A Note From Noah

Having spent my last two Notes on broad community values – anti-racism and gender construction – I’m returning this week to some of the “basics” of early childhood development.

Executive function is a foundational set of skills that sets the foundation for later academic development. Children’s use of executive function skills plays a crucial part in their capacity to self-regulate as they interact with the overwhelming amount of stimulation, instructions, and information they encounter in school and throughout their life.

In fact, executive function (EF) skills “are more strongly associated with school readiness then IQ or reading or math skills”, and have been show to “significantly predict math and reading skills at ages 7 and 21…[as well as] greater odds of completing college.” Studies such as these focus on EF in the preschool years because it has been shown that children develop EF skills between the ages of 2 and 5 at a far greater rate than any other time in their life.

So, what is EF? Colloquially, executive function can be defined as “getting your act together” (Lynn Meltzer), or, “the notion of acting with purpose rather than acting on impulse” (Howard Gardner). It is the capacity to override your body’s initial instinct or reaction, in order to take control of your actions in a purposeful manner as you determine the best course of action in any given context.

Apt metaphors for this include an air traffic controller, responsible for efficaciously coordinating multiple systems with changing demands, or a librarian, responsible for not only having information but knowing how, when, and why to access discrete pieces of information. Think about either of those systems – an airport runway or the stacks of a library – without a central control system. Despite having all the key ingredients, the system breaks down. Planes can’t safely take off without coordination; information is inaccessible if it’s lost in a vast sea of books.

EF is that control system for your child. They may know their numbers and letters or the sequence of behaviors needed to navigate peer conflict – but they also need an organizational system for procuring those skills, and knowing which ones to use when. Knowing how to read doesn’t count if you’re daydreaming during class! EF is so crucial in the academic years because it allows your child to access and use all the discrete skills needed to perform complex academic functions – decode and process words, think algorithmically, respond critically to an essay, generate a hypothesis given a data set, and on and on.

EF is broken down into four inter-related domains:

Attention & Focus: Here we’re talking about “selective attention” – the capacity to determine what your body pays attention to. Think about reading a book on the subway, talking to your child while a firetruck drives by, or writing a Note while 60 children sing Shabbat songs outside your office!

Behavioral Inhibition: This refers to the ability to interrupt your body’s immediate desire – your autopilot – and preform an intentional rather than instinctive action. Think about biting your tongue rather than saying what’s on your mind or not eating more dessert than you should. This is also where the famous “marshmallow test” about delayed gratification comes into play.

Working Memory: In contrast to long term and short term memory, this is the “mental workspace” in your brain. This is information that you are not storing but rather manipulating – think about mental math, or keeping track of a grocery list in your head as you shop, or sorting through LEGOs figuring out which pieces you need.

Cognitive Flexibility: The ability to adjust to changing demands, shifting priorities, or revisions in rules, instructions, and schedules. Think about a project at work changing based on customer needs, a playground birthday party getting rained on, or a child wanting to play with a toy only to find their classmates are using it already.

The ability to perform successfully in each of these areas is the common thread of pausing to think before committing yourself to action – of interrupting the body’s autopilot. “What should my body do here, and how can I successfully do it?” is the question at stake in each of them. By placing our children in circumstances that highlight these scenarios, and offering them a mature model to guide them through, we can help support the growth of these EF skills.

We can help our children do this in a variety of ways:

Lifting the curtain on our own mental operations: As adults, we take for granted all of the above skills – but our children struggle with them. Talk them through how your brain walks, and be explicit. “We were planning on going to the playground today but it’s raining. I’m realizing we have to change our plan. Because it’s raining, our new plan will have to be indoors. Some of the indoors choices are playing in our apartment, going to the playroom, or going to a friend’s. Let’s make a new plan since our old plan has changed.” Or, “I know that the trucks make loud noises. Let’s remind our brain to pay attention to the sidewalk so we don’t bump anyone while we’re walking. You get to control what you pay attention to, you just have to remind your brain. Try it with me – say, ‘brain, pay attention to the sidewalk!’”.

Playing games with shifting rules: Traditional games are a great way to learn rules – but if you tweak the rules mid-game they are a fruitful ground for EF skills such as cognitive flexibility and behavioral inhibition. Starting with a classic – Candy Land – after your child becomes familiar with the rules, change them. Come up with a new system – an orange card means go to green, a green card means go to blue, etc. Display the new rules either by pairing cards together or drawing out the color-codes on a piece of paper. 3, 4, and 5yr old children will struggle initially but with repetition you’ll see improvement – with plenty of frustrated giggles along the way. Talk it through with your child: “OK this will be hard! But our brain loves hard things. It’s like exercising the muscles in our brain. Let’s remind our brain that we changed the rules. Now when we see a card, we don’t just go there right away – we have to pause, look at the new rules, and then decide what to do. Let’s make sure our brain pays attention to the new rules!”

A simpler version for our 2, 3, and 4yr olds: make two piles of any colorful object (beads, blocks, etc), one color for each pile (i.e., one pile of red objects and one pile of blue objects). At first, go for autopilot – this is the easy part: “Here’s the game – I’ll pick up a toy, and you say the color of the toy I pick up.” Once established, change the rules: “OK now comes the hard part – pay attention because I’m going to change the rule! Now, when I pick up a blue piece, you have to say the color of the toy that I did NOT pick up (red). Usually our brain wants to say what it sees first – but you get to be in control of your brain! Make sure you remind your brain the new rule – “Look at the piece, pause, then look at the pile I did not take from, and then say that color.”” I also do this with simple finger-games: “Do the opposite of what I do – if my thumbs go up, your thumbs go down, if my thumbs go out (to the side), your thumbs go in (point towards each other). Remind yourself – look at my thumbs, pause and think, and then do it with your thumbs!”

Use this template for really anything you do regularly with your child – once you establish a rhythm, a routine, an autopilot – think about a fun way to break or re-arrange the sequence, and guide your child threw the new one. Then, refer back to this “muscle” when they encounter organic changes in their life. Remind them they are in control of their brain and can respond to new rules or new situations successfully.

Break down tasks into discrete steps to relieve the load your child’s working memory: We’ve all seen our children falter or balk when asked to do tasks we know they can do. They may be overwhelmed by the amount of thinking that goes into these tasks – thinking that as adults we take for granted because we have a higher capacity for working memory. Show them how to break down complex tasks into discrete parts. “The first thing you need to do is stand up. Let’s do that – stand up. Next, we’ll each pick up triangle blocks and put them into the basket. Let’s do that now. I’m noticing there are still square blocks left. Let’s each pick up square blocks and put them into the basket. I know squares sometimes look like rectangles, so I’ll move all the rectangles to the side. OK, great – now that you’re done with the squares, let’s move over here, where I’ve put the rectangles. All you have left to do is put the rectangles away. Now that you’ve done that, please put the lid on the basket. Let’s see – the whole rug looks clean. Your last step is to push the basket back into the corner it came from.” Setting the table is another great task for this. As an adult, you can simply “set the table”. But for your children, you’ll need to walk them through – first we’ll get plates, next we’ll get napkins, etc. Think about how this skill will come into play in later academics: “First check your homework organizer. What do you need to do tonight? Choose one task first. OK, so get out your history textbook. You’ll have to read the chapter, and then fill out the worksheet. Just take it one question at a time.” This is a much more successful approach for a child to take then a broader, “Time to do your homework!”

Give strategies for mindfulness and being present: Deep breaths, being patient, being aware of our surroundings. These allow us to regain control of our mind and body during new or exciting situations. “Wow this birthday party is really exciting! There’s so much going on. Let’s take three deep breaths together. All we’re going to do now is breathe (do this with your child). Now, let’s see what’s going on. Where would you like to go first?” Creating space for this “pause” shows your child that they can collect their thoughts, assess the situation, and make an informed, intentional decision. This all feels very different then running into a crowd without a plan. Remind your child of this next time something new or exciting happens: “Let’s just take a deep breath and pause. Let’s figure out what you want to do first, and then we’ll go do it.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – what strategies have you found successful at home? What have you struggled with?

Shabbat shalom,