When you look at kids and people in general, it’s easy to see that we all have differences in how our brains are wired and work. As a parent, you see these differences between your children every day.
Your son is great at figuring out how long it will take him to write that English paper, while your daughter always seems to think she’ll get it done in an hour, even though she never does. Or one child remembers everything she’s told, while the other can’t remember a login and password a minute after you just said it.
The ability to plan, manage time, and remember details are all mental abilities—or brain functions—known as executive functions. Executive functions also include the ability to regulate emotions, solve problems, be flexible, stay organized, and communicate well.
Executive functions strongly influence your child’s ability to excel at certain tasks, like planning ahead to get their homework done on time. In addition, executive functions play a part in determining how successful they may be in school, work, and other roles in their lives.
The good news is that science has shown that we can change our brain wiring and improve our executive functions. The ability to improve executive function means that, while your child may have difficulties at home or at school that are at least partially based on delays or differences in executive functions, through training and practice, they can develop these lagging skills.
Strengthened executive functions will enable your child to be more successful academically, become better able to cope with life’s daily challenges, and improve their ability to relate with others. All of these improvements will contribute to a more satisfying and productive life.
You can help your child develop these skills through brain training exercises—or better yet, games. Children naturally learn through play. Play involves the whole child in the experience and thus intensifies the learning experience.
Practice is also important. In the brain, each time a behavior is repeated, it strengthens the brain’s wiring and its ability to do the behavior more successfully the next time.
Think of it this way: helping your child learn an executive function is no different than when they learn to ride a bike or recite the alphabet. Make it fun and keep at it, and you’ll see gains.
Here are six activities you can do with your child to promote healthy brain development that will improve several key executive functions. By the way, these exercises not only help kids, but they also work for adults as well.
Practicing deep breathing (“elevator breathing” or moving the breath to all parts of the body) helps improve memory and emotional control. Kids love doing this, so do it often.
Start by having your child sitting in a cross-legged position or lying down and breathing naturally. After they have practiced breathing naturally, say the following to them:
“Imagine that your breath is like an elevator taking a ride through your body. To start the elevator, I want you to breathe in through your nose. Now breathe out all your air. Now breathe in and take your elevator breath up to your chest. Hold it. Now breathe out all of your air. Now breathe in and take your elevator breath up to the top floor, up through your throat into your face and forehead. Hold it. Now breathe out and feel your elevator breath take all your troubles and worries down through your chest, your belly, your legs, and out the elevator door in your feet.”
Our brains and our bodies are part of our whole self, and both parts need exercise. When we exercise them together, we are helping various functions of the brain work more collaboratively and stay in sync. Motor coordination is a function of our brain as well as our body. Exercises like the following promote integration between essential brain functions, leading to an overall better-performing brain.
Activities to improve memory and concentration are essential for all of us. For younger children, you can take a few of their toys and line them up. Then cover them and take one away. See if they can tell you which one is missing.
You can also have them try to remember short lists of familiar objects in the home. Try remembering them forward and backward.
For older children and teens, try putting random objects in front of them for 15 seconds, then remove them and see how many they can remember. Start with five and keep increasing the number as they master the task.
You can also help auditory memory by giving them a random list of numbers or words orally and having them repeat them. Start with only two or three and work up from there.
Play games like checkers and chess. Or try card games such as UNO, Hearts, Go Fish, and Speed. These games all teach problem-solving, planning, and cooperation (such as taking turns and handling frustration).
Board games are also great for this, such as Monopoly, Sorry! and Yahtzee. Games like Jenga and Operation improve attention, concentration, coordination, and frustration tolerance.
Another plus is that playing games together is fun for everyone and helps strengthen family bonds. Try it once a week and see what it does for your child and your relationship.
Many websites offer great free games that are both fun and improve a wide variety of academic skills. This is screen time parents can actually feel good about. Check out www.kidsmathgamesonline.com and www.learninggamesforkids.com.
In today’s world of constant texting, talking—really communicating—is getting to be a lost art. Taking time daily with each child to learn about their triumphs and challenges and sharing yours will greatly improve your child’s communication and conversational skills.
Sharing your triumphs and challenges can also help them to learn problem-solving skills. Family dinnertime is an excellent time to do this and a great tradition to start.
Or read a book with your child and ask questions about what was happening. Discuss the events and also the feelings, not only how the characters were feeling but also what your child was thinking and feeling. Share your thoughts and feelings too.
Taking time to teach, encourage, and participate with your child in these activities will not only improve brain function but will build relationships and reduce stress in all who participate.
Play may be the work of the child, but it is good for adults to slip into their own inner child now and then as well. So exercise your brain along with your child’s, knowing you are having fun together while promoting growth.
Dr. Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD - ADHD) and learning disabilities. Dr. Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr. Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, childdevelopmentinfo.com. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.