As any parent can attest, getting kids ready for school means a lot more than packing a lunch: Schoolchildren need an array of intellectual, emotional, and social skills to get them through the day—and on to a healthy and productive life. At the top of the list is what experts call executive functioning—a set of integrated mental processes that work together to help us achieve goals. These include the ability to manage time and attention, plan and organize, switch focus from one activity to another, and manage behavior, says Stacey Spencer, Ed.D., Pediatric Neuropsychologist. “When executive functioning is off, a child’s ability to go to school, to learn and function in the classroom environment, is seriously compromised.”
Key to healthy executive function is working memory—sometimes called short-term memory—which is the ability to store recent information and to then use and make sense of it, as needed. Working memory is what lets us integrate our past experience with the present situation, Dr. Spencer explains, to focus on several things at once and to modify our actions as necessary.
Understanding executive function
In school-age children, poor executive functioning shows up as an inability to prioritize tasks, maintain focus, and cooperate with other kids. Problems with executive skills often go hand-in-hand with learning disabilities and attention problems (including Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD), which are on the rise. The CDC reports that roughly 14 percent of U.S. children ages three to 17 have some kind of developmental disability, or DD (about 7 percent have ADHD). Over the past ten years, ADHD rates jumped by 33 percent. Not surprisingly, both ADHD and executive functioning deficits are associated with significant impairments in academic functioning and an increased risk for failure in school.
“At Morris Psychological Group, we see executive function problems in children of all ages,” Dr. Spencer says, “but they’re most obvious in elementary school, when a child starts to do his or her schoolwork independently.” It’s also at this time that children are expected to behave appropriately in a group, to know how (and when) to ask for help, and to apply earlier lessons to the problems at hand. “It’s all about organization and self-regulation,” Dr. Spencer explains. “When things are functioning properly, the brain automatically organizes information—evaluating the situation and mentally ‘filing’ that information—and regulation—using that information to determine the best course of action at that time.”
“Healthy executive functioning is built early in life,” Dr. Spencer says. A child’s experiences and relationships with parents, caregivers, and other significant people shape his brain and determine, to a large degree, his ability to learn and relate to other people. Obviously, these things will affect the child throughout his life. “We know there are links between brain structure and executive function, but we’ve seen a connection to environmental factors, such as poor sleep, stress, overly harsh discipline, and even television exposure,” Dr. Spencer says. She notes one recent study that found less than 10 minutes of “Sponge Bob Squarepants” produced severely compromised executive functioning in young children.
Tips for parents
The good news is that the brain continues to develop well into adulthood, and if problems are addressed early, children can outgrow and compensate for them. “Executive function is molded by physical changes in the brain as well as life experiences,” Dr. Spencer says. At home, she says, parents should focus on three areas:
• Environment. “Kids who live in stressful situations have more trouble with executive functioning, and we know that chronic stress interferes with brain functioning and triggers impulsive behavior,” Dr. Spencer says. “Home should be a stable, safe place with plenty of outlets for creativity and physical activity.”
• Relationships. Surround your child with people who are supportive and reliable and can help ease the child from complete dependence on grown-ups to increasing independence.
• Activities. “Kids’ play should foster creativity and social connections, and include exercise, which has been shown to help brain development,” says Dr. Spencer. “Gradually increase the complexity of your child’s activities to keep him challenged but not frustrated. “You can help kids learn to self-regulate with games like “Simon Says” or “Freeze” (children dance to music, then stop when the music stops). In addition, look into working memory exercises, which help with attention and task-switching. “There’s a growing body of research that shows a beneficial effect from this kind of exercises,” she says.