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Helping or Hurting? Where Parenting Strategies Go Wrong

If you listen closely, you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from parents as the end of the school year approaches. While the prospect of a summer break from school will be a welcomed change for some families, others may feel they’re trading missing assignments and getting-out-of-bed complaints for fighting over electronics, messy bedrooms and whining. If your child tends to struggle, whether it’s in the trenches with schoolwork, or at home trying to keep up with responsibilities, you probably see yourself as a helper. In that role, remember: the way you help is just as important as (and maybe more important than) what you do to help.

On one hand, this may sound like common sense. There’s a good chance you’d be hard pressed to find an adult who thinks an approach like yelling and getting frustrated is an effective strategy for helping kids learn. And while that approach is obviously ineffective, (though, let’s face it, we’ve been there) it turns out many of the other ways we typically think will help our kids are not only ineffective, but can prolong a child’s dependence on adults or other external supports.

When I observe kids learning and working, a major part of executive function intervention becomes teaching the helpers how to help. One of the questions I get most often from the helpers is, “So, what is executive function, exactly?” At its core, executive function refers to the part of the brain’s thinking network that is used to figure out what to do and when to do it, and includes the skills required to act successfully. When teaching the helpers, I explain:

  • Executive difficulties are reflected in producing problems, rather than learning problems. The ability to self-regulate plays an important part in the learning process. A child with executive function problems will present in ways such as neglecting to show adequate responses to questions, failing tests, and completing assignments poorly—or not at all. These are all producing problems unrelated to learning and can likely be attributed to executive function if the child does not have a learning disability.

  • Children can appear so adept in the skill areas required to do a favorite activity, while completely inept (or resistant, defiant, refusing) with tasks a child finds boring or less rewarding. This is related to the concept of external demand (what’s being asked of the child) vs. internal command (what the child is likely to do based on the combination of his current state of skill development and internal motivation for preference.) Most problems with executive function reflect a child’s struggle to respond adequately to external demands.

When a child engages in a preferred activity, his internal command system is at work—the brain aligns its reward system and acquired skills, enabling a natural flow of success without much effort or awareness. But when the child is given a demand, he must first disengage from this natural connection of the reward center of the brain, use flexibility to consider what is being asked of him, determine what it’s going to take to meet the demands, and engage the executive abilities as required. That’s quite a different process—and for a lot of our kids, one that does not happen naturally or seamlessly.

If you think your child struggles with executive function and the strategies you’re using to help aren’t working, work closely with your child to model and demonstrate the skills and goals your child is working toward. The following are some tips to help you do this:

1. Create plans. Rather than directing your child to complete parts of a task or assignment, or ‘checking in’ on his progress for the sake of monitoring, sit down with your child and create a ‘plan of attack,’ visualize any potential obstacles that he may encounter. (“Hey, so I know we said you are planning to do the reading part of this assignment right before bed, but I wonder if there’s anything that might make that difficult? I know sometimes I come into your room to say goodnight and you’ve fallen asleep in the middle of reading.”)

2. Embrace mistakes. Let your child make mistakes. Especially the low-risk, low-cost ones–even if you are tempted to prevent them. If your child is not able to foresee a problem that you are able to anticipate, allow the situation to play out as planned whenever possible so that you can—together, without judgment—reflect on what happened and problem-solve at the end of the day or after the mishap occurs. Let’s say you allow your child to initiate her plan to read right before bed, and finds that she did indeed fall asleep. While she may have missed the mark with the number of pages she needed to read, it’s more helpful in the long run that the two of you have the scenario to discuss and trouble-shoot after it takes place and she can reflect back on it. That internal command system is more likely to engage when your child has the visual of an actual experience, even if it happens to be a mishap. If you are describing something he cannot visualize, you’re calling on his external demand system—which again, takes a lot more effort, requires skill your child likely hasn’t sharpened, and allows for error. With repetition of this process, your child will become more skilled and mishaps will decrease.

3. Be patient. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s really tricky when you consider that executive function is critical for so many things we expect of our kids; however, developmentally, it’s very possible that it will take a long time to see change, even after implementing appropriate interventions. Some kids are facing overly aggressive demands incompatible with the trajectory of brain development. In these cases, a little bit of maturation and some mild intervention can suffice. If a child is especially deficient in a particular area, it could be that simply allowing more time for development is the most beneficial course of action, while still implementing supports and interventions with intention. The important component either way is to maintain hope and optimism for improved functioning, even if there is no current visible change.

Remember that when a child has under-developed executive function, it’s not likely that you will see immediate change with new interventions. A positive outlook and mindful approach will not only put a stop to the fighting and frustration, but will help give you confidence you’re on the right track.

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