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How to Model Executive Functioning Skills

The Why and The How  

· Executive Function

When we left off last month you were on a journey to build new habits to increase your own executive functioning skills. You recognized that while you can make a list of the top three behaviors surrounding weak executive functioning in your child or teen, you have areas of organization, routine building, consistency and time management that you must develop in order to model them for your family. If you have not yet: carved out a homework area and stocked it with ready to grab school supplies, made a morning, after school and evening routine that supports time management as well as first - then behavior management, mastered your own time management strategies in order to model consistency in keeping to a schedule and following routines, then please be mindful that your child or teen will not develop the desired executive functioning skills without your willingness and proficiency in developing your own.

If you have dedicated time to develop these skills and routines on your own, then it’s time to start modeling: here is the why and how.

Why modeling the executive functioning skills you want to see in your child is the first and most important step in the learning process

We always start with the why because it gives the big picture. Those with challenges surrounding executive functioning most often see the trees and not the forest, or they see the forest but not the trees; either way- the information you would like them to see, needs to be pointed out and pointed out often. Without the big picture and a clear, distinguishable line between here and there, doing and done, beginning and finishing, children and teens are given the space to label your expectations, rules and consequences as only arbitrary actions implemented by their evil parents with the intent to ruin their lives. When we assume that our children will accept, “Because I told you so,” and “Do it because that’s what you’re being asked to do,” as the explanation for why these skills are important we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. We start with the why because it paints a road map to the purpose, knowing the purpose leads to motivation, and motivation leads to mastery. But how do we start? Considering the fact that children and teenagers have a tendency to tune out long diatribes and lectures regarding their behavior- the only way to tell them the why, is to show them.

Showing not telling: Starting now, each time you use your executive functioning to plan, prioritize, or generally function in your everyday life, you will narrate the implicit, silent brain activity that is happening in order for your child to see it, hear, and learn it.

An example of the internal workings of your brain:

Tomorrow you are planning to drop Jane off at school for 7:30 a.m. because at dinner tonight she told you she needs to get there early to retake a math test, which means Johnny will need to get up and going earlier so you can drop him off right after Jane (that means an extra 30 min to get him out of bed). You also need to pick up groceries for dinner, stop at the store to get a poster-board for Johnny’s science project due next week (thank goodness that teacher sent a reminder email) and then you will need to carve out time to catch up with emails from work and finish that report that’s due on Friday - you can do that between 12 and 3, right before picking everyone up from their after school activities and getting them to basketball and hockey.

You have each step of your day planned, you know how long it takes you to travel from one location to the other, you know when the best time to hit the grocery store is to avoid lines. You have alarms set earlier and provide reminders to your children of the schedule changes. Lunches are packed and you have thought about what you will wear based on the weather report you looked at while cooking dinner. You see yourself moving through your day AND you even anticipate when things might veer off track and you’ve developed a plan B, just in case. You do all of this mental planning without knowing you are doing it and without speaking a word. You sound like a superhero - but really you are a typical adult with a fully developed frontal lobe which houses your fully functioning executive functioning system.

Your job: take your internal dialogue and make it external. From now on you will narrate what you are doing inside that head of yours so your children can see you and hear you plan, prioritize and prepare. Each time you write a date in your planner and phone, you will say: “I’m going to write that down so I remember.” Each time you look at your planner or calendar you are going to say: “I’m going to take a minute and look at what I have planned for tomorrow so I can be prepared for the day.”

For those struggling with executive functioning - having a real-life, consistent model of the implicit functions of the frontal lobe made explicit, not only provides the model needed to replicate those behaviors, but shows all of the important parts of planning, prioritizing and organizing that lead to the successful functioning of the adults around us.

Moral of the story: if you’re ready to support the needs of your child struggling with executive functioning - make the implicit, explicit. Model the behaviors you want to see. Narrate the steps of those behaviors as you model.

Next month we will deepen the practice of modeling the behaviors and skills you want to see by exploring the research of habits and automaticity and their role in teaching new behaviors.

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