Why Parents Miss ‘Executive Function’ Issues In Young Children
Takeaway: It’s often hard to spot executive-function difficulties in primary-age children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And unless we diagnose and address them early, they become much harder to deal with later. So, by learning to recognise a few of the basic red flags, you’ll know when to bring your child in for a more thorough assessment.
Executive functions are a crucial set of brain skills that control how we behave.
Our brains have a set of mental processes that help direct our behaviour. These processes – called ‘executive functions’ – are like a tiny manager in our brains that helps us set and accomplish goals, adapt to our surroundings, and manage our emotions. So, children with poor executive functioning find it much harder to do so many everyday tasks. For example, a 9-year-old would struggle to prioritise her homework, keep her room tidy, save her pocket money, stay quiet in class, follow multi-step instructions, control her frustrations, and more. (Learn more about executive functions.)
Genes play a role in controlling how our executive functions develop. But so does our environment.
Our executive functions are hardwired to develop and evolve from a very young age. But it’s not all genetic. A child’s social environment – i.e., parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc. – will affect how her executive functions evolve through a continuous feedback loop. For example, a child with involved, engaging parents is likely to see the world as an exciting but safe place. So, she’ll explore her surroundings more, stimulating her brain to adapt, learn, and grow. This, in turn, accelerates her mental development – improving her ability to stay on task, solve problems, and make friends. These skills then help her settle into school easily, reinforcing her identity as a strong, capable person in a loving, safe world. Imagine, in contrast, how a neglected child would withdraw from the world, not develop key mental skills, and then have her insecurities reinforced when she struggles in school. The lesson here is that a child’s brain can develop well only with the right type of adult support and reinforcement.
This adult support and reinforcement is called ‘scaffolding.’
Since primary-age children have such huge gaps in their executive functioning, teachers and caregivers build a scaffolding of support techniques and tools to help. For example, we’ll use things like visual timetables, daily habits/routines, task reminders, verbal feedback, and more. And we’ll use these as guard rails to keep children in check as they experiment with different behaviours to see what works and what doesn’t.
But we dismantle these scaffolds at some point, which is when we start noticing underlying problems.
We often overlook primary schoolers’ executive function issues because adult scaffolding hides them. But they become glaringly apparent in secondary school when there’s less adult support. For example, a primary school teacher will help students think of something to write about, suggest an outline/structure, and help them with the writing. In secondary school, though, children have to handle all this on their own. And that’s when we notice executive function deficits with ‘activating’ (i.e., beginning the essay), selecting and organising themes, sequencing ideas, and prioritising areas to focus on. These deficits are a big deal because they spill over into every aspect of a child’s life, making it harder for her to do well academically and socially.
That’s why, as parents, we need to recognise executive function deficits early.
School challenges your child to use more higher-order thinking skills with every passing year. And since these skills are built on a foundation of executive functions, it’s better to step in early before this foundation is overloaded. So, primary school is the perfect time to start identifying deficits. Specifically, deficits to do with the following skills.
- Planning & organising. Can your child explain what she’s trying to do and why she’s doing it? Can she follow multi-step instructions or outline the steps leading to a goal? Does she procrastinate a lot, or can she consistently start activities as scheduled? Can she manage her time well for tasks that take less than an hour to complete (i.e., accurately estimate how long the different steps will take)?
- Learning & problem-solving. This involves using working memory and attention. For instance, can your child recognise problems early and start solving them? (E.g., realising a friend is upset and quickly finding out why, before a fight starts.) Also, can she stick with a task or a goal (e.g., save pocket money to buy a toy)?
- Self-regulation & control. This is about introspection and managing emotions. For example, if your child is upset about something on the playground, can she stop herself from throwing a tantrum? And, later on, can she reflect on why she was upset? Also, can she follow rules and curb unhelpful impulses?
Once we’ve spotted the deficits, we can create a care plan to compensate for them.
Specialists can help support your child’s deficits by creating a individual care plan for her. This might involve teaching her to externalise new information (e.g., write down long sets of instructions), use multisensory learning techniques (e.g., sing new word definitions as she memorises them), or tweak her daily routines to match her attention and energy levels. For example, if she regularly hands in homework late, we can explore why that’s the case. Perhaps she thinks she understands her assignments but actually doesn’t? Or perhaps she understands the assignments but doesn’t know where/how to start? Either way, a solution could be that she writes down the assignment instructions in her own words (so we’ll know she understands them), and at home, you’ll help her split the work into sub-tasks and decide how to tackle each of these.
There’s a lot we can do to help, so feel free to reach out to us for guidance.
There’s so much you and your child can do to make her life more fulfilling and manageable. For instance, she can develop new daily routines, practise strategies to stay on task and organise her thinking, learn ways to cope with strong emotions, and more. But it all begins with an assessment, after which we can develop her customised care plan. 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:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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