What Parents Need to Know About Executive Functioning

Photo coffee shop

As a sometimes office, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I enjoy the warmth of the cup of java, the hum of the machines and the camaraderie of my “officemates” typing on their computers. While tutoring for college prep exams is a familiar neighbor, lately I notice an increasing number of elementary school children receiving instruction.

Convenient and comfortable for adults, parents and tutors alike, I wonder if the adults are aware of the challenges the coffee shop presents for young minds? After all, the noises of people moving around the coffee shop, greeting friends, and clanging of the dishes that are appealing to me, require a lot to effort to focus.

Why is this environment okay for my brain but not ideal for the young student? Well, my mind has lots of practice at something called executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?
Think of the work of the mind like that of an Air Traffic Controller. The Air Traffic Controller is paying attention to planes, pilots, and the environment. By prioritizing space on the tarmac, communicating with pilots, and calculating airspeeds, the Controller sequences takeoffs and landings. The Controller manages the flow of information, sustains attention on the critical tasks, and mentally manipulates variables.

Executive function is the coordination of three distinct types of brainpower:

  1. Flexibility in Thinking – allows me to shift between my work, thoughts, and greeting friends as they come into the coffee shop. I filter out noises, thoughts, and experiences that might take me off task.
  2. Self Control – helps me to delay gratification and manage my impulses and emotional reactions. I have learned to balance my desire to finish the task with the process of developing, editing, and refining my writing.
  3. Working Memory – allows me to hold my ideas in my mind while considering the possibility of the order of the words, phrases and ideas in this article.

Children are developing and building efficiencies in each of these brain areas.

IMG_9152The tutored child in a busy coffee shop is learning. From the child’s point of view, the child’s brain is not only tackling 3-digit addition. It is using significant Air Controller’s energy to pay attention to the lesson, remember the rules, and ignore the adults talking at the next table. Math facts may be harder and take more time to grasp because of the expended executive functioning brainpower.

The same can be true for adults.

Research shows that environment can influence learning.

Studies have found that things such as room decoration, lighting, and noise influence time-on-task, short-term memory, and comprehension of facts.

A children’s and teen’s library might be a better setting for tutoring math facts for younger students than an adult-oriented coffee shop.

But, what about practicing executive functioning?

The good news is that parents don’t have to hire a tutor. Everyday experiences provide opportunities to build and practice these skills.

To encourage executive functioning skills for elementary age children:

  • Engage children in planning activities. For example, have them plan a day’s outing, help get ready for a trip or set-up a lemonade stand.
  • Invite your child to play card or board games that require memory and strategy. Model your problem solving, a cognitive task, and managing disappointment and winning, an emotional skill builder.
  • Have fun working on crosswords, Sudoku or Rubik’s Cube or other puzzles. Talk aloud to demonstrate problem-solving.
  • Ask for help in reorganizing toys, clothing, or can food cupboards. Encourage classification and groupings of materials.
  • Cook together. Allow your child to choose a recipe, shop for ingredients, set the table and prepare the meal. Making a favorite dessert is a great way to practice planning and delay gratification.

Executive functioning begins developing early and forms the foundation for positive school achievement and success in the work force. Executive functioning is a lifetime building process and those skills need to be exercised just like the physical body needs to be exercised. Fortunately, no gym membership or special instructions needed, just the invite for children to think, wait, and plan right along with you!

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