Why do children do such unexpected and frankly baffling things when it would be SO MUCH EASIER to just listen to a grown-up?

If you have stood at the door, shaking your head while your child rushes around to collect a suddenly VERY IMPORTANT object, or waited at the dinner table while your child yells at you from the next room, you are not alone. This kind of behaviour might seem completely unreasonable, but there’s actually a reason why children do such surprising things. No matter how many logical explanations or helpful reminders we give, children need time, practice and support to develop in five key areas, before they are mature enough to stay calm, be flexible, communicate openly, plan ahead, and resist temptation.

Psychologists use the term “executive functioning skills” to describe higher-level thinking skills, like the ones that help us weigh decisions, focus, switch between tasks, and stay calm.

What are executive functioning skills?

According to Dr. Ross Greene, there are five key sets of skills that help us manage our behaviour. We build these skills through experience, but our brains don’t fully mature until our early twenties. If we get stressed out, it gets even harder to use those skills. If we are pushed beyond our abilities in one of those areas, we can get frustrated, emotional and upset.

If you want to quickly assess your child’s skills in five key areas, download this quiz:

Prevent outbursts by supporting your child’s executive functioning skills

If you want to explore five key skills that help make up your child’s “executive functioning skills” in more detail, read on! I’ve also included some activities and tips to help develop each skill. As your child matures and practices, you will find that stronger executive functioning skills are crucial for preventing common battles and outbursts.

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Flexibility

Just like the spatula, flexibility helps us adapt in tight situations. However, as any parent knows, being flexible is a surprisingly difficult skill. To be flexible need to be able to problem-solve, and see the world through someone else’s eyes. We need to switch from one task to another, and let go of plans if they don’t work out. We need to be able to look at both the good and the bad, sometimes at the same time. It’s flexibility that allows us to be creative, compassionate, and even funny.

If your child is struggling with flexibility, you may see him or her getting very frustrated when plans change, when friends have differing opinions, or when teachers ask questions that can’t be settled with a black or white answer.

 

Activities to help build flexibility with your child

  • Invite your child to be play the “Good Side / Bad Side” game, and challenge each other to come up with both “good” and “bad” qualities about anything at all.
  • Find moments to be silly and unpredictable. It can be as simple as switching places at the dinner table, or choose a different route to drive home from the store, just for a refreshing change. When you run into an everyday problem and your usual solution is unavailable, talk it through so your kids can hear: “Hmmm. How can I be flexible? What else can I try?”
  • If your child is anxious or upset when you use a surprising word, or use objects in an unexpected way, try to be compassionate and listen to their feelings. Sometimes predictability helps children to feel safe and calm, and life is already full of surprises. Just embrace each opportunity for creativity as it comes, and if your child is not ready, don’t push too hard.
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Self-regulation

Sometimes when we feel like boiling over, we need self-control to help keep “the lid on.” Self-regulation helps us resist our impulses, put off a tempting reward, or choose to cool down instead of blow up. No one does this perfectly all the time, even grown-ups! However, as we grow and mature, we need to be able to think ahead about what the consequences might be, and recognize our own physical cues when we start to experience stress and fatigue.

Self-regulation means being alert to our body’s cues, and choosing activities that help us stay alert but not hyperactive, calm but not sleepy, engaged but not obsessed… it’s a tough job! I’ve written several other blog posts about it (like this one, called Emotional Self-Regulation: A Work In Progress), but here are some activities you can try to help your child in this process.

 

Activities to help build self-regulation with your child

  • Tell your child: Guess what? We can practice self-regulation before we even start to feel upset! While we’re calm, we can make plans together to handle any situation. Plan with your child: what can do we if you feel jumpy? what can we do if you feel nervous? what can we do if you feel frustrated? When you plan and rehearse together, even in play, you give your child a chance to use those skills before the stress or fatigue reaches a boiling point.
  • The Feelings Mirror! Pay close attention to your own body, and talk about what your body does when you are happy, tired, or confused. Notice how your shoulders and your eyebrows are positioned. What’s happening with your hands? How about your mouth? Ask your child to mirror you, and then change places and mirror them back. Notice how a change in our bodies can actually help us change our emotions too.
  • It may take a long time for your child to be able to ask for what they need when it comes to self-regulation, so be prepared to experiment. Your child may not recognize when they are thirsty, or when they need a hug. It’s only once you’ve offered, and they discover how much better they feel, that children learn to speak up and let you know. Sometimes kids need SURPRISING things to stay calm, like deep pressure, fidgets, cold water, music, or even chewing gum!
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Planning, memory and organization

 When we find ourselves battling with our children, it’s sometimes because our expectations around planning, memory and organization are a little out of sync with what our kids can comfortably do. 

For example, if your child refuses to even start tidying up, the reason might not be a deep-rooted hatred of cleanliness. Your child might be having a hard time choosing a first step, or understanding what you mean by “just for five minutes”

If routines and expectations are going out the window, it could be that your child needs help to follow a plan, remember the steps, and keep track of belongs.

 

Ideas to help your child with planning, memory and organization

  • Visuals, visuals, visuals. A simple set of pictures can guide your child and build independence. Remember, your words only last as long as your child’s memory and attention can hold on, but pictures last as long as you need them.
  • Apps, timers, and technology can also help to add reminders whenever they are needed, so you’re not walking around like a talking clock, saying “WE HAVE THREE MINUTES LEFT!” Visual schedule apps like Choiceworks can help keep your kids on track, and the Time Timer is great for translating an invisible idea like “time” into a visual representation that even very young kids can understand. 
  • Grab your markers! Whenever I have a plan for the day with my own kids, I find it’s much easy to help them see the activities and expectations, using some colourful and simple drawings. If your kids love to draw or write, invite them to create the plan for you!
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Communication 

 When our kids explode or dig their heels in, it’s often because there’s some kind of unspoken need or frustration. Why don’t kids always express their needs in words? Well, adults often make that same mistake. We grumble, walk away, or accuse, instead of saying plainly what we need. We can’t be too hard on kids for their lack of communication, especially when they might not even know how to express what they need most.

 

Ideas to help your child with communication

  • Like so many of these skills, we work on communication our whole lives. While kids are still learning, keep your language simple, when the message is very important. Sometimes less is more. Echo what your child is saying, and add just a few words at a time.
  • Avoid communicating when emotions are running high. Our communication skills are much easier to use when we are calm, and when we feel safe. If your child is using short, nonsensical, or even scary sentences, it’s best to focus on de-escalating before asking complex questions or giving logical explanations. 
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Self-control 

There’s a reason that grocery trips are so notorious for triggering tantrums. We can be consistent, we can be firm, but it’s so hard to compete with all that colourful, sugary goodness, placed right at (kids’) eye-level for maximum impact. When we have one plan and mission in mind, it’s so hard to stay calm when our children suddenly dash off in another direction.

Self-control describes the way we stay on task and put off tempting rewards until later. Children aren’t born with the ability to carefully way consequences versus benefits; this is a skill that goes hand in hand with physical maturity and also plenty of learning opportunities.

 

Activities to help your child with self-control and impulsivity

  • The Mission Notebook! I used this technique with one family when they experienced heart-breaking meltdowns as they tried to run errands. When you use the Mission Notebook with your children, you can create a list of what everyone is hoping for. Sometimes children don’t tell us what plans they have made; we only find out when they have sprinted away from us or thrown their bodies on the floor. If they ask “Can I have?” it’s much simpler and easier to say “Let’s check the Mission Notebook” than to sigh and say “Noooo, because…”
  • Red Light / Green Light! When you watch your children playing this classic game, you’ll see up close how difficult it is for them to put the brakes on. When you see that gap between hearing “RED LIGHT!” and actually slowing down their bodies, you’ll appreciate why they sometimes seem to blow right past our everyday reminders. This game is also a great way to practice the essential skill of stopping our bodies!

Executive Functioning Skill and Challenging Behaviour

As you can see, these skills work together, and most of them are involved in even the simplest tasks in your morning routine.

The more tired or stressed we are, the harder it is to communicate, or to resist temptation. This is true for adults as well as children. It’s so important to remember what is happening under the surface before we conclude that our kids are “stubborn,” “difficult” or that they “just don’t know how to listen.”

Do you know what your child’s strengths are, when it comes to executive functioning? These can be amazing opportunities to build upon! 

Do you know where your kids need the most support? Take the quiz below to find out, and start setting yourself up for success.

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