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Ready for School? Executive Function = Success

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The term "Executive Function" may sound more relevant to business school than elementary school, yet it's crucial to your child's social and emotional development. Executive Function is a family of attention-related processes involved in planning and carrying out goal directed behavior. It predicts school readiness better than IQ scores and is a reliable forecaster of math and reading aptitudes. Because the regions of the brain associated with Executive Function are involved in the regulation of emotions and behavior, it's no surprise that there's good science that links Executive Function to empathy, pro-social behavior, emotional regulation, delayed gratification, and peer relationships. There's even a recent research finding that links preschool-aged children's capacities to delay gratification with higher SAT scores in high-school.

So what is Executive Function and how can you help your kids develop it? In brief, core skills associated with Executive Function are skills that children use all the time at play, at home, and in school. They require monitoring and shifting their attention, remembering information, and self-regulating. A good example of three of these skills is found in "Simon Says," a classic children's game that is fun to play and develops Executive Function. In "Simon Says," children remember the rules of the game (follow a command only when they hear the phrase 'Simon Says'); self-regulate by not automatically responding to the command (analyze it before responding); shift attention (between the command and the rules of the game to figure out how to respond); and self-regulate again (by responding only if the command included the phrase 'Simon Says').

"Simon Says" isn't the only common childhood game that develops Executive Function. Early research shows that a number of activities that most children already participate in develop Executive Function including: aerobic exercise; martial arts; dramatic play; social and emotional learning curricula; and mindfulness practice. In the August 19th issue of Science magazine, Adele Diamond and Kathy Lee from the University of British Columbia, published a comprehensive article about Executive Function and how to aid in its development in children ages 4 - 12. It describes the relationship of the activities I listed above to the development of Executive Function and is a must read for parents and educators. All of these activities are fun and easy to integrate into your daily routine, but because I have a strong interest in mindful education, I'll focus on the relationship between mindfulness and Executive Function here.

Focusing on one thing and nothing else.
In mindfulness training there is a large set of activities that develop concentration by encouraging children to focus on one thing and nothing else. Children block-out distractions from their outer-worlds (a TV playing in the other room) or from their inner-worlds (feeling hungry) in order to concentrate on a specific activity. At home you can help your children develop concentration by ringing a bell and asking children to listen to the sound until it fades away or encouraging children to focus their attention on the feeling of their breathing as it moves in and out of their bodies. Montessori programs use a series of mindful walking activities to develop concentration where students walk while holding a glass (or spoon) of water without letting the water spill; walk while holding a bell without letting it ring; or walk along a line taped on the floor.

Focusing on the present moment.
In studies of adults, and at least one study involving children, it has been found that the deliberate shifting of attention to what's happening in the present moment develops Executive Function. Like the skills children develop playing "Simon Says," the skills children use to pay attention to what's happening in the present moment (what they're feeling, seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling right now) are called 'top-down' attention control and come from focusing on the task at hand. Part of paying attention to what's happening now involves children noticing when their attention has wandered (monitoring attention) and bringing it back to what's happening in the present moment (shifting attention), two core Executive Function skills. Encouraging children to pay attention to what's happening now can easily be incorporated into your routine at home or school. Sky-gazing is a lovely way to do just that while also developing a closer attachment between you and your child. On a warm summer night, lie on a blanket outside and ask your child to describe what she sees. Eventually, your child will probably become distracted and that's okay, just gently bring the conversation back to the night sky and describing the many ways that the sky is changing in this moment. Redirecting your child to pay attention to the present moment is a useful skill but not at the expense of allowing children unstructured time. Daydreaming and playing make believe are also part of the magic of childhood and it looks as if imaginative play may well develop executive function too.

Research linking mindfulness, children, and Executive Function is still in its infancy.

There's ample evidence that mindfulness promotes executive function in adults, but research on mindfulness and children is still in its infancy. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was involved in the one mindfulness study mentioned in Diamond & Lee's recent article in Science on activities that develop Executive Function in children. That study, conducted a few years back out of fellow HuffPo blogger Sue Smalley's lab at UCLA, found that children ages 7 to 9 who had lower Executive Function improved after mindfulness training. This is early research and it's important to be cautious mentioning it because the number of children studied was relatively small (64) and there's still much to learn about the link between mindfulness, children, and Executive Function. Yet we're off to a good start and this study is just one of many reasons to give mindfulness a try.

Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child and former corporate attorney, developed the Inner Kids program for children, teens and their families and teaches worldwide. Instructions for some of the activities she describes here can be found on her website.