Executive functions include working memory, decision making and planning, control over emotions and body, self understanding, self-restraint, empathy and morality. These are all qualities we want, and hope our children will have. Executive functioning issues are a hallmark of ADHD and autism. When a child’s executive functions are impaired or delayed they are likely to act impulsively, have strong emotional reactions and outbursts, be rigid, disorganized, and unable to plan or complete a task with multiple steps. When executive functions are well developed, a child will be able to regulate their emotions, consider consequences, think before acting and understand how other people feel.
The part of the brain that is responsible for our strong emotions, reactions and impulses is well developed from birth. But even in a typically developing child, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions is not fully developed until their mid-twenties. As parents it’s really important to understand this. This means that all the behaviours we want, and expect our kids to demonstrate are dependant on a part of the brain that isn’t fully developed yet.
This part of the brain simply isn’t capable of fully functioning all the time and is the reason why kids are prone to acting without thinking. It’s unrealistic of parents to expect children to always be rational, regulate their emotions, think before acting and make good decisions. A lot of kids can demonstrate some of these abilities some of the time but children simply aren’t developmentally able to use their executive functions all the time. If your child has ADHD or autism most likely their level of functioning is behind other children of the same age.
Adjusting your current expectations, or knowingly setting realistic expectations for your child can help you see that your child is doing the best that they can with the brain that they have. As a parent, you can acknowledge this and help your child develop appropriate behaviour.
Executive Functions – The Tantrum vs The Meltdown
There are neurological differences between temper tantrums and meltdowns. If your child has autism you already know that meltdowns and tantrums are two completely different things. Executive functioning is a differentiating factor here and I will explain why.
A temper tantrum is actually an indicator that your child’s executive functions are in working order. Tantrums occur when a child decides to throw a fit. A child having a tantrum has made the conscious choice to act out in order to push your buttons and get what they want. They may appear out of control but are able to stop the tantrum abruptly (for example, when they get what they want) and return to making logical decisions and behaving in a calm manner.
Parents are taught to ignore tantrums – because if your child’s tantrum doesn’t get them what they want or get a reaction out of you, they will learn that this strategy is ineffective and over time, will stop.
A meltdown is completely different. When a child is having a meltdown the part of their brain responsible for executive functioning completely shuts down. Stress hormones flood their tiny body and, temporarily, they are literally incapable of controlling their body and emotions, or using any executive functions like considering consequences, problem solving, or listening to reason.
When your child is having a meltdown, they do not need you to set firm boundaries, or ignore their outburst. Your child needs you to be nurturing and comforting until the meltdown is over. The best approach to take will vary depending on your child’s temperament and what the trigger of the meltdown was.
Personally, what has worked best for me and my son is removing him from the situation and using some form of sensory toy or activity as a calming tool and a distraction. One thing that works really well at home is turning off all the lights in his room and using an LED light projector that changes colours and is very visually stimulating. Since all children’s needs are different, this could be different for you.
When you child is in meltdown mode there is absolutely no sense in trying to talk to them about consequences or appropriate vs inappropriate behaviour. The executive functions of the brain need to be up and running in order for any of this information to be processed. The best practice here is to wait until your child is in a more receptive place. When they are well regulated, and no longer rushing with emotions, you can talk about appropriate vs inappropriate behaviour with them. It’s better to talk to your child using compassion and understanding than to be punitive.
You can read about this in detail in the book The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. This book is an excellent read to help understand your child’s mind, and is the first parenting book I ever read.
Strategies To Improve Executive Functions
Disclaimer; this post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
When we practice using our executive functions, it helps them to develop and get stronger over time. Executive functioning is essential for social and emotional intelligence. As a parent, you can encourage your child to use these skills every day.
1. Decision Making
Give your child choices through the day. For little ones this can be as simple as “Do you want to wear your pink shirt or your yellow shirt today?” Older children should have the chances to make more complex decisions. As parents, it can be instinctual to make the “right” choice for our kids, because we don’t want them to make mistakes, but this is a learning experience for children and necessary for them to have strong decision making skills down the road.
2. Practice Problem Solving
Use the problem solving wheel to help teach your child effective problem solving skills. Give them hypothetical scenarios and ask them to choose the best option(s) for solving the problem. Practicing frequently will help them to be able to apply these skills in real-life situations. My son and I will even act out different scenarios and since he has trouble with social skills this is helpful to him.
3. Play Physical Activities That Require Attention
Games like freeze dance, musical chairs, simon says, duck duck goose, red light green light, etc are a fun and playful way to exercise our brain and improve executive functions. Kids need to pay attention and listen carefully to instructions, and use their impulse control to play these games. These games are also great ways to provide kids with proprioceptive input.
4. Play Sorting Games
Children can be asked to sort different objects by different rules, such as first sorting by colour, then mixing them back up and asking them to re-sort by shape. This type of sorting game helps improve cognitive flexibility – the ability to adjust your thinking from an old situation to a new situation.
5. Play Board Games That Require Strategy
Strategic board games give your child a chance to practice making a plan and keeping it in mind for several moves and to also adjust their strategy in response to the other players’ moves. Through strategizing, a child’s inhibitory control, flexibility, and working memory need to work together, practicing many executive functions together. I’ve put together some ideas below from Amazon. My son is almost 7 and loves the game Battleship. My 3 year old loves to play Perfection. And they both love playing Operation which is a great game for focus and concentration.
6. Improve Empathy
It’s a myth that children with autism lack empathy. They are very empathetic, the problem is that they have trouble reading how other people feel. They don’t pick up on body language and slight changes in tone of voice or facial expression as easily as others. You can help improve your child’s ability at recognizing others’ feelings by drawing their attention to them regularly. When you’re watching their favorite TV show together ask your child how they think the character feels. Do the same while you’re reading together, or while you’re out and hear a baby crying – ask your child why do they think the baby is crying? Over time this will help your child form connections between actions and feelings and help grow their understanding and they will become more empathetic.
7. Just Give It Time
Finally, you just have to give your little ones some time. As I mentioned earlier, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions doesn’t completely mature until the mid-twenties. A child with ADHD usually is delayed by about 3 years in their level of executive functioning. I have to remind myself this as my 6 year old has similar outbursts to my 3 year old and remember he is doing his best. As a parent just keep facilitating opportunities to learn, being patient and nurturing during meltdowns, setting boundaries when you need to, and playing lots of games together.