Most parents would be thrilled if their kids were organized self-starters, but that’s not how the majority of moms and dads would describe their offspring. Michael Delman has been an educator in Massachusetts for decades, and knows first-hand that parents want to motivate their kids and help them bring their full capacities to whatever they attempt. That led him to write the new book Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention.
Executive functions skills are important, but they weren’t something we parents heard much about when we were in school. To help provide some information, context and helpful info, Delman recently did a Q&A with Between Us Parents.
Between Us Parents: Let’s start with the basics, what are executive function skills?
Michael Delman: Executive function skills are, essentially, the self-management skills people use to set and achieve goals. These include, among others, the ability to manage emotions, to focus, to prioritize, and to make adjustments as needed to stay on course.
BUP: If you could tell all parents three things about executive function, what would they be?
MD: I’d emphasize that with the challenges that people tend to have today, in the Age of Attention, it’s not about working harder. It’s about working smarter. The ability to be discerning, to focus, and to make course corrections saves valuable time and will help their children be successful, efficient, and much calmer.
Parents need to know that these skill are developing in kids onward into their mid-20’s. These skills are developed, in part, through the effective habits we learn. You can capitalize on growth potential of the brain by helping to forge good work habits as your child develops.
BUP: Parents (especially those of us who are Type A) know that organization is an important part of executive functioning. Kids, however, are harder to convince. How can parents strike the right balance of helping kids with organization but not helping too much?
MD: When we help our children, we often have two goals. The immediate goal is for them to do well on a particular challenge, such as getting their backpacks neat or writing a well-organized paper. Our kids may need this help now to see how things are done. The longer-term goal is to help them become independent.
The great thing about teaching executive function skills is that they help with both. Instead of our constantly helping with one problem after another – a pattern that makes our kids too dependent on us and never lets them develop a deep sense of confidence – we can help them learn skills that transfer.
These are the “learning how to fish” skills.
The process of how to engage our kids varies from child to child, of course. Some love our help while others resist it, but the general progression is something my company calls Reach, Teach, Reflect, Release.
First, we need to have the skills to connect, which means choosing our timing well, being non-judgmental, having a sense of how hard to push, and other relationship-building skills. Second, we need to have not only specific tools but a range of tools and strategy so that our kids can choose ones that fit their needs and learning profiles. Third, and this step is one that doesn’t come naturally to children – nor to most parents – is to make time to reflect on what is working and what isn’t to help for next time. Finally, the goal is to let our kids take charge of their own learning.
We can frame struggle and failure as a normal part of growing up. In doing so, we encourage them to learn from their own mistakes and to claim their successes as their own
– In your 25+ years of experience, what’s the one thing you wish you could get parents to stop doing? What should they do instead?
The simplest thing parents can do that will pay real dividends is to shift from telling their kids how anxious they are about them to approaching their children’s challenges as learning opportunities. I’m not being patronizing, and I’m fully aware that many challenges are downright awful.
As natural as it is to worry – and we are wired to worry – it doesn’t help to freak out on a regular basis with our kids.
Revealing our anxieties as parents not only raises the emotional temperature of the parent/child relationship; it makes our children worry and prevents them fromaccessing the higher level brain functions that will help them achieve their goals.
– You talk about how kids can be held back by a fear of failure. How common is that, and what can parents do to both identify the fear and help kids move past it?
Fear of failure is something that nearly every young person struggles with today. With social media mostly showing off people’s successes and with the increasing difficulty of getting into colleges that interest them or getting decent jobs, kids today have good reason to worry. Mental health statistics are alarming, and students are harming themselves at higher rates than ever before.
The first thing parents can do is to keep communication open.
An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure here. If our children know that we won’t judge them for sharing and won’t rush to intervene, if they know that we will listen deeply and calmly and ask them questions so they can come to solutions that make sense to them, they are far more likely to continue to share with us.
They also need to know that there is a time and a place for professional help if a parent’s kind support simply isn’t enough.
For more typical but still painful growing up challenges – a bad test grade, a breakup, college acceptance stress – we can remind our kids that there is no such thing as success without lots of failures along the way.
Empathizing with their pain and normalizing the experience are usually the first steps in helping kids know that they are being heard. Then, we can move into problem-solving mode with them if they are open to it.
At that point, we are dealing with an intellectual problem to solve, not an emotional stress where reasoning won’t make a difference.
– What are the most beneficial things parents can do at home to help kids get better at paying attention?
Meditation and yoga are immensely useful tools for developing both calm and focus. Kids, especially teenagers, may resist learning these techniques, in which case parents can teach some simple habits. First, we can help our children learn how to set up work schedules that assign reasonable periods of time for each task, that order the tasks, and that schedule in breaks. Next, before our kids take breaks, we can have them write down – or if they’re young, just tell us – how long a break they’ll take, what they’ll do on the break, and, more importantly, what they will do next when they return from the break. These sorts of habits help our kids understand that focus and attention can be improved based on the habits that we develop.
Of course, as every parent knows, screen use also needs to be managed as games, videos, and social media can have such momentum that they make it difficult for kids to follow through on their commitments. For younger kids, I recommend that screens be made available only after our kids have successfully completed some of their more difficult work. It’s not a punishment to teach them that wants come after needs as success in the real world demands that they learn this basic truth.
Finally, it’s not fun to admit it, but we are often part of the problem. It’s hard for our kids to take us seriously about helping them get focused if we’re constantly multitasking.
We have to look at how stimulating and distraction-ridden home life can be and to set expectations by our own behavior.
For example, we can leave our phones off the dining room table when having a family dinner; we can play a game or have a discussion in the car instead of letting everyone communicate with people who are not in the car! Sometimes, it’s fine for everyone to be in their separate worlds, but often it’s what happens without any thought given to it.
Lastly, as a bonus, it is important to notice those times when we are not fully focused on our children when they are talking to us. The best teaching is modeling, and as parents we can show our children we love them by giving them the level of attention we would give to someone famous, having genuine curiosity and interest and feeling that our time with them is a privilege.
– The title of your book speaks to the crazy high levels of parental anxiety. How important is it for parents to, for lack of a better phrase, get a grip?
We need to be well-regulated in order to be taken seriously. If our kids think we’re freaking out for no reason, they’ll stop taking us seriously. We need to bear in mind that a toddler can say “no” many, many times, and an adolescent can bring logic to bear that sometimes can be difficult to refute.
Our advantage as adults is that we can be calmer and kinder than they can be, and that can make us very persuasive.
Our children need us to be calm and to be kind, and they want us to use our sound judgment to help guide them.
Even though it’s healthy for them to gain increasing independence and to doubt us as they hit adolescence, they need to know that they have at least one adult who cares deeply about them and who has good judgment. Of course, all of us make mistakes along the way – both in substance and in process – so the final task is for us to be humble and honest enough to admit it.
We maintain our children’s trust when we are able to admit that, even at our age, we’re still working on ourselves and trying to be a little bit better. If we live with that kind of integrity, we make room for our children to be able to own their mistakes and learn from them.
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