Level Up Your Child’s Brain Boss: Tips on Promoting Stronger Executive Functioning
Whether it is getting ready in the morning, finishing a project, or making plans to meet up with some friends, we need certain skills to turn our goals into a reality. These skills are known as our ‘executive functions’ and some of these skills include:
- paying attention to important information
- recognizing that something needs to get done
- developing a plan to meet a goal
- organizing ourselves
- resisting distractions along the way (which can include managing our thoughts and emotions too)
- monitoring our progress and readjusting if needed
To help explain our brain’s executive functions, imagine a music conductor in front of an orchestra. The conductor’s job is to help the musicians play well together by adjusting their speed, sound, style, and volume to achieve the goal of producing a musical masterpiece. The part of our brain that gives direction and focuses our brainpower to complete complex tasks is like this music conductor! Because of its role, we sometimes refer to this part of our brain as our “Brain Boss”.
But what happens when our Brain Boss does not show up to work? Well, our plans can quickly become derailed. Even with the best intentions, the job does not get done. Or, like in most cases, what if our brain simply has not hired (that is, developed) a Brain Boss yet?
It is easy to assume that a person’s brain boss is being lazy, especially when they seem to excel in one area only to struggle elsewhere. Just think of a teenager who needs no reminders about meeting up with friends, but who needs a hundred reminders to put away their belongings in a timely manner. In reality, this part of our brain does not fully develop until we are in our mid-twenties, and in some cases, even later! For kids with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and/or Learning Disabilities, the gap in skills is especially true as the parts of their brains that are underdeveloped are linked to the same areas where the Brain Boss resides. This link explains why kids from these populations often struggle with executive functioning skills and why parents tend to take on the job of being their kid’s Brain Boss. But that does not mean that we must wait for the brain to grow before we can work on our Brain Boss skills.
Start by picking an executive function that you would like your child or teen to work on. Like any skill, it takes time and dedication to develop. Although we eventually want to improve all of these executive functioning skills, it is important to pick one and begin there. Please be mindful of your child’s personal development. Otherwise, we can easily overwhelm and frustrate our kids (and ourselves) when we try to juggle it all or push them well-beyond what their brain can handle. Consider setting a monthly theme where your family works on strengthening an executive functioning skill together. For a great list of executive functions and more background information, visit Understood.org and read the article “What is Executive Function?” (Please link the underlined text with https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/what-is-executive-function)
The following tips and tricks can be used on whatever skill you are working on.
Tip 1: Bring awareness to the skill
Before we can expect anyone to change their behaviour, it is helpful to first recognize that other behaviours exist and that certain behaviours lead to different outcomes. Drawing attention to how people are breaking down complex tasks is an excellent place to start. Some verbal prompts include:
- Wow, she got a starting position on her soccer team by listening carefully to what the coach wanted from his players.
- He really sped up how quickly he finished his science project by organizing the needed materials ahead of time. Now he gets to enjoy an outing with his friends!
- Hmmm, I wonder what she could have done differently because yelling at her partner does not seem to be helping her….
- He saw that his way was not working, so he figured out a better way. Good for him!
- Thank goodness I wrote that down or I would have forgotten.
As your child spends more time observing success (or mishaps), help them draw conclusions about what we can learn by watching others.
Tip 2: Model through your own actions
Although it is easier said than done, showing your kids different ways to organize a project, or using different calming strategies can help your kids see the benefits of a brain boss. Keep it real! Try not to focus on just your successes. Modelling how you would correct a mistake or poor choice is often more valuable than trying to appear like the perfect parent.
Tip 3: Use external cues
Make learning the skill easier by removing the brain power needed to mentally envision the goal and the steps needed to complete it. This way we free more mental resources to be used elsewhere. For example, use a graph or chart to track progress, write out a check list, or use a visual timer to show the child the passing of time clearly. It also helps to remove the “nagging” factor that families often appreciate.
Tip 4: Weigh out options and try different strategies
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Each person will likely have their own preferences. Some will use technology and the latest app to keep them on track. While for others, a good-old fashioned day planner or checklist will do. For managing distracting emotions, some prefer meditation or a yoga class, while others enjoy hanging out with loved ones. The key is to reflect on how successful these different strategies are and whether the strategy is sustainable. A bag of cookies might make you happy in the moment, but there are some long-term health consequences to consider!
Tip 5: Pump up motivation and reinforce through practice
Let’s face it! Not all good habits are easy to form. We all need that extra dose of motivation to get new habits to stick. The trick is to create meaningful and obtainable rewards for ourselves. Our kids are the same! Avoid all-or-nothing rewards that have little forgiveness when they fall off the path towards their goal. Rather, build in ‘extra-credit’ activities that can get them back on track with earning their reward. Once they start tasting the sweetness of success and the added benefits of a routine, their motivation often turns inwards, and they keep up habits because of how the habit makes them feel.
Again, the key is to focus in on one Brain Boss skill at a time. Once they get the hang of one skill, the skill starts to become second nature to them. It takes a little bit of trial and error to figure out what works. So, try not to give up! Expect to put in some time before you start seeing results from any Brain Boss training, and reach out for support and fresh ideas to keep you and your child engaged in the process.
Check out these other executive functioning articles by Foothills Academy staff :
Smart but Scattered Kids (and books written by Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare)
Learning to Plan and Be Organized: Executive Function Skills for Kids with ADHD by Kathleen G Nadeau