Monday, November 26, 2018

Building Executive Function Skills at Home: Part II

Inhibitory control is one of three primary executive function skills the brain needs to develop to learn. Inhibitory control is a unique skill because the brain musts learn to stop doing something.  Our brains have a huge capacity but limited power. We have millions of neural connections, but things would be a mess if all of the connections were to fire at the same time. The brain has to be able to turn connections off and on to accomplish appropriate functions.

Take a look at the image at the beginning of this post. You may have noticed that the pictures of animals do not have the right names.  If you first try to read the animal names and ignore the images, you may feel a bit of hesitancy as you focus on the words. If you try to name the animals and ignore the words, you will likely have more difficulty. In each instance, you are practicing inhibitory control – ignoring one thing to focus on another.

What skills does inhibitory control enable a child to learn? First, it helps their brains to keep unnecessary information (smells, noises, etc.) from cluttering up the learning workbench. This leaves more room (and brain energy) to be able to take in relevant information and to encode it for later use (i.e., learn.)

A second important skill is delayed gratification. When you delay gratification, you ignore your wants so you can focus on what needs to be done. Delayed gratification is an essential skill for success in life because it is what helps us plan and reach goals, both small and large.

Reduce screen time and send them outside to play instead.  When children are engrossed in a video or computer screen, the activity is focusing for them. These games and apps are designed to draw in and use manipulative tactics to keep attention focused. On the other hand, when children play outside there are lots of sounds, smells and sights giving children ample opportunity to learn to block some out, focus on others, and to integrate sensory processing.

Engage your child in conversation. When children engage in conversation, they have to learn how to pay attention to someone else and be ready to respond. Each conversation interaction reinforces not only attention but delayed gratification. Children need millions of these kinds of interactions to build strong inhibitory control. It is incredible to think that even when children are arguing with each other or with parents, they are learning something helpful.

Play games as a family. Playing games requires both attention and waiting your turn – need I say more?

Set up chores, homework, and practice to be done before free-choice activities.  This gives your children the opportunity to practice delayed gratification and to set up good habits later. Also, try to avoid overscheduling children to make sure there is free-choice time when work is done.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Building Executive Function Skills in the Home

More and more parents hear about executive function skills and how important they are to learning. The term executive function (EF) refers to specific brain processes that all us to focus, encode learning, and problem solve.  Executive function skills promote the ability to do the things listed in the diagram – and more. As you can well imagine, these skills are vital to learning.

Play is how children practice EF skills so they can perform them later.  These are not skills that are easily taught in activities or lessons. They are skills the brain is already programmed to learn – as long as the child spends time in healthy, useful activities.

The education world has known about EF skills for some time, but the term has just begun to wind its way down to schools and classrooms in the last few years. Poor EF skills are not a learning disability. However, poor use of these skills will make other learning disabilities much worse. They are just as important for a child not diagnosed with a disability to allow them to learn at their potential.

Whenever we hear something new about learning it is common to look for a program or a complicated process to help us teach it. But, developing EF skills is pretty straightforward. . Here are four that can easily fit into any family schedule:

Reduce screen time

Screen time takes away from the time children could be spending developing EF skills with other activities such as play and conversation. Research tells us to keep screen time to a minimum. Even education games take away from EF skill development.

Send them out to play

Any kind of non-screen play, the more active, the better, offers children plenty of time to practice the EF skills that will be strong and ready when they need them for school learning. Children who have weak problem-solving skills, working memory problems, or difficulties staying focused will all be helped by healthy doses of play.

Talk with them and read to them

Strong language skills are the foundation for any learning. When you talk with your children and read to them, you are building EF skills that will help them learn. This is one reason why families that have technology-free meals together produce better learners.

Hold them accountable for tasks

When children have jobs to do, they practice EF skills. When you give them feedback on how they are doing they practice EF skills in a way they will use them in school.