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Strengthening your child's executive functioning skills

Often referred to as the “CEO of the brain,” the Executive Functioning (EF) system is what allows us to successfully do things such as: problem-solve, organize, sequence, initiate, attend, plan, shift between tasks and thoughts, and control our emotions and impulses. It is also responsible for enabling us to delay gratification, learn from mistakes, be flexible and persist in the face of challenges. The EF system coordinates input from multiple various regions of the brain and organizes our behavioral responses.

Children with poor EF skills tend to be more disorganized, take a long time to complete routine tasks, struggle with projects, homework assignments, and study skills. These difficulties not only affect children’s grades, but also take a toll on their confidence and emotional well-being.

EF skills are not just genetically predetermined, but can also be developed and strengthened well into early adulthood. The brain can be retrained just as our muscles can be strengthened and shaped through exercise. Here are some tips for strengthening your child’s EF skills:

- Use blocks or Play-Doh to create structures for your child to replicate. Repeatedly generate novel designs that are not tied to pre-set rules and patterns. This exercise works on initiation, breaking down steps, sequencing, organizing, and attending.

- Board games provide many ways of enhancing EF skills. Players must use strategy, planning, flexibility, attend, follow directions, and cope with consequences when things don’t go their way. A few board games that particularly target EF skills include: Rush hour, Mastermind, Connect 4 Stackers, Monopoly, Clue, Chess, puzzles, and Chinese checkers.

- Having children participate in cooking or baking activities is a simple, yet fun and effective way to foster EF skills, including planning, organizing, sequencing steps, shifting between multiple tasks, and delaying gratification. Once you have a recipe that you know your child can make, have him or her create the list of groceries and cooking supplies needed. Older kids can even look up prices and develop an estimated budget.

- Physical exercise is another great means of enhancing EF skills. You can focus on developing novel routines for kids that challenge planning, coordination, and sequencing in new and different ways. Yoga is also a wonderful means of improving attention, regulating behavior, sequencing movements, and remaining calm through challenges.

Beyond any one particular activity, use naturally occurring problems and tasks as an opportunity to promote executive functioning skills. You can do this by reducing the amount of support you provide, allowing your child time to experiment, experience frustration, and generate solutions that may not work. Once there has been some opportunity for this kind of practice, you can respond to their requests for help by providing the minimal support necessary to help them move through the task. For example, rather than offering a solution, say “can you come up with some other ideas of how we might do this?” A shared experience of problem solving with an attuned parent can help to solidify executive functioning skills as well as enhance the overall quality of your relationship.

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