Homeschooling (and other external factors, such as COVID-19) can lead to the location of the majority of a child’s learning to be in the home. Some parents may be wondering, especially in situations such as the pandemic, how to be the best ‘teachers’ for their children. How do we impart all kinds of ‘life skills’ on our children from home? I believe that this question is intrinsically linked to executive functioning (EF).
First, what is executive functioning and what kinds of skills involve EF? EF can be described as any and all cognitive processes that allow individuals to proceed through life smoothly and maintain personal and external relationships, commitments, and tasks. In basic terms, executive functions are those that are necessary to proceed through life in logical and structured ways. Executive functions are commonly broken up into seven or eight skills:
- Inhibition: this skill refers to an individual’s ability to control impulsivity. For example, many people may want to have an extra cookie after dinner, but people with strong inhibition skills will be able to recognize that they should not, and stop themselves from eating it.
- Shift: This skill refers to the ability to switch between tasks efficiently and quickly. For example, some people may struggle with staying on task while others may have difficulty in beginning a new task without completion of another task first.
- Emotional regulation: This is the skill of applying rational thought to emotions and being able to effectively regulate emotional response. For example, someone who may have poor emotional regulation skills may become very angry at the deliverer of negative news (without rationally understanding that this person may not actually have caused the negative outcome to occur).
- Initiation: This refers to the ability to begin new tasks and activities independently. Individuals with poor initiation skills may not feel motivated to begin new assignments or homework unless there is an impending deadline, for example.
- Working Memory: Working memory refers to an individual’s ability to recall any information that has been presented relatively recently (or any memory that has not yet been consolidated into long-term memory). For example, a name or association of a new person, dates, phone numbers, or addresses, or even common phrases or words can be forgotten. 6. Planning: This skill refers to an individual’s ability to perform and prepare for future tasks and activities. People with poor planning skills will often simply overlook important details needed to complete a task and subsequently not be able to complete it.
- Organization: This is an individual’s ability to manage themselves and any other items needed to complete a task. People with poor organizational skills may often find themselves misplacing items, missing due dates, or keeping spaces messy and cluttered.
- Self-monitoring or Self-Awareness: This skill refers to an individual’s ability to measure their own behaviors, thoughts, and performance against others or the societal standard/expectation. For example, someone who has low self-monitoring skills may not be able to understand why they are as organized as others, for example.
So now that EF skills have been defined, how can we teach these skills to children, especially those who are being educated within the home? Understanding what skills your child has and excels in and conversely what skills need more development and work is an important first step. When reading about each type of executive functioning skill, try to contextualize the information with your child and their abilities. Does your child have a short attention span or have trouble beginning new tasks? Is your child extremely organized but has difficulty switching between activities (i.e. do activities have to be ‘complete’ before moving on)? Questions like these are important to ask when gauging your child’s current EF skills.Communicating this information and speaking directly with your child about EF skills can be extremely beneficial in aiding your child’s understanding of EF as a whole.
Once you and your child are aware of which skills they may be lacking and which skills they excel, different methods of teaching and strengthening strategies can be implemented. For example, if your child struggles with organizational skills, creating checklists describing which tools are needed to complete each task (specifically in regards to schooling) may be helpful. Based on the area that requires growth, there are several strategies that can be implemented at home whether your child is distance learning or is homeschooled year-round:
Inhibition: Explain to your child the basics of impulsivity and why impulsive actions can be dangerous. Teach them to ask “why” before doing things. For example, if your child breaks things, throws things, or often does things with the purpose of seeking attention, encourage them to ask “why” they feel this way and give them other outlets to divert their attention (like fidget toys, for example). If your child is constantly interrupting you or others, explain that each person is allowed some time to talk; implement “talking stuffed animals” where the person holding the animal is allowed to talk, while others are allowed to listen.
- Shift: If your child can be seen struggling when switching tasks, they may be experiencing issues in this EF skill. Calmly and kindly explain to your child that, while it is important to stay organized, switching between tasks (before completion) is a necessary skill. Playing games where the child has to multitask (such as Minecraft or Animal Crossing (role-playing games) or more complicated card games like Gin) may be beneficial. Creating a list of each task that must be completed and giving each task a specific time limit (while explaining each step of this process to the child) is also beneficial. Timer apps can also be beneficial for helping set this expectation.
- Emotional regulation: Many children (and many adults/adolescents) struggle in controlling and rationally understanding their emotions. One of the most important concepts to explain to your child, specifically in regards to emotional regulation, is that their feelings are completely normal and should be accepted. Children should not be taught to push emotions away; they should be taught to recognize, address, and learn to understand their emotions and what makes them emotional. To help, parents can describe each emotion that their child may feel using pictures or colors; creating a diagram of an emotional spectrum may be helpful. Mindfulness apps specifically designed for children can be especially helpful because they guide the child through the process of recognizing emotions and regulating them in a positive way.
- Initiation: If your child struggles with beginning new tasks, creating motivational incentives may be beneficial. For example, allowing your child to have one piece of candy or snack after each homework assignment is completed (or each desired task) may aid in incentivizing children. Creating detailed checklists for each task could also help some children; for example, breaking down one task (such as brushing teeth) into smaller, more digestible tasks could make the larger task seem less daunting. In this case, a checklist could be: enter the bathroom, grab toothbrush, put toothpaste on toothbrush, etc.
- Working Memory: Strengthening working memory can be difficult, but there are certainly different methods to try with your child. If they struggle with language and remembering words, puzzles and word games can be beneficial (such as word-scrambles or crossword puzzles). If they struggle in remembering tasks (specifically in regards to schooling), checklists and planners are great tools to help children stay organized and on task as well as aid in working memory. Developing a clear routine as well as establishing a distraction-free zone are also necessary tools in increasing working memory in regards to school (especially at home).
- Planning: Increasing or strengthening your child’s planning skills can easily be done by working with your child to create checklists designed for each task. Establish designated routines, deadlines, and specific checkpoints within each deadline to ensure that your child is able to stay on task. Cooking or baking with your child (with supervision, even for older children) is also a great way to help them kinetically learn planning skills. Invite your child to help pick a recipe, list out ingredients, pick them out at the supermarket, etc. Strategic card or board games like Settlers of Catan or Sequence may also give you a chance to connect with your child while also developing EF skills.
- Organization: Again, checklists and planners are great ways to help your child stay organized, specifically in regards to school and scholastic assignments. If your child struggles to keep their room clean or consistently loses items, establishing ‘homes’ for each commonly used item (like keys or backpacks) and creating sustainable cleaning routines (easy enough that your child will continue doing them) is essential. Keeping separate dirty laundry bins for dark and light colored clothing, for example, will help children immediately sort their laundry (and avoid laundry piles on the floor). Having chore calendars or academic calendars (similar to planners) which dictate what tasks are to be completed first and when they are to be completed may help children form logical routines.
- Self Awareness: If your child constantly struggles in identifying problem behaviors or thoughts, or conversely cannot distinguish their own strengths, they may be struggling with self awareness/monitoring. The most important aspect in strengthening these skills is to have an open and honest communication line with your child; ensure that they are accepted no matter what. Encouraging your child to keep a journal or provide other forms of self-reflection (such as a daily mood board or a star board where whenever your child shows improvement or strengths in one area they get a star, etc.) is a great way to help your child better understand themselves. Create fun daily questions on index cards (how am I feeling today, how difficult was this activity for me, etc.) and encourage communication and sharing from any people in the child’s life so they can hear from diverse perspectives.
As described above, EF skills are incredibly important and necessary to function. While teaching these concepts and abstract skills may seem difficult, each and every parent is more than capable! One of the major ways we are able to teach our children is through modeling; we must first develop our own EF skills and ensure that we properly model each skill to our children. Honest and non-infantilizing communication as well as great amounts of love, kindness, acceptance, and patience are also necessary skills for parents to have! Your child (and you) know them best; communicate with them, find out what sorts of interventional strategies work best, and implement them as a family!
What ways do you practice executive functioning skills at home? Let us know in the comments below!