Executive Functions: What They Are and 7 Ways to Strengthen Them
Executive functions are the more complex functions of our brains. This includes 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 to raise our children to have.
Executive functioning issues are a hallmark of ADHD and autism. When a child’s executive functions are impaired or delayed they are more 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. It will also be easier for them to remain organized, act responsibly, and manage their time which are all important skills for sucess in school.
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The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for basic human instincts and strong emotions, reactions, and impulses – this includes our fight or flight instinct. It is well developed from birth.
But even in a typically developing child, the prefrontal regions of the brain which are responsible for executive functions are not fully developed until their mid-twenties.
As parents, it’s really important to understand this. This means that all the behaviors 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 for parents to expect children to always be rational, regulate their emotions, think before acting and make good decisions. In fact, a lot of adults haven’t mastered these skills.
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 that of their peers. (This may have even been noted in their assessment – my son’s EF is estimated to be in the 7th percentile )
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 behavior.
When your expectations are reasonable, you will see more opportunities for your child to have success. It’s easier to stay calm and patient when your child does have a hard time – because you know it’s past their current abilities but will get there in time.
Executive Functions – Temper Tantrum, or Meltdown?
There are actually significant differences, neurologically, between a temper tantrum and a meltdown. You can think of a meltdown as an “Amygdala Hijack” because the feeling part of the brain and the thinking part of the brain stop working together, and the feeling part (the amygdala) takes over.
As awful as tantrums can be, it is actually an indicator that your child’s executive functions developing well. So in a strange way you can actually be proud of your kiddo for that fit they’re throwing.
Having a tantrum is a decision a child makes. A child having a tantrum has made the conscious choice to act out in order to get their way, or push your buttons, or just to get some attention. 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. You’ll notice a child who is throwing a tantrum will look over at you to see if you’re watching them.
A meltdown is completely different. When a child is having a meltdown, thanks to their amygdala causing fight or flight to kick in, the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive functioning completely shuts down. Stress hormones flood their tiny body and, temporarily, they are literally incapable of controlling their actions 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. Just remember that this is an emotional reaction and not a behavior choice.
When your child is having a meltdown there is absolutely no sense in trying to talk to them about consequences or appropriate vs inappropriate behavior. 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 behavior with them. It’s better to talk to your child using compassion and understanding than to be punitive. The best strategy for meltdowns is to be proactive. This guide can explain the anatomy of a meltdown and ideas for positive behavior strategies to use at each stage of the meltdown.
You can read more about the brain’s development and executive function 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
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 in order to promote strong executive function skills.
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.
The natural consequences of your choices can be the best learning experience.
2. Practice Problem Solving
If this is an area your child struggles with, try the problem-solving wheel to help teach 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. You can even act out different scenarios and use pretend play to practice social skills and problem-solving at the same time.
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 to instructions and use their impulse control to play these games. These games are also great ways to provide kids with proprioceptive input and is great for motor planning.
4. Play Sorting Games
Children can be asked to sort different objects by different rules, such as first sorting by color, 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. They must 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.
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. This will also help your child to better identify their own big emotions, and improve their perspective taking abilities.
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.