Executive functioning. Such a fancy buzzword! It’s often thrown around when experts are talking about your child’s development.
But what does it mean?
And why is it so important?
Imagine for a moment your brain as an orchestra. You’ve got strings, brass, percussion, wind. Each section of the orchestra is comprised of independent musicians, who are each responsible for specific sections of music.
We can think about human brains in the same way. In our brains there are different individual areas, each of which is responsible for learning different functions. Creating an orchestral masterpiece requires the cooperation of all the individual units of the orchestra and is highly dependent on a conductor is who is able to collectively integrate and organize each musician from moment to moment.
The conductor represents the brain’s executive functioning skills.
How good are your child’s executive functioning skills?
Your child may be able to learn isolated skills, but how well is their brain able to synthesize, organize and integrate information in order learn effectively?
Executive functioning skills really are the key to unlocking your child’s true learning potential.
Let’s look at these executive functioning areas in a little more detail…
Executive functioning skill 1: cognitive flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is a child's ability to sustain attention and shift attention appropriately during learning tasks.
Let’s break this down.
Sustained attention is a fundamental prerequisite to learning, and it involves a high level of cognitive processes and flexibility. Cognitive flexibility lets us filter out distractors and maintain focus. It’s one of the most valuable skills a child can learn.
If your child has challenges with cognitive flexibility, they may:
● Have difficulty sitting for stories, or participating in circle time
● Demonstrate anxiety when asked to change plans
● Have difficulty transitioning to new activities
● Take a long time to recover from disappointments
● Have trouble sharing with other children
Click here for some of my favorite ways to start strengthening attention skills and improve cognitive flexibility.
Executive functioning skill 2: working memory
Working memory is a child's ability to remember and use information while in the middle of an activity.
Let’s, for a moment, flash back to the days before cell phones. Remember when someone gave you their phone number but you had no paper, no pen and no hope of actually retaining the 10-digit span while you scrambled to find a pen?!
Working memory is the brain’s ability to hold on to information long enough to actually do something with it. This skill is like any muscle; it needs lots of practice to strengthen.
If your child has poor working memory skills, they may:
● Struggle following multi-step directions
● Not remember instructions given
● Not be able to repeat back items in a list
● Have difficulty responding to questions
Click here to learn how I help kids with memory challenges.
Executive functioning skill 3: inhibitory control
Inhibitory control is a child's ability to resist impulsive responses and regulate themselves, in order to learn.
Here’s how to visualize it …
Imagine you walk into the break room at work to find a plate, piled high with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Sweet smelling, mouth-watering, ooey-goeey goodness.
Your automatic impulse is to grab that cookie and savor. It’s only through practiced inhibitory control that we are able to pause, think about the consequences of our impulses and stop ourselves from ruining our new year’s resolution.
The same principle applies when we’re engaged in a conversation with a friend and we hear our cell phone buzz in our bag. Our impulses tell us-- “Go check it!” but our learned impulse control allows us to wait until there is a break in the conversation.
When it comes to child learning, being able to regulate one’s impulses helps a child govern his/her actions so that they are able to share toys, attend to a speaker and socialize more naturally with siblings and peers.
If your child has problems with inhibitory control, they may:
● Perseverate on the same topics or engage in repetitive behaviors
● Grab desired items without asking first
● Rush through activities without checking answers
● Blurt out responses without thinking of thoughtful responses
● Have difficulty accurately answering questions
Is your child super impulsive? Click here to learn 5 strategies I use to help develop impulse control.
Practice makes perfect
Like any other skill (or muscle!), when it comes to executive functioning skills you just need to practice.
The beautiful thing is that once you understand what needs work, you can start incorporating this practice into everyday learning opportunites. The end result being a child who is better able to sustain attention (by filtering out distractions), shift between tasks easily and build better working memory skills.
Over to you
Does your child struggle with spontaneous communication? Do they seems to be stuck in fringe words? Let me know what you’re finding difficult in the comments below - I’d love to hear from you!
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