A child’s impulsive behavior and disorganization are neither behavioral problems nor character flaws. It’s not a matter of training so much as it is wiring. Here’s how to help your child develop executive function skills. (Want practical help? Check out the Executive Function Toolkit and the Executive Function Boot Camp.)
You refer to it as frustrating, only that’s not really the right word.
It’s certainly the polite, maternally-appropriate way of expressing your current emotions:
The occasional dip into the Valley of Despair.
The thing is, you know your kids. You know what they’re capable of attaining as far as intellect is concerned. But either their heads or in the clouds or you’ve not taught them well enough or they lack virtue or…
Every day is a battle to keep your trim little boat from sinking. Chaos, clutter, and what looks like an astounding lack of personal responsibility enjoy taking potshots across your bow.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
You don’t have to worry that your kids are broken or that you’ve somehow failed them as a mom.
Believe me when I tell you it’s not so much a matter of “training” as it is wiring.
Your kids will grow up to be responsible, hard-working, virtuous individuals. They just need a little help with executive functioning skills.
The Absent-Minded Professor, a Cup of Coffee, and Executive Functioning Skills
To help explain what I mean, let me tell you a story about A and her 9-year-old son. A’s son is brilliant – a genius, actually. He can teach you about molecular biology and illustrate – at the cellular level – the difference between a number of animal species. For the past two years, A’s 7 year old has been making coffee for his mother every single morning.
On the day this story took place, the 7-year-old was out fishing with dad. 31 weeks pregnant with her fifth child (and exhausted),
A asked her 9-year-old to help her instead:
*Find my green coffee mug, rinse it out, then fill it up. -ok. What next?
*open the lid of the single-cup side. -?
*its the one on the left side. which side is left?
*you write with your left hand. The side closer to the sink. -got it
*pour the water in and close the lid. -k
*take out the coffee grounds drawer and dump it in the grounds container -?
*under the water reservoir -k
*rinse the little basket and put it back together, then put a rounded scoop of coffee grounds in it -k
*put the grounds basket and drawer back in the machine, put the mug under the basket and press the start button. -okay!
Her instructions seem pretty straightforward – at least to us, anyway. But what happened?
He didn’t take the lid off the coffee mug. He didn’t put the basket back in the machine or turn it on. There were wet and dry coffee grounds EVERYWHERE- the counter, the wall, the floor, the 2 yr old.
This kid who does iPad apps for 7th graders and knows the names and personal information of every US president and dozens of historical figures.
This kid who can explain the carbon dating process and how it is flawed, and who can draw the elemental table with almost 100% accuracy by memory.
This kid who remembers every word of everything he ever reads and watches, down to the voice inflection of the narrator and the music in the background.
He couldn’t do this simple task and doesn’t even realize he missed the target in the first place.
And I won’t tell him. I just vacuumed the floor, washed the baby, walls and counter, and started my coffee; finally.
Sound familiar? A’s son is capable of taking in massive amounts of information and processing it at a high rate of speed. And yet, his mother’s step-by-step instructions weren’t enough to help him complete the multiple steps required to make a cup of coffee. Why?
Because his brain isn’t wired that way.
Spotting Executive Function Deficits and Delays
A’s son struggles with executive function – the set of neurological processes responsible for helping us order our daily lives. Executive functioning skills make it possible for us to plan, begin, and follow through on a task or an activity: everything from cleaning a room and completing schoolwork to brushing teeth and making friends.
For most children, a deficit in executive function presents as a behavioral issue or character flaw. They exhibit:
- Lack of awareness; about where they are in space; about the needs and emotions of people in the room
- Lack of restraint: either physical or emotional
- Lack of memory: usually about details, instructions, or mundane activities and tasks
- Lack of emotional expression: the inability to appropriately express big emotions and thoughts
- Lack of self-motivation: the inability to get started and exhibit follow-through
- Lack of planning and problem solving: the tendency to fly by the seat of one’s pants and give up when life gets hard
These behaviors are actually what researchers call the Zones of Regulation. Each one is required for appropriate executive functioning. Individuals with gaps in the development of their zones of regulation will not spontaneously recover executive function skills.
In a child with Executive Function Disorder, the zones of regulation are a rickety ladder. The child requires an external scaffold or support system to hold that ladder still.
Executive function is powerful. In some respects, it holds the key to peaceful family life. Prayer time, chore time, leisure time, meal times – all of these require a certain amount of order to be fruitful.
There’s no order without Executive functioning skills.
Think of it this way. If your child has difficulty attending to the most basic of tasks on the zones of regulation (like awareness and restraint), imagine how difficult it must be for him to clean a room, complete his school work, or follow through with chores.
Of course, she can never find her shoes or the very important paper in the bottom of her bookbag.
Her brain is busy trying to process what’s going on around her and, essentially, keep her alive.
Fortunately, though, the human brain is plastic. Wiring – especially working memory – can be adjusted with patience, support and time. Concrete strategies and intentional memory practice help shore up any loose scaffolding.
External cues like visual aids and motivational systems are the surest path to success.
How to Improve Executive Function Skills (the Basics)
(for a more in-depth look with ready-to-use checklists, reminders, and printables, check the toolkit. For step-by-step, guided help in teaching these skills, join Peace on Purpose: the Executive Function Boot Camp)
Play games that enhance working memory.
Board games, card games – anything that requires your child to match images, keep track of cards, or focus on more than one concept at a time is a winner (favorites here include variations of Memory and Crazy 8’s)
Work alongside your child and practice.
Remember that what comes naturally to you probably doesn’t come naturally to your child. If you want to teach your child to make coffee, for instance, put step-by-step visual pictures by the coffee maker. Walk through the process with your kiddo a number of times.
Use external cues and motivators.
Visual lists, checklists, and reminders are great for this. Post your after-school routine in the kitchen and have your child mark off each step as she completes it. For chores, try using a token economy.
Still not sure what all this would look like?
Building internal executive function skills:
External Motivation, and How to Make it Really Work
Lists and Reminders to Keep Everybody on the Same Page
Practical Application for the School day (homeschool and brick and mortar):
I know the life you’re leading is – what do we call it? Oh right. Frustrating.
Believe me. I’ve lived it, too. But the last thing you need to worry about on this journey is the way they will remember you.
As yelling, because no one can ever clean. Or find their shoes. Or keep their hands to themselves at a social gathering.
This isn’t what God meant for you when he gave you these exceptional children. And you don’t need to live with the stress of wondering what you’ve done wrong.
You haven’t done anything wrong. You’ve got the tools you need right in front of you.
Set up your scaffold and external support system and restore your family’s sense of peace.
If you’d like an in-depth look at executive function and access to the printables above, check out the Executive Function Family Toolkit. Need help implementing everything? I’ve got you covered in Peace on Purpose: the Executive Function Boot Camp.
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