By: Dr. Megan Allen
Executive function refers to a defined set of skills that we use to succeed in the modern world. Working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control all support complex brain processes that allow us to pay attention, plan and prioritize tasks, as well as appropriately regulate our emotions. Interestingly, development of executive function begins in infancy, rapidly expands in early childhood, and undergoes refinement throughout early adulthood. Some researchers find that reinforcement of skills related to executive function during the early childhood expansion phase provides significant benefit.
Although no two children follow identical developmental trajectories, generally 5 – 7 year olds can independently complete simple chores such as cleaning their rooms or getting ready for school. These tasks command a great deal inhibitory control to remain focused and ignore distractions. At 7-10 years of age, children experience longer bouts of sustained attention and are able to complete multi-step tasks. For example, they can read and follow chapter books that require extended working memory to understand the storyline. Children who lag behind their peers in developing these skills may struggle academically and socially. Although it is important to note that most children catch up to their peers by late adolescence unless an underlying disorder is present.
K.B. Gymnasium’s mission is to expand the repertoire of skills related to strong executive function in order to enhance each child’s success in school. We focus on ages 3 through 10 because research has shown that this period is critical for the initiation and strengthening of several executive function domains. Our evidence-based AMPED-UP philosophy focuses on the enhancement of Attention, Memory, Processing of information, Engagement of others, Discovery of solutions, Use of rules, and Patience/Persistence to enhance executive function. This philosophy can be extended in the home.
Here are a few practical ways to introduce executive function training in your home using our AMPED-UP philosophy.
1. Plan a meal together. Ask your child to plan the perfect meal. With some guidance, discuss some feasible options and then allow him or her to choose the winner. Next, ask your child to create a list of groceries needed to cook the meal. Also, talk through the steps of cooking the meal or, for older children, allow them to help in the preparation. Employs Attention, Memory, and Engagement, Discovery of solutions.
2. Tidy up the playroom or bedroom. Enforce a strict clean up schedule. Although it may seem trivial, implementing 20 minutes of clean up time at the same time everyday will help develop your child develop organizational and task management skills that will cross over into other areas of his/her life. If you find that your child has trouble tidying up, sit down and discuss a strategy to clean the room. For example, suggest putting toys away first and then move onto making the bed. Employs Attention, Memory, and Use of rules, and Patience/Persistence.
3. Prepare backpack and pick out an outfit for school the night before. Have your child create a checklist of the materials needed in school so that he or she can appropriately prepare a backpack. Also to minimize stress in the mornings, have your child lay out an outfit for the next day. Employs Attention, Memory, Processing of information, and Use of rules.
About the author: Dr. Allen trained as a neuroscientist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and has focused her research on the study of learning and memory. She is particularly interested in applying evidence-based learning strategies in the classroom to improve educational outcomes for all students. Dr. Allen currently develops educational programs for graduate students at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.