Building a Future "Executive" by Teri Ouellette

Building a Future “Executive”
Have the trailers for the Disney movie “Boss Baby” got you wondering about the “secret life” of your little darling?  Is there more going on behind those “big baby blues” than you ever imagined?  The answer is a definite yes!  While your baby may not be an “executive” just yet, every baby is busily building “executive function” daily!  

You may have heard of the term “executive function” connected to the development of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain in teenagers.  This part of the brain is what helps us to “think about what we think” – organize our thoughts and act on them with consideration.  We inhibit (stop) actions that might not be the best idea, while recalling processes (such as directions) and putting them in the correct order.  You can easily see how this skill affects driving, for example.  Waiting to make a left turn onto a busy street requires a lot of impulse control and ordering of actions!  
While we see executive function issues in teens, we are becoming more and more aware of how those skills develop from infancy.  The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard (www.developingchild.harvard.edu) has been doing extensive work on how children build these skills over time.  The development of inhibition and working memory are good examples.  How do we learn to stop ourselves from doing things we want to do, but shouldn’t (inhibition)? One way is to simply learn to wait for an expected reward.     “Where did Mommy go?” – (wait, wait, wait) “Peek-a-boo!”  Did you realize “peek-a-boo” was building your baby’s brain? Another brain-building skill is to teach your child to remember a rule or warning (working memory) and repeat it to themselves to help them inhibit their behavior: “Don’t touch! Hot!”  “We pet the doggie, we don’t pull his tail.” Eventually it becomes “Don’t take candy from strangers” and “Call me if you are in trouble” , You get the idea!
Another aspect of executive function is ordering our actions.  This involves both inhibiting the first thing we think of, and manipulating the series of potential actions mentally through working memory.  It starts with things like learning the sequence of toileting (“Did you wash your hands?”) and dressing (putting on socks before shoes) and eventually results in completing a long-term homework assignment by actually starting it two weeks before it is due.  
You can help your young child develop this skill by talking about how you order your tasks.   “Should we pick up Sally before or after we stop at the library?” Also talk out loud about your reasoning processes: “I am really hungry, but if we stop to get lunch now, I’m afraid we will be late and Grandma will be frustrated.  I think we should pick up lunch and eat on the way.”  Even if your child doesn’t participate in the process, hearing your reasoning and predictions about the outcomes helps them to understand how you process information and make decisions.  
Take the time to talk about your life with your children.  Share the way you make decisions and how you feel about them, and talk about those processes in books, TV, and movies.  Practice organizing and using schedules, and talk about when and how you need to change them.  All of that will pay off in the development of their executive function in high school and beyond! 
May is National Speech and Hearing Month – enjoy talking with your children.

Teri Ouellette, MS Ed, LSLS Cert AVEd
President
St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf

Suskind, D. (2015).  Thirty million words: Building a child’s brain. New York:Dutton.