Filtering by Tag: Executive function

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.

The Neuroscience of Earning A's

Welcome to The Neuroscience of Earning A’s

Wouldn’t the fourth grade be easier if we could go through it now, as adults? Is it because our knowledge of state capitals is so encyclopedic that we wouldn’t have to crack a book? No. The real change is the development of our brains over time, particularly a system known as the frontal executive network. This part of the brain is responsible for much of what we value in successful students: bringing us the ability to set goals, organize, memorize complex information, and resist distracters.

The central problem this new blog, The Neuroscience of Earning A's, will address is that we now know this is the last brain region to develop, with a growth spurt in the teenage years, and full maturity around age 21 or 22. Ironically, the system of the brain which allows us to be great at studying isn’t fully on line until college is over! Much of the frustration during homework time for parents stems from this central dilemma. Children forget assignments, don’t prioritize their time, and have trouble resisting distracters during homework. Here is a framework for understanding why this happens with normally developing children.

The good news is that a new generation of brain imaging technologies has changed what we know about how we learn, demonstrating ways in which we can boost the executive function of our children, what to avoid that dampens executive function, and intriguingly, how we as parents can literally “lend children our frontal networks,” using specific techniques to structure homework so that children can learn as effectively as if their frontal networks were more mature.

Over the next several months, I will post entries describing these advances in what we know about how children learn. Here is a fresh guide to helping parents and teachers help children succeed academically, with techniques that make earning As in 4th or 12th grade a lot easier!

The blog is geared to parents and teachers of elementary through high school students who want their children to earn better grades, or who want to make sure their children continue to earn “As” even as academic demands increase in higher grade levels. Parents and teachers of children with executive function disorders- such as attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, autism/ Asperger’s and traumatic brain injury will also find these techniques very helpful in assisting their children to perform better in school.