Mission Control: Mastering Executive Functioning Skills
Imagine this scenario - The annual family dinner is around the corner (imagine we don't live in a COVID world and gatherings still happened...) and you are in charge of hosting this year. You write it in your calendar with a reminder a few weeks before to start preparing and planning. Two weeks before, you write out the menu, make some edits, and tweak for dietary restrictions of guests. One week before you write out the grocery shopping list. Two days before you do the shopping and plan out what you will cook when. Perhaps you make one or two dishes and freeze them. The night before, you set the table and clean the house. The day of, you arrange all of the serving plates and cutlery and begin to cook or prepare in an order that makes sense (start the things that take the longest earlier in the day, do finishing touches closer to the time of the meal, etc.). Along the way, your oven breaks. Okay - problem solving time. You brainstorm options - order 10 pizzas, change the venue, serve cold food, call your neighbour and ask to borrow their oven (again, non-COVID times, of course!). You decide to call the neighbour and luckily he is home! You change the plan, hustle over there and with some minor tweaks, it's all good! Dinner is fantastic and the family is happy.
You just displayed excellent control of your executive functioning skills!
Let's look at the same scenario for someone who has NOT developed their executive functioning skills as strongly.
The annual family dinner is around the corner (imagine we don't live in a COVID world and gatherings still happened...) and you are in charge of hosting this year. You forget. Two weeks before, your mom reminds you that you are hosting and you ask for a reminder of what day the dinner is. One week before you think of what you might serve and decide you'll just go to the grocery store before the dinner to grab some stuff. Two days before you do the shopping and haphazardly wander around the store trying to come up with something to serve. You grab what you can and throw a mishmash of foods in your cart. The morning of, you try to run around cleaning the house and setting the table but realize you are slowly running out of time to actually prepare the food. That day, you realize you have no idea what you are actually cooking. The turkey is still frozen because you forgot to thaw it and you need to make a plan for the side dishes you attempted to arrange in the store. You start to panic and you begin getting clumsy, dropping things all over. Along the way, your oven breaks. Full panic mode. You cry and call your mom. She suggests some options that could help but you are stuck in panic mode. Ultimately, your mom comes over and together you decide to just order pizza for the family. You feel like a failure and thank the lord that it will be another 10 years until it's your turn to host again.
Executive Functioning - the mission control center of our brain, helps us manage emotions, plan, prepare, organize and achieve goals - both long term and short! Believe it or not - executive functioning skills need to be explicitly taught to most children! Over their years at school, they build independence and executive functioning skills by learning to manage their time and homework/assignments by using agendas and calendars. They are held accountable by their parents and teachers who assist them along the way. Certain students need more support by breaking down tasks into more manageable chunks with check-ins more often. The bottom line - learning executive functioning skills is just as important as math or literacy skills!
There are many definitions and breakdowns of executive functioning skills, but here is a quick summary. All executive functioning skills fall into these three categories:
Working Memory - the ability to hold on to and manipulate information at the same time
Mental Flexibility - the ability to adapt to different situations
Self-Control - the ability to resist impulses and manage emotions
Overall, executive functioning allows people to start and sustain tasks, plan ahead, avoid impulsive behaviour, keep track of what you are doing and be organized. For kids, this could be as simple as remembering to bring all of your materials with you to class each day, or figuring out how to complete a project by the due date with all of the necessary components. For older students, this could be deciding the university program you want to apply to when you are in Grade 10, and ensuring that in Grades 11 and 12 you take the required courses in order to have the necessary courses to be eligible for the program.
How can I help my child?
You can help your child build these skills by reinforcing time management and organization skills at home. They need the opportunity to learn how to manage their time when they have multiple tests/assignments. They need support in figuring out how to independently ensure that all components of a project are complete by using the tools provided.
What I DON'T mean is, checking in daily to make sure your child is working on their assignment or doing it with/for them. These skills should be formed with the intention of helping your child be more independent. If they miss a component or a due date, the natural consequence is that there will likely (hopefully) be a call/email, penalty or stern talking to from their teacher (and I promise, they will still get in to university!).
What I DO mean is, reviewing your child's agenda with them daily and helping them learn the skill of plotting those assignments/due dates on to their personal calendars so they can plan ahead and be sure to complete each task on time. You can help them look at the assignment checklist or rubric to ensure they have all the required components. You can check in throughout a task, or help them self-advocate to their teacher if they need help part way through (and not at the end!). Teach them how to organize their belongings, create checklists for themselves, label/colour code, etc. Help them be responsible for their space and their stuff!
Help them work backwards from their goals, whatever they may be, to where they currently are and guide them towards all the steps they need to take in order to achieve them.
In addition, using clear, self-regulation language that acknowledges and validates feelings and encourages calming techniques will help young children to become more self-aware and manage their emotions with more ease.
Lastly, modeling flexibility is the best way to help kids learn this themselves. When littles watch their bigs make mistakes and bounce back (say it out loud, model it explicitly!) they learn that it is okay to fumble, troubleshoot and try again.
I hope this was helpful for you. If you have any questions, or want some more tips for your child - please feel free to reach out!