Friday, May 8, 2015

Beyond Academics - Executive Functions 1

Controlling Actions and Emotions

Parents worry how their child is doing in school. How is his reading compared to the rest of the class? Is she being challenged in math?  Do we need to worry about achievement test results?  But school is more than academics. Your child's happiness and success in school will always be enhanced by strong executive functions.

Executive functions? We are talking about a child, not a CEO! Executive  functions aren't just for executives. Executive functions include
  • the ability to control actions and emotions, and 
  • the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize.

Anyone who has cared for a toddler knows that we aren't born with these abilities. Parents, school, and experience teach us these skills. The ease of acquiring good executive functions depends a great deal on personality and environment. Children, no matter how bright, who do not develop these skills will find school more and more difficult as they move through the grades.

Controlling emotions and actions: Many adults have difficulty with emotional control so learning to roll with the punches is not easy for some children. Anger control is important, but the super sensitive child also needs to learn control. The ten-year old who always crying or looking miserable may have as many problems as the ten-year old who is always mad.

Dr. Kenneth Barish writes, "We want children to have their feelings, but not be overwhelmed by them -- to feel discouraged but not give up; to feel anxious but not stay home; and to be excited but not get so carried away in their enthusiasm that they use poor judgement."

How do we help a child learn this? Recommendations include:
  • Teaching a child to recognize and name feelings, (Example: Anger may be a reaction to feeling hurt) It is important to help a child realize not only his own feelings but the feelings of others.
  • Listening and acknowledging a child's feelings and concerns. Give a child one-to-one time to talk about concerns and feelings. 
  • Modeling appropriate behavior ourselves and apologizing if our emotions get away from us. 
  • Discussing with a child how she can appropriately express a feeling. Help them realize feelings are different from actions.
  • Rewarding appropriate behavior.  
    • Be aware of what type of behavior is being rewarded. The child who gets what she wants by whining or throwing a tantrum is learning that there is no need to regulate one's emotions, and there is a reward for acting out. A child who always gets cuddles and is given excuses whenever she is crying or looking hurt may be learning that she is sensitive and no one should upset her.
Hunger, tiredness, illness, and trauma influence everyone's emotions. Most parents recognize a tired, hungry toddler. Parents also need to be aware of these forces on the elementary age child. Just as importantly parents need to be aware how their own reactions are affected by being stressed, tired, or hungry.

Know when a reaction is age appropriate behavior.  Two-year-olds have temper tantrums and elementary school age children worry and may cry about things that seldom cross our minds. Children are sensitive to many things we have learned to ignore. Recognize and accommodate a child who is sensitive to noise or bright lights or other sensory input. As a child gets older help them learn how to handle the sensitivities themselves. A 2nd grader may need quiet when learning a new task. A 4th grader needs to learn that there may not always be complete silence whenever she wants it. Do not expect a child to react like an adult. It is important that your child trust you enough to bring you any adult problems they may encounter. There are times when a parent has to take charge of a problem.

On the other hand there are times when adults need to be direct with a child. A good parent will tell a young child, "I know you are angry but you can't hurt yourself," and remove a child from a situation. There is nothing wrong with telling a school age child that they don't need to have hysterics and go to the nurse for every minor injury. Sometimes an adult needs to point out to a child how her actions helped create a bad situation which resulted in hurt feelings on both sides. For example saying mean things to someone may result in not getting an invitation to her party. 

Parents don't need to run in and fix everything. Natural consequences, such a something getting lost or broken due to constant irresponsible behavior, are learning tools. A child may not need a lecture, but they also do not need an immediate replacement.

Select when to discuss behavior with a child. A child in the middle of a tantrum or crying jag is not able to listen. Wait until the child has calmed down to discuss a more appropriate reaction. Work with your child to come up with ways they can stop behavior before it escalates.

The best time to discuss how to act is when the child succeeds through his own effort. We need to point out good results when they are happening. For example when a child succeeds at something academically or  athletically it is a good time to point out how his hard work got him to this point. When you see your child start to act angry, but take a deep breath and stops, recognize it and give your approval. 

As parents we want to fix things for our child. Sometimes, though, things can't be fixed. All children need to learn that some bad things happen through no fault of their own. This is one reason children's books and movies often include hardships. Bambi's mother got shot; Old Yeller died; but the movie didn't end there. Life goes on.

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