Executive Functioning is an often discussed topic in elementary schools right now. Executive functioning skills are cognitively based skills and encompass self-regulation, emotional regulation, planning, working memory and organization. Simply put, they are some of the skills that must be in place in order to be successful in a structured, academic environment. If you have a toddler or preschooler, executive functioning may not be on your radar yet (and, by nature, preschoolers can be unorganized and chaotic little people). That being said, when thinking about your child's school readiness skills, executive functioning skills should be at the top of the list. Not only will these skills make your child a better student, but they will make your child a happier kid.
While there are many skills that sit under the umbrella of executive functioning, we came up with a list of five to watch out for. Being proficient in tasks such as these will serve your child well as he moves up through elementary school.
1. Following Through With A Task: If you give your child a manageable task at home ( helping unload the dishwasher, putting toys away, washing hands), is he able to follow through independently? If not, how much prompting does he need to complete the task? One reminder? Two reminders? While it is normal for all kids to get distracted, even preschoolers have the ability to follow through with simple tasks unprompted.
How to practice this skill: Give your child some different (small) tasks and allow him to complete them without help. Monitor if he can stay on task and recognize his contribution when he does. Thanks for washing your hands so well. I saw that you even turned off the lights when you left the bathroom!
2. Easing Through Transitions: Can your child transition through normal daily activities without problems, tantrums, or big anxiety? If you throw a few extra errands in, is it the end of the world? (above and beyond the typical fussing that needing a nap can bring on)
How to practice this skill: If transitioning is hard, give your child lots of visual information. A checklist can work wonders during errands. Write a list of errands (draw pictures if you have to) and have your child check them off as you complete them. If you need to add an errand or activity, simply add it to the list. You can sweeten the deal by adding something fun at the end, like trip to the library or a fun activity at home.
3. Taking Care of Belongings: Does your child generally take care of his belongings and the belongings of others? Does he recognize that you have to be gentle with certain objects so that they don’t break. Is he careful with books? (As a preschool director, I was surprised at how many kids had no qualms about tearing pages out of books, writing in books that didn’t belong to them or walking all over books on the floor, including library books). Does he recognize that one should be respectful of things that belong to others?
How to practice this skill: First, make your child responsible for his personal things. Have a place for him to hang his coat and allow him to clean up his toys to the best of his ability. Emphasize respect for what belongs to others. Give your child the job of taking care of a pet (with help, of course). Don’t accept a lack of respect for personal property and model that respect as much as you can.
4. Asking for Help: Does your child know how to ask for help if something is hard? Have you ever observed your child on overload because he is afraid that he won’t do something correctly or he is overwhelmed with a task? How does he handle it? As a preschool teacher, I often see children start to melt down at the task of cleaning up - there are just so many blocks on the floor and it seems impossible to pick all of them up. I often ask if they are feeling overwhelmed and, if so, can I help them with the task? My goal is that they would ask for my help rather than get completely overwhelmed.
How to practice this skill: Model, model, model and ask your child if he needs help when you see him getting overwhelmed. It is about solving a problem. Just make sure you aren’t swooping in to take over the task. Helping is just helping and your child still needs to be involved and complete the majority of the task.
5. Sitting and Listening: Can your child sit and listen for an appropriate amount of time? When your child is at preschool, can he sit successfully for an interesting group activity? Can your child sit and listen to you read a preferred or interesting book at home? The truth is, kids need to move and fidget - this is a proven fact. However, the ability to sit and listen is one that your child will have to have in elementary school, for better or worse.
How to practice this skill: Put your child in situations where sitting and listening are expected. Preschool and story time at the library are two good examples. Just remember, if the activity is too long or not interesting, your child may be done listening. That is ok. Just give ample opportunity for practice, especially if your child isn't in a structured environment, like preschool, on a regular basis.
Remember, kids aren’t born with these skills, they have to learn them. That’s where parents come in. Pay attention to where your child struggles and provide lots of opportunities for practice. Encourage and be patient. Healthy executive functioning skills will serve your child his entire life. It is well worth the effort.
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