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Not Just a Buzzword: Executive Function is Here to Stay

My kids still laugh about the day I didn’t bring home tacos. They were particularly hungry and called me to see if I could stop to get them some quick tacos for dinner on my way home. I waited in a long line, paid for the tacos, and drove home without the tacos. This was so surprising and funny to my kids at the time that they forgot how much they actually wanted the tacos. C’est la vie!

We tend to attribute silly mistakes like this to absent-mindedness, forgetfulness or being in a hurry. But what happened on the day I didn’t bring home the tacos had to do with my executive functioning. I’d be kidding myself to pretend the taco debacle was an isolated incident. You can often find me returning from the store without the item I made the trip to buy, or searching through my bag for something I left at home on the counter—or that I threw away weeks ago. And I know I’m not alone.

While my own executive functioning slips are—for the most part—pretty innocuous, there are an overwhelming number of kids with impaired executive functioning contending with high-stakes scenarios in the classroom, with peers, and at home. All day, every day. Executive function is not simply a buzzword, nor is it a passing trend. It’s confusing, misunderstood, over-simplified, and its interventions are often misapplied. And more than anything—kids need help with it.

The question I’m asked most frequently about executive function is likely the most important question we should all be asking:

Why am I hearing about executive function NOW? We didn’t talk about it when I was growing up.

That’s right. You probably don’t remember executive function getting much meaningful airtime during your own formative years if you grew up prior to 1998. This is when a landmark study found that the human brain was not, in fact, a rigid system with no ability to change in adulthood. We had previously believed that humans did not generate or replace lost brain cells throughout life. As a result of this new information, research in the neurosciences has accelerated in width and depth at a rapid rate. We now know that every experience, every thought, every action, and even our environments change our brain. And, as our brains change, so does our learning.

I remember a friend who lived down the street in elementary school had a miniature version of her actual house in her backyard. I mean, how lucky was she?! We would play in that house for hours any day I could talk my mom into letting me walk down the street to her house. We would imagine every single scenario we could possibly play. Fast forward to middle school when my parents finally got a second phone line so they didn’t miss calls anymore while my best friend and I talked about all the boys we liked, and how we could plan to ‘accidentally’ run into them in the hallways at school the next day. Seems silly, but we now know that this type of peer interaction is actually critical to brain development.

Are you inclined to think that imaginary play is important for young kids? Most of us are. And it’s a valid argument. There is a very real, critical, of-utmost-importance, neurologically-based reason for it.

In order for kids to respond to a request or a demand, the first thing that needs to happen is a picture needs to pop into their mind. This picture is kind of like a thought bubble containing a scene they are not able to actually see but that they can imagine. This is their non-verbal working memory engaging. They need to then process what they are being asked to do, consider any potential obstacles or relevant factors, and then finally act independently (without having to be prompted, reminded, told when to start, corrected, or asked to redo it). In essence, they have to be able to play it out in their imaginations before any actual action can take place.

For those of us with relatively strong executive function, this happens in an instant and we don’t even recognize the processing has begun. It happens for us all day, every day. And we take it for granted.

Here’s where you can see incompatibility all around you if you know what you’re looking for. We are constantly directing young kids to “sit, stay quiet, read quietly, use your indoor voice, use your manners, look at what your neighbor is doing, sit on the carpet, say that in French…” (And this continues into the later years, as we prompt and direct kids through the developmental stages because, well, deadlines…). When we direct and prompt them in this way, we are fast forwarding for them. We’ve got a picture of what they should be doing in our heads, we’ve played out the scenarios of what will/won’t happen if they do/don’t do X,Y, or Z, we come to a conclusion about what they should do, and we tell them what to do. Doing so robs kids of the opportunity to develop the visual they need as well as cheats them out of the chance to practice playing something out in their imagination.

Bottom line, they’re not going to be able to independently perform and produce. As workload and expectations increase, stress and anxiety often increase. We are inclined to reference milestones of chronological age when we set expectations at home and school. Who hasn’t said or heard something along the lines of, “you’re 12 years old and you can’t remember to bring your lunch box home!?” Think about it this way: that 12 year old who forgot to bring her lunch box home was probably a 9, 10, and 11 year old who has been reminded to pack her lunch box. She hasn’t been able to consistently practice and develop some important foundational skills. Now, as she enters middle school and she experiences “higher stakes” demands and expectations, her stress and anxiety increase and her executive function is even further delayed in development.

Rest assured. If your child is struggling, he will not fall further behind if you ease up on your expectations and goals while you focus on skill development. Think about starting kids late for kindergarten. Waiting for skills to develop often makes for a power-house kindergartener—one who starts his school career in a more confident and competent place. Emotional health is a huge factor to consider when it comes to success for kids. And it continues into adulthood. One study on 1600 Harvard students showed that the only consistent factor that could be determined to impact happiness was social support. Not achievement. Friends and connection. How can we set our kids up to have a good, healthy support system if they spend the majority of their time trying to keep up with academic requirements? Especially if the expectation is to be a stand-out? (Let alone if they’re stressed out while doing it).

If you happen to be someone who wonders about your early years and reasons why executive function was not a topic of concern back then, it’s likely you had a stronger start neurologically than a lot of kids these days. When people ask me what they can do to help a child, I first give them strategies to help their child develop the skills and capacities they need to at least tread water, and we work on adjusting expectations or meeting them creatively. At a minimum, kids need to see signs that it is possible for them to be successful and happy, and that things will get easier.

Then, I typically suggest being an advocate for all kids. I do this any time I’m talking with parents, teachers and school staff, mental health practitioners—and anyone else who takes care of a child, really. Promote mental health in schools, take a look at the overwhelming amount of cutting edge research. Read, learn, and don’t be afraid to meet kids where they are.

Rather than looking back to the good old days, let’s focus on a better way. I believe we can truly make these days the good ones for our kids because we have the knowledge and good intentions to do so…even if we can’t always remember the tacos.

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