De-Stress Your Adolescents By Improving Her ‘Executive Functions’

De-Stress Your Adolescents By Improving Her Executive Functions

Takeaway: Executive functions are mental processes in the brain that impact your adolescents academic, social, and home life. And some teens have executive function deficits that make it much harder to handle secondary school. But with coaching, they can sharpen these skills and find tools to help their brain work better.

Executive functions are mental processes we use to get things done.

Brain scientists use the term executive functions to describe mental processes that help us work towards goals and carry out tasks. For example, there’s working memory which helps us remember and connect new bits of information – like when we recall and play around with the wording of a riddle. Then there’s cognitive flexibility which is to do with exploring new possible options (e.g., seeing someone else’s viewpoint in an argument). And there’s inhibitory control which is about managing impulses (e.g., a secondary-age child resisting peer pressure). There are 8 of these functions in all, but note that they aren’t the same as IQ. To use a car analogy – if intelligence is a car’s engine, then executive functions are its driver. Learn more about executive functions.

Though they’re abstract mental processes, executive functions have real-world consequences.

You’ve likely heard of The Marshmallow Test conducted in the 70s. It was an experiment in which researchers gave young children two options to do with yummy marshmallows treats. They could choose to eat a single marshmallow now, or wait fifteen minutes and get two instead. The result? Researchers discovered that the children had two thinking systems – a ‘hot’ system (dominated by emotion and craving) and a ‘cold’ system (dominated by reason and logic). Those who chose the immediate gratification of one marshmallow were using their ‘hot’ system, while those who waited were using their ‘cold’ system. In terms of executive functions, they were tapping into cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control. Importantly, the children who delayed gratification went on to have more successful careers. Now, there are many explanations for this, but one thing is clear: abstract mental processes like executive functions have significant real-world consequences.

This is even more true for secondary-age children, so it’s worth helping them practise a few basic mental skills.

Secondary school tests children’s executive function by giving them more responsibilities. Suddenly, teachers aren’t as hands-on as they were because there’s so much more to cover. And students who haven’t yet developed the right set of skills will quickly feel overwhelmed. As parents, this is when we can step in to coach our children with a few basic mental skills.

1. Choosing goals to work towards.

Goal setting is something that teachers take care of in primary school. But in secondary school, children have to set and work towards goals themselves. For example, if there’s a test coming up, a secondary school child has to decide for herself what topics she’s weakest at, how to fix the weaknesses (e.g., what chapters in her textbook to focus on), and how much time to invest in this. Plus, she has to find ways of motivating herself through the whole process. And she can’t avoid these demands or she’ll fall behind and feel even more stressed. One simple fix for this would be to teach her to set S.M.A.R.T goals – for example: Read 3 chapters from my textbook by Friday evening. This target is Specific (‘3 chapters,’ not ‘a few’ chapters), Measurable (she either reads 3 chapters or she doesn’t), Achievable (3 chapters are doable; 15 chapters aren’t), relevant (there’s a test on these chapters next week), and time-bound (the deadline is ‘Friday evening,’ not ‘sometime’ this week).

2. Designing the right learning environment.

We figure out what we want to do by setting goals, but we reach those goals through habits and routines. This means teaching your child habits like organising her study space, automating regular activities (e.g., setting up a filing system for her notes), and developing a daily routine (e.g., using a checklist to tick off daily to-do’s). She’ll also want to use supportive tools like calendars to record deadlines, mnemonic systems to remember new information, and mind maps for developing and connecting ideas. And she can also explore different learning styles to see which ones she prefers.

3. Prioritising her to-do’s.

Your child will need to navigate a sea of distractions competing with her to-do list. Distractions like Facebook, texts, Netflix, YouTube, etc. And this means prioritising some activities over others. For example, you can teach her to categorise tasks into 3 categories – ‘have to do,’ ‘might do,’ and ‘want to do’ – using these labels to decide what to tackle next. And she can practise estimating how long each activity will take, checking back later to see if she guessed right. This expectations-vs-reality gap will teach her to leave chunks of unallocated time in her calendar. Time she can use to finish tasks that take longer than expected. Note that these habits aren’t about chasing toxic productivity and scheduling for scheduling’s sake. Rather, this is about transferring some executive function tasks out of her brain and onto paper – where they’re easier to tackle.

4. Introspecting and monitoring herself.

‘Thinking about thinking’ (i.e., metacognition) is a valuable self-monitoring strategy to help your child stay on track. Rather than getting lost in a continuous stream of frantic activity, she’ll learn to pause frequently to check if things are going as planned. For instance, did it help to use that new note-taking system? Did she rush her homework because she underestimated how long it would take? Are there some days when she’s habitually in a bad mood? And if so, are there situations or tasks that trigger these moods? By stopping to introspect, she’s giving her brain a chance to process things it can’t if it’s always on the go.

These techniques all address aspects of your child’s executive functions, but sometimes, she might need more direct help.

The skills above will help exercise your child’s executive functions and improve some deficits. But children sometimes need more specialised care. And that’s where we come in. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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