We all know them: the bright high-achievers who bomb-out once they leave school. We all know the others: the bright hard-working early high-achievers who never seem to reach their potential once they’re away from home. We all know the ones we want our kids to be: the hard-working high-achievers who know when to party and when to work.
The trick to helping our children achieve once we’re not around and they’re out of school is to help them develop something called Executive Function.
Executive Function is all about self-regulation: the ability to initiate activities and to know when to stop them; the ability to monitor and change ones own behaviours; the ability to plan for the future and to deal with change. It’s implicated in improved memory, adaptability and abstract thinking. It’s important for perseverance, personal organisation and coping when things don’t go our way.
Academic achievement alone
doesn’t cut it in the real world.
The other thing to realise with executive function is that much of it doesn’t fully emerge until adolescence. Much of what we do before then will help executive function to develop later on. If you like, before the age of nine we’re putting in the foundations.
Until the age of five and a half or six our job is really about nurturing first. (You know all this already: babies who are never left to cry alone, parents who know how to truly listen and use eye-contact properly. More information here Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing and here Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie. These things help children to manage their emotions in a way which is useful to them.)
Second, it’s about NOT pushing independence, but allowing children to do things as they show they are ready to do them. Even if we’re not ready for them to: feed themselves; climb on to the slide alone; jump off the top step – we pretend that we’re not worried about their safety and let them do it! (Perhaps hovering ready to catch, but in a nonchalant Mindfully Disconnected sort of way!) Letting our kids play out of sight and without any adult input fits here.
Third, it’s about developing a truly, deeply, madly incredible imaginative life. It’s providing them with the best possible environment for imaginative play. Toys that don’t look like phones or cars can become phones and cars if deep imagination is used. (Old fashioned wooden blocks are great for this.) A piece of fabric can be a river, a blanket, a cape, a wall, a sausage, a train or a skirt. So the rule of thumb is: the more the toy does (looks like/sounds like reality) the less imagination used. And yes, electronic entertainment is a sure fire way to reduce your child’s own imagination. It’s what comes from inside them that is important – not their recreation of something they’ve seen on the screen. Executive function is all about imagining the future – consequences, the actions of others etc. If you’re imaginative life is small you’re chances of developing executive function are less. Olympic athletes and high-achieving business people talk about the power of visualisation all the time – that’s imagination!
Fourth, it’s about having those times of Mindful Disconnection (considered and temporary) in which they learn that not all their behaviours are OK. Always with Mindful Connection afterwards and never using humiliation.
I used to chuckle to myself when our six year-old Mr Owl said things like, “I’ll be the X and you be the Y and you do this and I’ll do that and then we’ll…” But really it was/is a sign that he is starting to develop executive function. He can plan and play. It is now something I actively encourage to help his EF develop further.
From around the age of nine we can step the process up a little. It is useful to start passing more personal responsibility over to them.
For example, in a Mindful Disconnection – Connection sort of way we do the following…
With the toddler: we give him his food to eat, dress him and put him in the car when it’s time to go.
With the six year-old: we tell him to put his pjs away, get dressed, brush his teeth, fetch his bag and hop in the car. (No more than two or three things to do at a time.)
With the nine year-old: we say, what do you need to do to get out the door on time, we’re leaving in half an hour. And we Mindfully Disconnect by getting on with our own day or concentrating on the other two boys.
Yes, the six year-old is capable of sorting himself out and could probably cope with the approach we use with the nine year-old some days. But it’s not what his brain is truly ready to deal with (EF really kicks in at adolescence remember) and I would rather he was concentrating on imaginative play. It also means we’re not getting angry with him that he can’t manage and he’s not feeling overwhelmed and forced into independence. We expect that he will use EF on some days, but on most days he won’t. And that it will happen spontaneously at this stage. (We could get caught in the ask-too-much and then have to rescue him or persecute him trap if we pushed him now. Karpman’s Drama Triangle.)
Our lovely nine year-old did struggle a little with this in the first place. But at parent-teacher interviews a few weeks ago his teacher commented on his increased self-management skills this year. He’s ready for it, so it’s happening easily for all of us.
Other trick which works is one I learned from my lovely friend Vanda (if you like to read crime fiction, you ought to buy one of her books 🙂 http://www.vandasymon.com/). At the age of 10 her Mum bought her a notebook. In the back she wrote some long-term goals. In the middle the mid-term goals and in the front some short-term goals. She’s gone on to have a great career in pharmacy and now a new career in writing. She’s one of the loveliest people I know and she has great executive function!
http://zenhabits.net/discipline/ talks about self-discipline as a myth. Really. I had to agree that self-motivation is what people usually mean whne they say, self-discipline. That and establishing and keeping great habits.
Executive function is all about our children developing the sort of habits which will truly help them achieve in life. Getting a great school report doesn’t mean squat at six, nine, or 12 – if we then drive ourselves into a tree at 17, get expelled from university or fall apart when our first love leaves us. Executive function is what helps our kids to manage real-life. Academic achievement and independence are important, but are they urgent. Really?
Series starts here: Connection and Disconnection: Optimal Parenting Part One.
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