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Messy Rooms, Messy Desks, Messy Backpacks The role of executive function in a child’s success

This month, with the start of school, we turned over this department to Zibby Andrews, a mother and grandmother with 40-plus years in early childhood education. She defines executive function and why it’s a term we hear so much in our children’s lives. You can find another column from Zibby in this month’s BC Blog.

Some children innately crave order and consistency; others thrive in chaos, happily dealing with multiple projects simultaneously. Some children resist new things and are comforted by a strict routine and a familiar environment; others are thrilled by novelty, change and the unexpected. The way children organize themselves and their belongings and the way they handle multiple demands on their attention fit within a wide range of development and personality.

The ability to function like an executive, accomplishing goals in an efficient, systematic way, is called just that — executive function. It’s a specific skill that varies in adults as much as it does in children. Some of it is innate and much of it is learned. And it affects everything — from academic learning to relationships and emotional maturity.
Your child’s ability to plan, strategize, prioritize, manage time and sustain attention to a task emerges and develops over time. These skills vary from child to child, but there is also a continuum of expectations at each age level.

For very young children, this ability to self-regulate is primarily seen in relation to hunger, sleep, frustration, anger and fear. Crying and tantrums can be common, and even extreme, as children are learning to pause before they react. They have to learn to take the time to decide if a strong reaction is warranted and which actions will ameliorate discomfort and which will exacerbate it.

Beginning at 2 and 3 years old, you should see the emergence of the ability and motivation to initiate activities and follow through, resisting distraction and sustaining attention a little longer. This is a developmental milestone that needs nurture and encouragement to grow. But it is often ignored or overlooked at this age, particularly with an outgoing child who is precocious in other ways. Or when a parenting style misses the mark on the “just right” balance of support and hands-off.

The demands on a child’s ability to carry out purposeful decisions grow through elementary school, where difficulties with executive function are seen in the discrepancy between a child’s innate capabilities and what he or she can actually accomplish. It’s also seen in children who find it difficult to control the impulses that allow them to delay responding until they have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.

Academic skills fail to emerge and relationships suffer. Children fail to produce or accomplish goals not because they don’t know what to do or how to do it, but because they can’t organize themselves enough to follow through. For some children, this means moving past inertia, and for others, it means slowing down enough to see the specific steps that need to be taken.

As adults, we have learned from our mistakes, and more importantly, we have learned to compensate (at least somewhat) for our tendencies to either procrastinate or act too impulsively. But children need specific support in this area if they are going to fulfill their true potential, academically, socially and emotionally.

To nurture executive function skills, it’s important to consciously model thoughtful behavior, highlighting the value of efficiency, strategizing and follow through. Talk about your own strategies as you use them. Help your children organize their toys and papers, talk to them about plans, break large tasks into smaller ones, use timers, categorize and prioritize tasks, structure their day, keep things in the same place and model the use of checklists and memory triggers.

Thoughtful parenting around executive function skills will help with those messy rooms, messy desks and messy backpacks. And it will add a measure of success to a challenging and exciting childhood.

About Zibby Andrews

Zibby Andrews is a mother and grandmother with 40-plus years in early childhood education supporting parents, teachers and young children. She lives in Baltimore City where she now has a part-time “gig” caring for her youngest granddaughter.

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