Closing the Executive Functioning (EF) Gap

Now, if you’ve heard me speak or read some of my previous emails, I have talked a lot about how adults need to be kids’ surrogate frontal lobe.

This is to remind parents that your brain (hopefully) is fully developed. Your kids’ are not. So we need to help support them as they learn new skills. Every child is different too so we need to meet our kids where they are at to teach them at a level where they can build their EF muscle.

Now, we don’t want to create dependency either, which is what often ends up happening. For example, we might give our kids a checklist of things they need to do but then they still need reminders to look at the list and follow through with it. They become dependent on us to keep them going. And even then alot of kids will only do it when our nagging parent voice comes out. If that's the case, your kids might only be following through to stop the nagging. Not for the reasons we want them to be following through. And, no learning is happening, so guess what? We're going to have to nag them next time too.

Let's stop his endless battle of frustration. Let's give our kids the skills they need to start being more independent. 
Build your child's NONVERBAL working memory

I've said it before: our kids' executive functioning skills are more important for, and predictive of, long-term success than our kids IQ (intelligence score). What is most critical is their nonverbal working memory, which helps them guide their own behaviours.

Think about your own day. You often likely have an internal dialogue going on about your behaviour. Whether you can sleep in five more minutes (kids won't even know what 5 minutes is). What the healthiest breakfast option is (kids will eat the first sugary thing they see) . Whether we should have the doughnut since they already had that chocolate bar at lunch (kids will jump right in without a second thought). Whether you should send that angry email or sleep on it another day (kids will  lash out right away).

All day long we are using our nonverbal working memory to direct our next moves. We rely on past experiences and current context to help guide our behaviour. Lot's of kids don't have the skills yet. Especially those with EF difficulties.

Nonverbal working memory also affects our learning and social success. As soon as we walk into a room, our brains are cued that we are transitioning from one room (and perhaps expectations) to another. The first thing we tend to do, especially in new situations or when other people are there, is to read the room. We might look around, see who is there, see what people are doing, and figure out where to best set ourselves up. We look for the most important information to help us guide our next move.

Kids with executive functioning difficulties cannot do this effectively. Some kids will take in everything in the room and miss on the most important information, such as what they are supposed to be doing in a class or whether their baby brother is sitting on the floor right in the middle of the  walking path to get across the room.

Or, they might focus on only one thing in the room and head towards that, completely unaware of their surroundings...such as their baby brother sitting on the floor…

Here is an example FMRI of a typically developing child (on the left) and another child with executive functioning deficits (on the right). As you can see, the one on the right is bombarded with everything he sees in the room, making it really hard to focus on any one thing. Important information is lost. In a classroom, there is no way that child is listening to instructions and figuring out what he or she needs to do. The kiddo's brain on the left only activates the necessary parts of the brain to figure out what needs to be done.
Why is nonverbal working memory important? Well, it is a critical early EF skill to help kids learn to self-direct themselves. What does that mean?

Let’s say your friend invites you to a drumming class. You go, thinking you are going to be the next Alex Van Halen. But when you show up everyone it sitting on the floor with a blanket in a room with soft candles and incense burning. Not the rock-out class you expected. Your friend is late, so you panic, having no idea to do next.
BUT, if you have the skills to read the room and internally monitor your behaviour, you will look around to figure out who might be in charge, where you might be able to sit, what you might need to get, and what you need to do. Self-direction is asking yourself these questions and observing what is happening around you to answer these questions for yourself. 

This is
if-then thinking. For example, IF others are sitting in the circle with a drum and a mat, THEN I need to go get a drum and find a mat in the circle to sit on. If, however, others are sitting and writing in journals, then I need to go get a journal and pen.

As you will see, if-then thinking is critical for thinking about our behaviours. We use this all the time with our kids - "If you eat your broccoli, then you can have ice cream." The difference now though is that they will start monitoring this themselves. Until they do, they will never learn from their behaviours. And you will forever be the bad guy implementing such unfair choices.
Being able to read any given situation using our nonverbal working memory includes four dimensions: who, what, where, and when.

I will review each of these in my next email. This is a big skill to target, and, along with impulse control, is one of the key EF difficulties kids have. But, once mastered, will have amazing benefits.

In the meantime, start to notice how your child transitions between activities, enters new rooms, and moves in his or her space. Start to notice what your kids do when you give an instructions. Do they stop to think about what you asked and what they need to do? Or do they keep doing what they are doing with a "yeah yeah yeah," and the instructions don't register at all?

Happy to help.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any questions about anything in this article or other related topics.
Let me know too if there is a particular topic you would like me to write about.
Dr. Caroline Buzanko

Dr. Caroline Buzanko is a mom (with ADHD) who has first hand experience parenting kids with ADHD. She is also a leading expert working with families and kids with ADHD and has years of clinical experience to share with you.
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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Caroline Buzanko, All rights reserved.

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