Many parents worry about their childrens’ futures after they leave the nest. Though they may have perfectly normal intelligence, they can’t seem to grasp the skills of daily living. We have to keep after them to organize their backpacks, finish their homework, empty the dishwasher, and find their socks. “Shouldn’t they be able to do this by now?” we ask, in tired exasperation. We wonder if we’ll ever be able to transfer responsibility for this child to the child! At worst, we believe the child is unmotivated or lazy, and will live with us (on the couch) forever!
It’s important to understand that in almost all cases, our children would do better if they could. They don’t use these skills because, as of yet, they haven’t learned them. They will need help to develop these capabilities because, during a critical period as a toddler and preschooler, their energies were bent toward survival. In addition, because babies’ brains develop within the context of safe relationships which, in turn, facilitate exploration, many opportunities were lost. Therefore we have to provide the experiences they missed.
To illustrate the point, it’s helpful to understand a concept in child development called, circle of security. If you know anything about babies, you might recall that when they learn to crawl, walk and begin to explore, they make sure mom is within sight. The child may pick up an object and run back to mom to show it to her. Like most moms, she will look pleased and say, “thank you!” The baby will feel happy and encouraged to explore farther afield, as long as she sees mom! Thus, the circle of security is like a loop. Baby uses mom as a safe base, does a little exploration, checksback to make sure mom is still there, crawls over to touch base with her, and goes a little farther next time. What you eventually get is a secure self-confident baby who feels safe to explore, and through exploration, builds her brain! Aside from exploration, babies build their brains through relationships. When safe daddy gets on the floor with baby to build with blocks, she learns cause and effect, and prediction. If you stack blocks high enough, they fall down and she learns to infer and predict through practice that the same thing will happen the next time you stack blocks too high. Exploration is absolutely necessary in learning skills of daily living. The key is that the parent must feel safe, predictable, and loving.
Now imagine the opposite is true. Mom and dad aren’t predictable, safe, or loving. Instead they’re scary, unpredictable, and neglectful. Exploring her world is not safe if she might get yelled at or slapped. Better to make herself small and figure out how to get fed. Survival is key and everything else is superfluous. So it is with neglected or abused children, that many foundational skills go missing. These may include language skills. If the child isn’t routinely talked to or sung to, the templates for language skills remain underdeveloped. If they don’t hear nursery rhymes or baby games, they’re not learning the rhythms and prosody of speech. Their vocabulary will be limited and they may not understand spoken language or be able to keep up in a conversation. Without adequate language, they may not learn “self talk,” the ability to inhibit behavior, solve problems, use working memory, or “cause and effect” thinking. They don’t know how to behave in social situations and may forget the rules or act impulsively. No wonder they get into trouble so often!
About Executive Function Skills
There are two kinds of cognitive (thinking) intelligence. We are all familiar with IQ. We call this “crystallized intelligence” because it measures aptitude and remains relatively stable over time. The other kind of intelligence is, “fluid intelligence.”These are also called executive function skills and refer to the skills of daily living. These are the last skills to develop and aren’t mature until the mid-twenties. For males, it takes 1-2 years longer.
Executive Function (EF) skills fall into 3 major types:
- Inhibitory Control
- Working memory
- Mental flexibility
Examples are (but not limited to):
- Cause and effect understanding (if/then).
- Analyzing and synthesizing information.
- Evaluation of people and situations. Includes risk taking.
- Holding one thing in your mind while working on something else.
- Being able to switch easily from one activity to another.
- Being flexible.
- Being organized and able to prioritize.
- Thoughtful planning. Weighing options, pros and cons, making good choices.
Though you may recognize these in many teenagers, kids from deprived backgrounds lag even more, but are embarrassed to admit it. They recognize that their peers understand how to use these skills more easily than they can. When they can’t fake it, they may disengage and find peers they fit in with. Unfortunately, these are, most often, the wrong peers, but at least they’re accepting! School can be a nightmare if you can’t organize your brain or materials to write a paper. Without understanding of the real issues, schools and teachers can be punishing. By asking for help, these students think they’ll expose themselves looking stupid, and rather than look stupid, it’s preferable to look “bad. ”It’s safer for their egos!
Children and youth should be tested for executive function skill deficits if they have at least borderline intelligence and any of the above problems. There are testing tools such as the NEPSY or the BRIEF, among others. It’s my belief that any child lacking in these skills should have them addressed in an Individual Education Plan,or IEP. Federal education law, IDEA, states that a child is entitled to an IEP not only to address academic problems, but anything that interferes with a child’s learning. Certainly being unable to follow a3-step instruction, having trouble organizing thoughts, notes, and materials for an essay, and falling apart during transitions interfere with a child’s learning. The goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004(IDEA) is to have the child be college or employment ready. This is the school’s responsibility. Executive function skills are certainly required for either of these and measurable goals must be included if appropriate. I have seen too many IEPs written for children who have functional deficits which are either not addressed at all, or are so vague as to be useless.
Unlike IQ, which is fairly immutable, executive function skills (fluid intelligence) can be learned, but it requires adult explicit coaching and teaching without judgment! Children, and especially youth, are acutely sensitive. Use humor and patience, and always let the child save face. Respect the child and teach from their strengths and interests. Get “buy-in” by pointing out what’s in it for them. “Learning this will help you get better at______.” “Once you get the hang of cooking this, you can make it for your friends.” “You want to have a party? Let’s sit down together and make some plans. What do we need to think about?” Use a technique called scaffolding. Start with what the child can do independently. Then, with your help, go up to the next level of difficulty that the child can do with help. When the child masters that step, have them practice before going to the next level up. Repeat the process and reward success. “That was awesome! What should we do to celebrate?” (high five!) At school, all staff need to learn to scaffold. A child in middle school or high school should have a mentor/advocate person she feels safe with, to meet with her every morning to go over assignments,stumbling blocks, etc.
When we compare children solely on the basis of IQ or good executive function skills, we always assume the most intelligent child will be more successful. Wrong! People with high intelligence alone,without good problem solving or people skills, don’t fare as well in the real world as people with average intelligence and great EF skills. So let’s start with children as young as possible with toys and activities that encourage thinking and problem solving. Puzzles, matching activities, sorting and grading toys,art supplies, construction toys, and imaginary play toys and dress-up are all excellent. For older children, any board game which requires planning and thinking ahead, such as checkers or Sorry! I love the Memory Game and pick-upsticks, which reward concentration. Teenagers love building things and having hobbies. Building and painting models are fun to do together. Remember, TV doesn’t teach anything! Engage in plenty of“floor time” with your children as well as providing lots of opportunity for unstructured play with other children.They learn best by sorting things out on their own. Get them out of the house and into nature for their own little voyages of discovery. Never overcrowd their schedules. Children who have been hurt need plenty of downtime. They need to learn what calm and relaxation feel like. Do not overprotect them, but remember we all learn best when we’re not afraid to make mistakes. Be a good role model and acknowledge and laugh at your own. Your child will love you for being human, too!