After surveying parents on social media, it became clear why my first Curious Neuron article should be on executive function skills (see Fig. 1). Completing a school project can be tedious for children because it is indeed a complex task, but the learning process that occurs is invaluable. Over 65% of parents stated that they have completed their child's school project at least once. Reason's included: "helping them get a better grade", "the child ran out of time", "too difficult for the child to do", and "difficulty concretizing their idea". The most popular answer was that the child found the project too difficult. Interestingly, all the answers parents gave fall under the same scope: executive functions. Read below to find out how to help your child excel at school projects!
Executive Function Skills and School Projects
Completing a school project requires "executive function skills", which are the mental processes that allow us to set goals, plan, organize, stay focused, and remember. If a student struggles with executive function skills, they will have difficulties at school. We are not born with these skills, they need to be developed through an enriching environment. If parents complete their child's school project, these skills will not fully develop.
Identifying Difficulties with Executive Function Skills
Let's use the example of a student preparing a school project.
When working on this project, they might struggle with the following:
Making a plan
Setting goals for themselves
Organizing and gathering information
Managing and estimating time requirements
Remembering what they learned
*Lacking the "self-talk" skill to get back on track if they are having difficulty
*Behavioural issues when encountering difficulties
*Note that #9 and #10 are part of "self-regulation", which will be discussed in a future blog post.
It is important to keep in mind that specific populations, such as children with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disorders, or Tourette's Syndrome, are known to have executive function difficulties and require greater assistance in developing these skills.
Is it normal that my 6 year old can't stay focused, organize, or plan?
Yes!! Although these skills start developing when we are babies, they are not fully developed until we are well into our 20's. We can't expect a 4 year old to avoid distractions as this skill develops between 6-10 years of age. Other aspects of executive functions, such as planning, begin to develop around age 3, but greatly improve only by age 7 (Jurado and Rosselli, 2007. Neuropsychol Rev).
Tips on Improving Executive Functions
Research has shown that successful programs that target executive functions involve lots of repetition and a progressive increase in challenge level. It is also important to take part in activities that help build these skills, such as martial arts and yoga (Diamond and Lee, 2011. Science)
If you have a child who seems to be struggling with executive functions, here are some examples of ways to help them build their executive function skills:
Planning and organizing. Have them write the title of the project at the centre of a sheet of paper and create a mind-map to help break the project into sections and make the task less daunting.
Time management. Start small by helping them become more aware of time by using a visual timer. Set time limits for chores for yourself and for them. Later, have them determine the time needed to complete given tasks. Slowly progress to eventually have them manage their own time, for example, between playing with friends and homework.
Behaviour. Praise them when a job is well done... and be specific. For example: "Thank you for being ready on time with all your equipment for your soccer practice. It makes it so much easier for me!"
Setting goals. This develops much later. In elementary school, you could give your child an allowance and have them save up for an item they want to buy (create a "Goals" chart to help them visualize the progress). You can also help them set a goal in sports (i.e. number of goals or assists they would like to make in a game).
Next time your child complains that their school project is too difficult or that they ran out of time to complete it, I hope your "executive functions" alarm goes off. Building these skills will help them throughout their education and life!
References to Help You
For more information on executive functions, have a look at Harvard University's Center of the Developing Child. Here you will find lots of helpful tips on how to help your child from 6 months of age to their teenager years.
Visit Edutopia to learn read about teaching strategies and executive functions.
Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.
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