Sometimes

As adults, we rarely place ourselves in situations where we have to develop a new skill, and when we do we tend to find the experience frustrating. Think about the last time you backed a giant moving truck out of a narrow drive, or asked for directions in a language that is foreign to you. These situations can be physically and emotionally draining. For our children, facing challenges is a regular experience. You can help build resilience by showing your child that you believe in their ability to achieve difficult tasks. Reinforce that even the smart kids have to study, and that frustration is a normal part of mastering a new concept. Finally, praise your child's ability to stick with challenging tasks, and help them experience pride in their increasing abilities. 

Keep Your Chill: Teach Problem Solving

They might look like hip, independent teens, but tweens still look to their parents for cues about how to respond to the world around them. If they sense that their inability to turn in an assignment stresses you out, they are going to internalize your anxieties. Instead of leaping into a lecture on the merits of responsible behavior, help your child learn how to solve their own problems. If your fun-loving son keeps forgetting his homework on the kitchen table, first praise him for completing the assignment, and then help him figure out how to return it to his backpack so he can receive credit for it the next day.  

Anxiety, at its heart, is an overestimation of danger, and an underestimation of competence to manage the danger. When your tween understands that it is a normal part of growing up to face challenges and tolerate frustration, you avoid meltdowns, stress induced tummy aches, and lying about homework. That frees up more time for family board game nights, cooking experiments, and other fun, relaxing ways to spend the evening.

-- 
Elana Hunter, LPCC-S is the Clinical Director of Cleveland Health and Wellness Center
This article was originally published in Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine, January 2018

 

Managing Conflict in Relationships

Dear Elana, 

I love my boyfriend, but whenever there's an issue he walks away from it. My instinct is to talk about it and figure it out, but he refuses. He'll get “busy” and then when he comes home he changes the subject. When I brought this to his attention he told me to “let go” and not to “overreact.” After a few days, things usually simmer down and go back to normal, but I wish we could air our concerns and talk about how to solve problems together. 

- Lost In Non-Communicative Dating Arrangement


Dear LINDA,

Couples often find their way to my office looking for help with similar concerns. A common example is when the husband is sitting down to watch a Browns game and his wife interrupts with a request to talk about their relationship. Instead of engaging in the conversation, he turns up the volume. Fuming, she makes dinner and silently goes to sleep. 

In these cases I summon the work of Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist who studies relationships in Seattle. According to Dr. Gottman, conflict is a normal and healthy part of a relationship. The way a couple handles conflict is what matters. For example, if one partner wants to process their frustration, and the other wants to hold it in, minor annoyances can escalate into heated arguments. In contrast, if both partners agree about how to express their feelings, they are able to diffuse tensions more quickly. 

It sounds like your boyfriend is falling into one of Dr. Gottman's relationship traps called Stonewalling. Stonewalling is when one partner shuts down and withdraws from an interaction. If you continue pressing him, he is likely to erupt in anger or further shut down because his nervous system is in overdrive. The solution is to recognize that your boyfriend is sensitive to conflict, and he needs time to calm down before he is ready to engage. In Dr. Gottman's research, couples who take a break to self-soothe before talking about their concerns had lower heart rates and were able to problem-solve more constructively. So, the next time you see the sink piled high with dishes, take a break to read or go for a walk before reminding your sweetheart where he can find the sponges. 

Art Therapy: Pastel Print Making

Spending quality time with children can create opportunities for connection, positive role modeling, and generating balance within a family. While spending quality time is valuable for both parents and children, it can be hard to find activities that both generations enjoy. As an art therapist, I have found that adults and children benefit from the art making process and engaging in creative activities. Children are especially receptive to sensory-based art, which incorporates traditional and non-traditional art materials and techniques. This post will introduce a pastel print making technique that is fun for parents and children who want to spend quality time together.

There are a couple of reasons why I like this pastel print making technique. First, there is little room for control over what your image will look like, and I believe this can be beneficial. Instead of creating art with intent and purpose of what you want the final image to look like, the process of making the art becomes more valuable. Focusing on the art making process provides an opportunity for self-expression and decreases feelings of intimidation or anxiety, which are feelings that can be triggered when creating art. Additionally, this technique provides a sensory-based experience that stimulates tactile, visual, and kinesthetic functions of your body.  Sensory stimulation is constructive for all ages because it creates space for self-awareness and being present.

While engaging in this technique I encourage you to ask yourself and participating family members:

  • Be present with the art making process. Where does the pastel dust fall? Does the water move where the pastel dust and water meet? Do the colors blend together or do they layer on top of each other? What temperature is the water? When sanding the pastel, is your hand moving quickly or slowly? Are you standing or sitting?

  •  Think about the rational behind creating your art. What colors did you choose and why? Do the colors reflect your current mood? Are you keeping your image or giving it to someone else? Did you find the art making process relaxing or frustrating?

Supplies and Steps

You will need:

  • Colorful artist chalk or chalk pastels (I like Pro Art chalk pastels because they work well for this task and they are inexpensive)
  • Sandpaper or sanding tool
  • Container or tub filled with approximately 3 to 4 inches of water
  • Watercolor paper
  • Aerosol hairspray
  • Glitter (optional)
  • Paper towels

* I bought my supplies from Pat Catan's.

IMG_4848.jpg

Step One:

Once your supplies are prepped and ready, pick out three to four pastels and make sure that your watercolor paper is cut to size to be able to fit in your water container. The first step is to sand the pastels over the water container so that the dust created lands on top of the water. The more color you add the better because it will enhance your final image. Tip: Make sure your water is still before starting or the pastel dust will sink to the bottom of the container. Also, if your pastel falls into the water it will no longer sand correctly.

IMG_4855.jpg

Step Two:

After you feel satisfied with the amount of pastel dust on top of the water, you can choose to sprinkle glitter onto the pastel dust. Tip: Use a small amount of glitter or it will cause large air bubbles on your image.

IMG_4858.jpg

Step Three:

Gently lay the watercolor paper on top of the water and slowly dunk the paper into the water (try not to let the paper hit the bottom of the container). Once the paper is submerged in water, immediately take it out by pulling the paper at an angle and laying it down to dry on a paper towel.

IMG_4862.jpg
IMG_4863.jpg
IMG_4870.jpg

Step Four:

After twenty minutes, spray an even layer of hairspray over your image. This helps the pastel to adhere to the paper. I recommend adding a second layer of hairspray after your image is completely dry for an added lay of protection.

IMG_4872.jpg

Final Thoughts

If you participated individually, or engaged with your family, I hope that you found enjoyment and inspiration out of the pastel print making technique. If you are hesitant about trying pastel print making or only feel comfortable with certain art materials and techniques, I encourage you to challenge yourself to try something new!

As an artist, art therapist, and counselor I am always on the quest for creative inspiration and new art techniques to use with clients and incorporate into my personal art making. Through my journey for inspiration, I have found myself frustrated at times because directions I followed became misleading or my final product would not turn out the way it was supposed to look. My hope is to create a monthly blog post about art techniques and ideas that I find therapeutic, unique, and that actually work. These posts are not just aimed at professionals but for anyone who is looking to add a little more creativity into their lives.

Transformation Ideas:

  • Fold your image in half and create a card to send to someone
  • Cut or rip your image into small pieces and use the pieces to create another image (transformation)
  • Collage on top of your image or incorporate your image into a collage
  • Create many pastel images to form a collection or series

-- 
Carly Salpietro, LPC, AT, is a counselor and art therapist who believes in the power of therapy and the process of art making to restore, reconcile, and foster a greater understanding of ourselves. 

 

Parenting in a Blended Family

Dear Elana,

My fianceé wants to call off our engagement because of differences in our parenting styles. We both have children from previous marriages, and she wants me to provide the kind of structure and consequences for my daughter that she has with her own kids. The problem is that I only get to see my daughter on weekends and I don't want to spend the whole time arguing with her.

Please help,
Believes Lenient Expectations Now Doomed

Dear BLEND,

Blending two families is a challenging feat. Fortunately, many couples that I've seen in my practice have paved the way and you can learn from their mistakes and successes. First, you need to safeguard your relationship with your fianceé. Spend time enjoying each other apart from the kids: stroll through Night Market Cleveland, bond over shared appreciation of an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, or snuggle up together with a crossword puzzle on the couch. Once you’re in a good place as a couple, you can discuss your expectations for parenting. Agree on consistent rules that apply to all of the children. If possible, it’s a good idea to include your ex-partners in the parenting decisions to maintain clear boundaries across households. Your kids will feel secure knowing that they're not supposed to spread strawberry jam in Fido’s fur at either house, and that jumping on the bed is only allowed after their teeth are brushed (“Aw, Dad!”).

Arguing does not have to be an inevitable part of setting limits. Young children generally accept rules without a lot of theatrics, especially when the rules make sense. It sounds like you have a close relationship with your daughter, and you can leverage that relationship to get her on your team. A firm and consistent approach works best, ”We can't go to the movies until your toys are put away.” There's nothing more to say. The car is simply incapable of starting when toys are scattered on the floor.

I understand that you want to make the most of your limited time with your daughter. The problem with being the roller-coaster-and-cake-for-breakfast parent is that it sets your daughter up for conflict when she returns to her mom's house, where she has to wash dishes and study for exams. Kids thrive when they spend time engaged in mundane tasks with their parents. Teach her how to rake leaves, practice math facts, or inflate a tire on her bike. When your fianceé sees that you are raising your daughter to be confident, self-disciplined, and helpful, she is sure to fall in love with you all over again. There really are few things more attractive than a man who is a great dad.