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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”.

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