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.
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.