Listening is key to all thriving relationships, that is why we have 2 ears and one mouth – to listen more and talk less. But, most of us want to communicate what we want and fail to truly listen to the other person.

We do not listen to understand,
We listen to reply.

Role modeling is the first step. The second would be to truly understand their behavior. To know more, please read the article: Bursting Parenting Myths: Wasn’t my child supposed to listen to me? (Part 1)

As we listen to the clues and unpeel the needs behind each behavior, it becomes imperative to understand children’s development of executive & cognitive skills.

What are executive skills?

According to Dr. Peg Dawson, author of Smart but Scattered – Executive skills are brain-based skills. They’re skills that begin to emerge shortly after birth but take a full 25 years, to reach full maturation, in typically developing kids.

They are the skills needed to – get things done.

So when your child is procrastinating homework or leaving things lying around the room, or simply not finishing a given task – may be a particular executive skill is not fully developed in them.

Let’s have a look how Dr. Peg Dawson & Dr. Richard Guare categorize these skills which are critical for school success.

Foundational Skills

1. Response Inhibition

It is the ability to stop and think before you say or do something.

Other terms for this would be self-control, self-regulation & delay in gratification. Basically, it means to pause and think before acting or making a decision.

This is a very important skill for making more rational and less impulsive decisions. Like your child has to finish his homework but his friend is playing outside. The ability to weigh all consequences and then make a decision, as compared to impulse behavior is response inhibition.

2. Working Memory

It is the ability to use your memory while performing a complex task.

So for example, you ask your child to go get a toy from their room. When they get there, they need to remember why they are there, retrieve from their memory the location of the toy, and then get back to you.

Even remembering the daily schedule – retrieving from memory the next step while performing a task is working memory.

3. Emotional Control

It is the ability to manage your emotions in order to achieve goals, accomplish tasks, and carry out actions.

It is very important for children to benefit and build from positive emotions and deal with negative emotions. All of us experience emotions at all times and emotional regulation helps us ably respond to situations and people.

Children who can understand their own feelings and soothe themselves have good emotional control which is a very beneficial life skill.

To learn more about emotional control, please read the article: Why are we overcome with emotions?

4. Flexibility

It is the ability to roll with the punches, to be able to take in new information, changes in plans surprises, and be able to adjust to them.

This means being able to cope with open ended tasks, be creative and resilient. It is very important for children to self regulate when things do not happen their way and find creative solutions with the resources at hand.

Resilience is another form of flexibility. To learn more about resilience, please read the article: Resilience and COVID 19

5. Sustained Attention

 It is the ability to pay attention in spite of distractibility, fatigue or boredom.

This means willing yourself to do tasks especially when they seem boring or even if you are very tired or an exciting option is available. It is the basis of commitment and consistency. Both key to success.

So while your child may watch TV for many hours, it is finishing homework or chores even while being distracted or tired is true sustained attention.

6. Task Initiation

 It is the ability to start tasks promptly.

This definitely a much needed skill and a very hard one to acquire. Research shows that this skill develops till late twenties then gradually decreases.

Role modelling definitely helps in this one. Setting up routines and timers also enables them to positively develop this crucial skill. The opposite of procrastination is task initiation.

So for elementary-age kids, these are the 6 executive skills to identify and build for getting things done.

Advanced Skills

These skills build on the foundational skills and more appropriately developed during middle school.

1. Make A Plan

It is the ability to make long term plans and prioritize tasks.

This is a later developing ability in children and kids before middle school need support to understand this. It means to break down tasks in a sequence of priority. To understand & decide what is important to focus on and what is not.

Visual cues are great for kids to remember plans and a good start to developing this crucial ability.

2. Organization

It’s the ability to create and maintain a system to keep track of information or materials.

Planning is more sequential and organization is spatial. Like a middle schooler organizing his study desk and then maintaining it over time. The maintenance is where they really need our help because these habits take time.

Progress is not measured in months but in years for children.

Dr. Peg Dawson

3. Time Management

The capacity to estimate how much time one has, how to allocate it, and how to stay within time limits and deadlines. It also involves a sense that time is important.

So time management is basically task initiation, sustained attention, and planning with one additional element that’s unique to time management and that’s time estimation, the ability to estimate how long it takes to do something. 

When kids leave things to the last minute, they run out of time, but when they overestimate they fail at task initiation. Like to us a chore which will take 10 mins, to them it feels like it is going to take all morning.

Guessing an appropriate time estimate is the building blocks for great time management which I would say is essential in adult life. Parents can start this as a game with young children to begin this necessary skill.

4. Goal Directed Persistence

It’s the capacity to have a goal, to follow through to the completion of the goal, and not be put off by or distracted by competing interests. But goal-directed persistence is long term and not something you can finish by lunch.

So goal directed persistence is

  • something you have to remember – working memory
  • plan to achieve your goals – planning
  • start & finish the plan – task initiation and sustained attention
  • resist temptation – response inhibition
  • reassure yourself if you get annoyed or dejected – emotional control.

Now that’s a lot of executive skills working together and most kids in middle school are just not ready. Parents mistake them to be lazy and undermotivated to accomplish goals like improving grades or topping the class.

If I could ban one word from the English Dictionary, it would be the word lazy

Dr. Peg Dawson

But what parents can do is use goal-directed persistence in areas that matter to their children. Like if they really want something that costs money, figure out a way they can earn it and then resist spending it on anything else until they fulfill their goal.

5. Meta Cognition

It the ability to think about thinking.

It is the last ability and develops around 11 or 12 in typically growing kids. It means to be aware of your thoughts and you use those thoughts to solve problems, understand the world, and make sense out of things.

When kids acquire this ability their brain changes rather dramatically. So when you ask them – why did you do that? and they cannot answer, it means they need time to develop this ability.

Giving your feedback on their behavior will make them begin to think about their thoughts & actions. When the tone is condescending or the volume is loud – the message is lost.

But when you are truly listening, coaching, and being positive it lays seeds for a much healthier self-image and develops skills like reflection, self-compassion, and use of positive talk to get up when they fall.

Executive skills are like a language. Children have the potential for it but we need to help them with it. For example, just because your son/daughter has turned 12 doesn’t mean they have automatically developed time management. We need to first guide & support them to master the skill.

So instead of calling them lazy, be their frontal lobe!

To understand more about how you can coach children on executive skills, please read the below handout by Dr. Peg Dawson.

So empathize how hard it is to have emotional control, role model task initiation and sustained attention, help in their planning & organization, assist in goal-directed persistence and time management, and encourage them towards metacognition.

And yes – they aren’t there YET, but they will get there by you listening to them and being their coach.

Prachi Bansal

Hi, I am Prachi Bansal. This blog is an endeavor to increase emotional intelligence and facilitate collaboration and communication amongst parents and children, friends, family, and co-workers. Thanks for stopping by:)

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