I Heard Executive Functions Can Never Improve. Is this True?

Finally, someone asked me an easy question. NO, it is not true! There are many ways to improve executive functions. High tech strategies for brain training are now the rage and have great promise as the skills they train become more generalizable. Executive-skills training such as our LearningWorks Live programs targets training in specific skills with engaging apps, games, and technology to pave the way. School-based programs such as SMARTS ( Strategies, Motivation, Awareness, Resilience, Talents, Success) teach skills to improve organization, homework completion and focus. Executive-functioning coaches such as the highly qualified team at Beyond BookSmart can help kids to improve a variety of executive functions. Executive functions can be improved by taking routine activities and leveraging them to create modest improvement in specific areas.  

Taking children’s daily activities and transforming them into a training field for executive functioning requires some preparation and foresight. The key is to recognize that learning occurs when individuals are able to identify what they are learning, think about what they are doing, and consider how they might apply it to other settings. At LearningWorks for Kids, we call this process Detect, Reflect, and Connect. Good teachers have been using similar strategic teaching principles for years. They engage the attention of students, help them to recognize what they are learning, assist them in becoming more thoughtful about their learning, and encourage them to practice what they have learned.

One of my favorite ways to help parents improve their children’s executive functions is to get them to consider how engagement in sports and athletics can improve executive functions. There is compelling evidence that vigorous physical exercise alone, without any of our teaching efforts, can temporarily improve executive-functioning skills.

Here are some suggestions to improve specific executive-functioning skills with sports and physical activity:

Sustained Attention and Concentration

Encourage children to participate in a sport that requires sustained attention and focus. Sports such as golf, diving, and archery are among many where both intense focus and being able to tune out distractions are necessary to maximize performance. These types of sports require players to focus on the single task they are working on at the time. Other sports such as martial arts and yoga incorporate certain breathing techniques that can enhance focus and concentration, as well.

Persistence

Encourage children to take up sports in which persistence or sustained effort are crucial to improvement. There are many sports where natural ability alone does not suffice for good performance. Specific athletic actions (such as putting in golf, hitting a baseball, shooting free throws and three-pointers in basketball, hitting a tennis ball, or performing a skateboard trick) require sustained attention and effort for improvement. While participants may receive excellent coaching, it is the sustained effort and focus on the performance that results in the perfecting of skills and technique. Sports that are particularly helpful in addressing long-term persistence include karate (where individuals can achieve many belts and certifications), swimming (where individuals can easily see their improvement in terms of the timing of different events), skateboarding, snowboarding, and BMX bike riding (where individuals can see their improvement in the variety of tricks they are able to perform).

Focus and Following Directions

Identify a sport children truly like to do that requires listening. Putting them on a team for this particular sport would require not only participation on the team but also,  more importantly, listening to instructions and directions from a coach. When sports are tailored to children’s interests, the children are more often better able to follow directions. Being engaged in something helps them to look the coach in the eye, develop skills, orient themselves to what is being practiced, and internalize and repeat directions on their own. Being able to internalize and repeat directions themselves, in particular, helps children to improve their focus.

Task Initiation

Get children involved in sports where they need to move promptly and quickly such as soccer, field and ice hockey, and basketball. These sports do not allow participants to take their time in getting started but require immediate and prompt participation. Players must move quickly and actively engage with other members on the team. They must display quick reaction time and be prepared to catch a pass, play, and transition between offense and defense, skills that benefit children who struggle in the area of task initiation.

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