Can I borrow your executive network?

What if your teenage daughter asks to borrow your executive network rather than your shoes today? Sounds laughable? You’ve actually been lending it to her since she was a toddler.

Think back to your child’s third birthday party. You may recall that there is no such thing as a drop off party for toddlers. The parents stay in order to follow their own child through the melee, squelching their impulse to grab a present, reassuring them as they cry because they didn’t get the first piece of cake, and keeping an eye out for the first steps in the “pee pee dance.”

A neuroscientist would say that the parents are acting as external executive networks, literally lending their child their own ability to modulate emotion, resist impulses, and plan into the future. Little David’s executive network may not be mature enough to process the urge to pee as a cue to stop playing pin the tail on the donkey. He likely cannot yet plan into the future and see the consequence of waiting too long. But his father uses his own mature executive network to scan for clues David needs to go, and also to modulate David’s frustration that he has to stop playing a fun game to avoid a puddle on the carpet. (Or maybe David’s dad was drinking beer with the other dads and disaster struck).

None of us would agree with the idea that we should just back off and let our toddlers be independent at birthday parties. There would be no more toddler birthday parties! Parents naturally lend their children structures that allow them to function in complex situations. There is nothing about this “loan” that gets in the way of their being able to eventually do it on their own. On the contrary, the loan of their parent’s executive network allows toddlers to have the experience of birthday parties well before they would otherwise be able to independently join in the fun. As children grow and their executive networks begin to mature, they are better and better at regulating their own emotions, resisting impulses, and organizing their time. But as parents of teenagers know, we continue to lend our children structures to assist them in regulating themselves. A set bed time is the perfect example of a structure without which most older children would be walking around like zombies at school after staying up most of the night chatting on the phone with their friends.

Of course, the abilities to resist impulses, plan into the future, and modulate emotion are not only useful for being independent at birthday parties but also for succeeding in the classroom. If we assist our children by lending them our frontal networks in all other areas of their lives, where did the idea come from that they are on their own when it comes to learning?

This is the central irony of education: the executive network of the brain which is responsible for the skills that allow children to study most effectively isn’t fully matured until college is over. Yes, the fourth grade would be a lot easier if we could do it with a mature executive network. Can we lend children our executive networks in academic situations so our kids can learn more effectively? In my next blog post, we will take a look at three executive functions that fuel great studying: the ability to inhibit, to memorize complex information, and to think flexibly. Good news for our kids: research demonstrates that external structures can assist a child’s brain to work as efficiently as if they possessed a more mature frontal system.