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Executive Functioning

Young children typically act before they think, but as they grow older, and their brains mature, this should no longer be the case.

As a child gains more experience, he gradually learns to regulate himself and interact with his world in a step-by-step, focused manner. In other words, he develops “executive functioning” skills.

This “control tower” or your child’s brain is situated in the pre-frontal cortex.

This region of the brain is wired over time as children find themselves in interaction with adults in situations where they have to set a goal, plan how they’re going to get to that goal, then execute the plan and lastly, look back on the process and evaluate how they reasoned and what they did so that they can learn from the experience.

Executive functioning consists of the following skills:

1. Step-by-step planning (working memory)
2. Self-regulation
3. Cognitive adaptability

Interestingly, one of the most effective ways of developing executive function in children is by reading to them from an early age. A book is basically a step-by-step journey. It starts with a goal in mind. Pages follow on each other in an orderly fashion. At the same time your child ‘s brain learns to add meaning to what he sees and hears, so that he can soak up the experience with you and eventually look back over what has happened and look forward to what is coming. He develops the ability to create images in his mind’s eye and discovers the rhythm and comfort of order.
Another way to help wire your child’s pre-frontal lobes is to give attention to discipline and teaching good manners. We need to have age-appropriate expectations of our children’s ability to regulate their behaviour. This involves saying things like, “Say your please and thank-you’s, wait your turn, sit in your chair while eating, follow directions”, etc.

A practical way to support executive functioning skills is to involve young children in daily activities that start off with a goal, unfold in an orderly step-by-step fashion and require some skill and self-control. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to take children out of everyday environments and put them into “educational bubbles” or worse – park them in front of television sets to watch “educational programs”. If you have a nanny, encourage her to involve your child in the everyday things that she does around the house, like tidying the rooms and washing the dishes. Explain that it’s important to involve a child in practical ways. Encourage her to talk about the desired goal that they have in mind at the onset of a task, describe all the steps along the way over and over again, without tiring of it, and give feedback about how your child is contributing to the process.

Spend time on instructional play. Instructional play is an incredibly effective way of developing all three of the skills at once.

ADHD is a medical condition. About 1 out of 20 children truly need medication in this regard. Sadly, educators consistently report that many more children have similar symptoms (about 60%). Nowadays, many parents find themselves with their backs against a wall by the time their children enter school. In reality, the majority of our unruly children struggle with “executive functioning skills”.

Baby Gymnastics

Exercises to do as part of your Nappy Changing Routine

Babies of all ages love to be played with and they benefit from the movements that we’re about to describe – even from as early as the first weeks of life.

During the first months after birth, your baby gradually discovers where his body ends and the outside world begins. So, by adding these exercises to your nappy changing routine from early on, you will be fostering your child’s “body awareness” at a time when his brain is most impressionable to this kind of input. You will also be helping his body to gradually relax and move out of the curled up, foetal position – in preparation for learning to sit, crawl and walk one day.

Parents of older babies, who continue with this ritual, also strengthen the parent-child emotional connection and build their babies’ brains in a natural way.

Neurologists say that “brain cells that fire together wire together”. So, as you will be providing your child with small doses of extra visual, auditory, tactile and movement information to process at every nappy change, you will be doing something very practical to help wire his brain without over-stimulating him!

Therefore, while you are busy changing your baby’s nappy and you have your Bum Crème handy, follow these easy steps:


-- Lie your baby down on his back - preferably without a nappy. Stretch and bend his left leg a few times. Repeat with the right leg. Stretch and bend both legs together a number of times. Then alternate the movement, as if your baby is cycling.

-- Keep his knees together. Sway them from side to side so that his lower body rotates from side to side. Do not restrict your child’s upper body.

-- Lift his right foot over his left leg and touch the mattress next to his left hip. Change sides so that your baby’s lower body gets to rotate in both directions as you alternate between his left and right sides. Again allow his upper body to move freely.

-- Flex and extend his feet. In other words, point his toes downward and then press his soles up again. Repeat this exercise a few of times. Then move your baby’s feet in circles to rotate in the ankle joints.

-- Bend one leg and move his knee in big circular movements to rotate in the hip joint. Do clockwise and anti-clockwise circles, one leg at a time.


-- Let your baby grab onto your thumbs. Fold the rest of your fingers over his fists. Slowly tilt his hands up and down, also to the left and to the right and then rotate them in a circular motion.

-- Continue holding his hands. Stretch his arms down to his hips and then up to his ears. Repeat the movement a few times.

-- Now fold his arms over his chest and then spread them wide open on the bed. Close and open his arms rhythmically in this way - crossing and extending them.

-- Use one hand to hold your baby’s hand open and massage his palm with your free hand. Do this with both hands.

The key to stimulating your child is to simply keep an eye out for every day situations that you can use to your advantage.
Focus on having fun and cherishing the times you share.
By simply doing a little bit extra, you can elevate everyday nappy changes to nurturing experiences that are rich in rituals for your baby. You can also be content in knowing that your time with your little one is not only fun, but also educational.

Baby Massage: The Introductory Massage

The benefits of baby massage have been extensively researched and we at the Practica Program encourage our Practica Parents to make use of baby massage techniques as often as possible. 

Below is an extract from the Practica Program Parents' Guide that summarizes the easy steps involved in Introductory Massage. It is recommended for newborn babies and parents who are trying out baby massage techniques for the first time. 

The extract is from the section that focuses on developing sensory perception for newborn babies in the Practica Program Parents' Guide. 

As your baby gets older, different techniques and movements are added to the mix. These added techniques are described in detail in the Practica Program Parents' Guide under the various age groups. 

The Introductory Massage: (Activity No 18. The First Few Weeks. Page 10)

  • Lie your baby down on his side, facing you, while lying beside him.
  • You can either undress him and massage him with oil, or leave his clothes on if the weather doesn’t permit you to do so.
  • Use organic oil e.g. coconut, almond or grape seed oil. At this stage, use only base oil. Aromatic oils can be introduced from 2 months onwards. 
  • Where possible, try to make eye contact with him and talk or sing to him.  Annexure 1 in Chapter 10 offers a range of songs to choose from. Select a particular song which you can repeat whenever you massage him. This helps him to associate the specific song with touch and massage.
  • While he is lying on his side, stroke his arm in a downward motion from his shoulder to his hand.
  • Stroke along the side of his body repeatedly, from under his arm all the way down to his foot.  Keep the motions as fluent, calm, rhythmic, slow and firm as you possibly can.
  • While still on his side, rub his upper back in continuous, clockwise circles. Repeat the movement on his lower back.  
  • Repeat all the above steps while the two of you are lying on the opposite side of your bodies.
  • If he is happy to lie on his back, sit stride-legged at his feet with his body between your legs and repeatedly stroke with both hands from his shoulders towards his feet, and
  • Finally, roll him onto his tummy on the bed or lie with his body face down on your chest. Stroke repeatedly from the base of his neck towards his bottom.

 Written by Lizette van Huyssteen

"When we know better... we do better." 

How to encourage parents to switch off the television and talk to their children instead.

The following post is aimed at healthcare professionals and teachers.

Through the Practica Program, we meet hundreds of parents from many backgrounds every year. And, similar to you in your profession, we regularly engage with parents who seem to be unaware of the fact that they are headed in the wrong direction regarding the amount of television that they allow their children to watch. The dilemma, then, is how to gently introduce the subject without sounding judgmental or that we’re handing out unsolicited advice.

Break the ice with a relatable question.

An introductory question that grabs the attention of parents from all cultures and walks of life without offending anyone, is: “Have you ever wondered how to teach your child to do things for himself while he is young, so that you won’t need to do his homework for him when he is in school one day?”

Then grab the opportunity.

When the parent responds with interest, jump in and proceed to give advice. Don’t hold back. Bear in mind that a single tidbit of advice about this issue can literally change a child’s life for ever - if only you can motivate the parent to put it into practice!

Keep the conversation short by sharing only 3 tips at a time.

Tip 1: Deliberately train your child’s brain to focus and follow directions. 
We typically say: “There is a special region in every person’s forebrain that organizes his or her brain like an executive organizes employees in his company, or a conductor conducts musicians in an orchestra to perform in harmony. This region houses the ‘executive function of the brain’ and it doesn’t develop without practice. The more it is used, the easier it will become for your child to concentrate and complete tasks step by step.”

Continue in an excited tone of voice, saying to the parent: “You can kick off practising this brain region by focusing on good manners and training him to act in socially acceptable ways. This will help your child to develop self-control and perseverance. Also involve him in everyday activities that unfold step-by-step: do household chores together and read familiar bedtime stories over and over again – to the point where he will be able to predict (and say in his own words) what’s going to happen on the next page.”

Tip 2: Switch off the television to develop language and thinking skills.
Few parents know that researchers have found that the number of words spoken in a household roughly doubles when the television is no longer switched on in the background – even when nobody was watching in the first place! To read more, visit this post.

Children learn language from hearing it, so the number of words spoken directly to a child in a household has a huge impact on his developing speech and language skills. Furthermore, language is not only used to communicate – it’s also necessary for a child to learn to think and reason. It’s definitely worth the investment to rather switch off the television and talk to your child instead. That way he’ll be developing the intellectual skills that will save you from having to do his homework one day!

Tip 3: Play educational games that have a starting point, steps to follow and a desired outcome.

Typically, when a parent and child play an educational game together, the parent explains the goal, the rules and the desired outcome of the game. He or she then motivates the child and guides him to plan and execute the activity step-by-step.

Children initially need lots of guidance, but as time passes, and their brain wiring develops, they become more independent. It’s as if they literally learn to hear their parents’ voices in their mind’s ear. In this way they slowly but surely learn to initiate, execute and complete various slightly challenging tasks without assistance.  

This explains why children, who are priviliged enough to play educational games with their parents in one-on-one situations before entering school, display more self-confidence and act more independently.

Focus on selling a dream.

As professionals, we naturally don’t spend enough time with one parent to be able to constantly “dangle a carrot in front of the donkey’s nose”, as the old saying goes. And sticks don’t motivate. But dreams do. People are best motivated to change their behaviour when they believe that the change will bring them to a place where they will be better off. In short, if you can sell a dream, you can change a life.

More useful links:

To watch the video about Executive Function that Lizette used during her presentation at the Aspen Experts Symposium, click here.

To learn more about the support that the Practica Program offers to parents to enable them to play age-appropriate educational games with their children as part of their everyday lifestyle, click on this link.

If you are a healthcare professional, and you would like to watch Lizette van Huyssteen’s presentation at the Aspen Experts Symposium, click here.