Executive Function

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Stella and Wes playing school.

I am currently serving as a Smart Play Ambassador with the Minnesota Children’s Museum and each month we explore various topics and share the educational learning opportunities at the museum as well as apply it to our own lives.  This month I am writing about the topic of executive function (the regulation of emotion, thought and action) and how play influences a child’s development of executive function.  

 Executive function has become quite a hot topic in early childhood education but it’s not necessarily something you converse with other parents about, “Say Jane, how is Sally’s executive function coming along?”

Executive function has become quite a hot topic in early childhood education but it’s not necessarily something you converse with other parents about, “Say Jane, how is Sally’s executive function coming along?”  But what you may be saying is, “Jane, how on earth do you get Sally to leave the park without having a complete meltdown?” or “What kind of consequences do you give your child for hitting?”  Sound familiar?  Play and parent’s roles develop executive function-an umbrella for a number of important skills linked to school readiness, including memory, attention, and self-control.

 

From the Minnesota Children’s Museum: Executive functions begin to emerge in the early childhood years and continue to develop well into adulthood. Just ten minutes of pretend play assists in the development of children’s executive function tasks (White & Carlson, 2011). Pretend play in particular is associated with a child’s ability to regulate emotions, behaviors, and actions related to executive function (Blair & Razza, 2007). During pretend play, whether at the Museum, at home or on the playground, children are challenged to think flexibly, put aside their own preferences to follow the “rules” of the group, and stay “in role” as they plan out elaborate story scenarios (Bodrova, Leong, Atwill, Ko & Saifer, 2006). The Minnesota Children’s Museum also shared this article from Dr. Dave Walsh.  In the article Walsh talks about how the development of executive finction impacts “how” we learn versus “what” we learn.  In the article, Walsh calls executive function the brain’s “air traffic control center.”  A perfect description when considering all the transitions, changes, noises, activities, etc that surround your child at any given moment and especially at a place like the Minnesota Children’s museum.  Walsh says there are three main domains that make up executive function: working memory, inhibitory controls and mental flexibility. Take a few minutes and check out it.

 

I recently took Stella to a research study at the Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota.  I sat in an adjacent room watching her via live video feed participate in the study related to executive function and language.

My take away is that we as parents play a big role in helping our children develop how to learn through consequences and limits but so does letting our kids just be kids and PLAY-especially pretend play without any media. 

   I sat mesmerized watching her answer questions, repeat actions and follow directions.  It made me think so much about the Walsh article and how we as parents give our kids the tools to develop the skills necessary to participate in learning, the “hows” as Walsh calls it. I thought about how much we talk about consequences in our house, how much I limit media exposure and the amount of actual play that takes place in our house-did this influence her actions at the research study?  I also thought about how we support and encourage play at the museum and the notes that the Minnesota Children’s Museum sent about the importance of pretend play.My take away is that we as parents play a big role in helping our children develop how to learn through consequences and limits but so does letting our kids just be kids and PLAY-especially pretend play without any media.  I think about Stella’s favorite places to play at the museum and its always the areas she can most explore pretend play-be a chef, a cashier even a rock singer.  So when your child comes out dressed like a super hero for school, rest assured its ok, they are just working on their executive function:)
The parents below have shared the “scaffoling” (as Walsh says) that they are developing at home.  What about you?  Trying to brainstorm what you may be doing as a parent to develop executive function? Hints: structure, limits, consequences, how do you allow focused attention while reducing multitasking, media exposure, low-tech activities, emotional regulation, how do you encourage and not rescue your child? Leave a comment and share your story, I’d love to hear how you are developing your “scaffolding.”

Anne Morris Family

Anne Morris
Minnesota Children’s Museum Members
Lucien (3.5 years old)
Drake (20 months)
My favorite thing to do is to warn them of how much “time” they have left to enjoy an exhibit. I usually say you have 5 minutes.

At the Minnesota Children’s Museum, I give them free reign to enjoy what they want to do for however long they want to do it.  I encourage sharing and respecting other kids. I really enjoy when they get the exhibit and its relation to real things outside of the museum (ie: being on the fake bus made Lucien start talking about being on a real bus with a field trip from school).

Then Lux holds up 5 fingers and he says Mommy is that 5? I say yes. We do this all the time. He doesn’t really understand how long five it, but it helps him transition.

At the Minnesota Children’s Mueseum, I give them free reign to enjoy what they want to do for however long they want to do it.  I encourage sharing and respecting other kids. I really enjoy when they get the exhibit and its relation to real things outside of the museum (ie: being on the fake bus made Lucien start talking about being on a real bus with a field trip from school).

Monica Family Photo

Monica Digre
Minnesota Children’s Museum Members
Leif (3.5 years old)
Layla (3 months)
My son, Leif, is 3 ½ years old.  A daily struggle that we are having is the transition times in the morning and night.  Leif has a hard time getting ready for preschool in the morning and getting ready for bedtime at night.  These times were taking extra long with many tantrums being thrown.  I think being tired plays a role in this since we don’t really have trouble with transitions throughout the day; Leif is not a morning person.  I also think the fact that there are several tasks that need to be accomplished at these times makes it more difficult for him.  In the morning he needs to eat breakfast, put his cereal bowl on the counter when he is done, put clothes on, go potty and brush teeth. Before bedtime, Leif needs to pick up toys, brush teeth, go potty and put on pajamas.  Throughout the day transitions are simpler, like putting on shoes before getting in the car.  I searched parenting blogs to look for some ideas about how to help with the complex transitions.

My goal was to help Leif do these tasks more easily without as many tantrums and to help him develop a habit to do these things on his own as he gets older.

  My goal was to help Leif do these tasks more easily without as many tantrums and to help him develop a habit to do these things on his own as he gets older.  I found a simple preschool chore chart idea on a blog that I have been using for the past few weeks.  It has helped a lot with making morning and bedtime go much more smoothly.  The chart is made from a blank wooden doorknob sign and clothespins.  I cut out pictures from a magazine that represented the various tasks (ex. plate of food = clean up dishes).  Then I covered them in scotch tape to laminate them and glued each picture to a clothespin.  I also decorated the doorknob sign with pictures and Leif’s name; he thought it was really cool hanging on his closet door.  The way it works is the clothespins are all clipped to the left side of the sign. When Leif completes a task he moves the clothespin to the right side.  When all the clothespins are on the right sign, Leif gets a sticker.  Leif thinks it’s really fun to use his clipboard and it has motivated him to get each task done.  Mornings and evenings in our house are now much more calm and peaceful.

One thought on “Executive Function

  1. Some great ideas, and an insightful description about executive function – and what can help. Transitions have been particularly difficult for our oldest child. We have had to change our methods of helping with transitions and emotional regulation frequently throughout our child’s life. What works one week, doesn’t work the next. Although there are one or two big things that are working now for years (with some minor adjustments). Always useful to find other parents who understand!

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