by Ginny Soskin, Church Librarian
A recent article from the Washington Post, by Rebecca Givens Rolland, a specialist in early childhood development, talks about opportunities for teaching our children. While we parents tend to focus on teaching our kids their letters, colors, and numbers, we often miss teaching executive function skills which are:
- impulse control: thinking before acting or speaking. Its lack: blurts out, hits, risky behavior.
- emotional control: keeping feelings in check, doesn’t overreact. Lack: difficulty dealing with criticism, can’t regroup when something goes wrong.
- flexible thinking: allows child to deal with the unexpected. Lack: can’t roll with the punches, can’t envision other ways of doing a task or reaching a goal.
- working memory: helps children retain facts of importance. Lack: has trouble remembering repeated directions even if given several times.
- self-monitoring: allows the child to evaluate how he or she is doing. Lack: being surprised by a bad grade or falling apart under criticism.
- planning and prioritizing: deciding on a goal and a plan to meet it. Lack: may not know which parts of a task are most important, difficulty planning ahead.
- task initiation: taking action and getting started. Lack: freezing up because they don’t know where to begin, procrastination.
- organization: keeping track of things mentally and physically. Lack: lose train of thought, lose items like textbooks, homework, phone, lack of organization in written work.
A lack of these executive function skills is seen in upper grades in students’ disorganization of paperwork, poor term papers, and procrastination. When parents, teachers and care givers teach these skills at home when kids are 3-6 years old, they can use them in their academic lives from pre-K to graduation.
Here are some ways to teach executive function skills:
1) show kids how to break down a household task or project into steps: what comes first, second and so on (how to set goals and plan the steps needed to achieve them). This helps them see the plan from start to finish and see the whole project as a series of steps that is completed in a specific order.
2) show kids how to make a plan A. Then discuss that sometimes that won’t work, so we have to have a plan B or even C just in case. That way they don’t fall apart or feel like they have failed if plan A doesn’t work. They already have a plan B ready to go.
3) we teach them not to fall apart if they lose a board game, by modeling better behavior: we do not fall apart when WE lose. Instead we say, “Oh, drat, I lost and you won. Wanna play another round?” or “it just wasn’t the team’s day to win. Wait until next year!” Showing how to take those small losses in stride teaches our kids how to get through devastating losses they are sure to experience later in life: getting fired, getting divorced, or experiencing deaths of loved ones.
4) while we want our kids to be in touch with their emotions and have our permission to cry when something bad happens, at the same time we teach them to think before speaking, avoid being antagonized, seeking adult help rather than using their fists. We show our kids that we are able to cry when deeply hurt or grieved (men as well as women), but we hold one another and get through it together. This is what solid, caring families do.
5) we teach our little ones to estimate how long a task will take. How long will it take to bathe Fido? How early must we start that so we can go to the movies for the 4 o’clock show?
6) teach kids how to sort toys and books, keep track of homework, and generally order their lives. Have them help you organize the junk drawer, learn how to straighten a room, fold laundry, and sort items for tossing/donating. This teaches them how to control their belongings so their belongings don’t begin to control them. When you know what you have and where it is kept, life is calmer and more purposeful.
Children watch us; our behavior becomes theirs. Do WE fall apart when plans fall through or do we matter-of-factly launch plan B? Do WE blurt out words we wish we could take back? Do WE always need to have the last word? Do WE make everything into a drama? Do WE lose track of bills that need paying? Do WE own our stuff or does our stuff own US? There are thousands of ways to teach these skills to our kids in multi-step projects such as planting flowers, shining shoes, organizing hand tools, and more. All these involve setting a goal, dividing the goal into steps, estimating the time it will take, figuring if that estimate was about right, and self-critiquing the result. There is much more to learning than readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic. The ways one learns, plans, reacts to, and organizes one’s life are key to living life with gusto and less hassle.