Our brains work a bit like an air traffic control system. They have to take in lots of information, ignore distractions and make decisions about how to act and what to prioritize. These skills include working memory, multitasking and flexibility in thinking. Children are not born with these skills—they develop over time¹.
Children who struggle with executive function sometimes have problems planning, focusing attention, remembering instructions and managing multiple tasks. For example, they might not remember to take their swimming costume on the right day, they might have difficulties getting the things they need for an activity, they might not be able to complete a puzzle they start.
Here some examples of how you can help your child build each of these three important skills—working memory, self control, and planning/prioritizing.
1: Working memory
- Have your child help with giving out the food. “Mummy wants rice.” “Give your sister the spoon”
- Talk about what different family members like and don’t like. “Does Daddy like peas?”
- “It’s cold today, you need your hat and your boots”
- “Can you find two things to wear that are the same colour?”
- With blocks/Lego “we need to build a bridge to go over the road”
- With a dolls house and little people “the little girl wants to go to bed, but the little boy is allowed to play outside”
2: Self control
Teach your child words about time:
- “First we will get the bread and butter, then we’ll make a sandwich”
- “We eat breakfast before we turn on the TV”
- “After dinner we’ll go for a walk”
Teach your child about responsibility:
- Plant a seed and watch it grow into a plant over time. Support your child to water the plant regularly
- Give your child some chores that they need to complete each day
- 2 year olds can help pick up their toys
- 3 year olds can take their dirty clothes to the laundry basket
- 4 year olds can make their own bed
- 5 and 6 year olds can be responsible for feeding pets, and can help with the vacuuming
3: Planning and prioritizing
Give your child an understanding of their schedule:
- Uses a calendar for your child which you can write or draw on
- Each night, look together at what happened during the day. “Today we went to see Jenny for therapy, and then we went for a walk in the park”
- Talk about what will happen the following day. Discuss what will be needed, e.g. ‘You are going to swimming lessons tomorrow. Let’s get your swimming costume and googles into your bag”
Give your child choices where possible:
- “Do you want to go swimming or go to the park?”
- Include other family members in making choices. “Elisabeth wants to go to the movies, but you want to go shopping—what shall we do?”
Give children responsibilities which they need to perform:
- Create visual schedules of the responsibilities they have, for example a chart with each day’s tasks.
- Discuss the consequences if the child doesn’t perform their duties e.g. feeding the dog. “Remember, if you forget to put water in puppy’s bowl, he will be very thirsty and sad”
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1: Beer, J., Kronenberger, W. G., Castellanos, I., Colson, B. G., Henning, S. C., & Pisoni, D. B. (2014). Executive Functioning Skills in Preschool-Age Children With Cochlear Implants. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research : JSLHR, 57(4), 1521–1534. http://doi.org/10.1044/2014_JSLHR-H-13-0054