Guest Expert

Can You Actually Improve Your Child’s Executive Function?

4 Steps You can Take Right Now to Make a Difference

1. “Do your eyes light up when your child enters the room?” Maya Angelou

Since Executive Functions (EF) are social in nature and purpose, connection is everything. It is the foundation of self-esteem, self-regulation and more. EF are best learned in connected relationships. Neglect the relationship and you lose many opportunities for improve Executive Function skills.

Spending quality connecting time with your kids is good for their brains. Interactive play is a powerful and effective way to improve Executive Function skills. Joint problem solving and conflict resolution (especially with teenagers) is another fertile learning environment. Respectful, positive connection is the key to success.

Children who struggle to focus every day in school use up their cognitive resources. At home, they need a safe place to be accepted, loved and interacted with AS IS. Your arms and your eyes are where they look first for that acceptance. Your connection with them is vital. If you can figure out how to greet your child every day the way a dog greets its people, you will be amazed at what becomes possible.

Put Relationship first, Achievement Second. “Connect before you correct.” Pam Leo

2.  Are you calm and regulated when dealing with your children?

A calm, predictable environment fosters learning, self-regulation and connection. It's critically important, as a parent, to learn and practice how to be calm and collected whenever you are with your child. In a calm environment, your ADHD child has the best chance of learning how to self-regulate.

An emotionally unpredictable parent actually poses a threat to a child. Here's how it works: Your child's brain, just like yours, is hard-wired to zone in on threat (real or perceived). In the presence of threat, the brain prepares to do one of three things: Fight, Flee or Freeze. The ability to problem solve and learn is shut down. When this happens, the emotional brain is in charge (what Dan Seigel refers to as a “flipped lid”). No learning or problem solving can occur when lids are flipped. Don't even try – you will make it worse. Wait for calm.

Calm = Capable

 3.  Are your expectations in line with what your child CAN do?

Knowing and understanding the difference between a “won't” and a “can't” is very important. Strategies that are effective for “won't”s frequently don't work with “can't”s, often resulting in shame and inadvertent reinforcement of the very behaviors you are trying to change.

When you line up your expectations with what your children can do, you are less likely to focus on flaws and be disappointed in your children. You are also more likely to provide an environment in which success is possible. For example, if you expect a clumsy, distracted child to avoid the Ming Vase next to the door s/he uses every day, chances are pretty high that breakage, disappointment and shame will result. Worse, the labels of “clumsy” and “distracted” will be reinforced. On the other hand, if you expect the limits that come with your child's clumsiness and distractibility, proactive planning can help you create an environment in which success is more likely. Simply put, if you move the vase to a less travelled area, you set your child up for success and reduce the likelihood of a threat response. This can fosters the growth of EF.

"Shifting our expectations is fundamental to their success." Elaine Taylor-Klaus

“Children do well when they can.” Ross Greene

4.  Do you teach HOW instead of WHAT?

Effective EF is all about how things get done. Doing what you know, rather than simply knowing what to do, leads to successful functioning and builds a healthy sense of autonomy, resilience and self-confidence. On the other hand, if your child knows what to do but can't do it, success can be fleeting, rare and seemingly out of reach. Under such conditions, the child's self-esteem plummets, and your parental concerns and worries rise.

When parents focus more on the process then on the end result, good EF and/or good compensatory strategies are more likely to develop. Use detailed praise to give your child the information needed to be able to do it again. Focus on the how not the what. For example, “I noticed that you went to a quiet place to study, took frequent breaks and made some flash cards. The spelling words got deep in your brain, you remembered them for the test and were even able to use them in sentences. Your hard work paid off!” versus “Great job on that spelling test. You got a B.”

Praise Effort not traits. Acknowledge the struggle. Focus on how, not what

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Improve Your Child's Executive Function

For more reading on the topics above please refer to the following books, and others in the Resources section. How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish; The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine; Mindset by Carol Dweck; The Explosive Child by Ross Greene; The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel; Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Evolved by Russell Barkley. The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More by Elaine Taylor-Klaus.

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