How parents can help their kids accomplish tasks without immediate rewards
By Scott Ryan, licensed marriage and family therapist at CHOC’s Intensive Outpatient Program
When we begin a task as an adult, we may plan a specific time to do the task, we may gather information and materials, we may continue to engage in the chore even if parts of the task are boring, and typically we may try to flexible in case things do not go as planned. These are the skills that make up executive functioning.
Executive functioning refers to a set of skills that are related to the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed until around age 25. Therefore, children spend much of their formative years developing this part of the brain and the skills related to attending, carrying out and completing a task.
How to improve your kids’ executive functioning
Children who have challenges in their executive functioning skills may hear messages from family, friends, and teachers that they might internalize and lead them to believe that they are “dumb”, “lazy” or “not smart enough.” Caregivers mean well, though they may not necessarily provide their child with a supportive environment when they comment, “You need to focus more!” or “Try harder.”
It is not hard to imagine that these children may begin to have genuine self-doubt about their abilities and may become more depressed or anxious regarding their performance.
The good news is that children with poor executive functioning can improve their performance by developing these skills.
Here are some ways that parents can help kids develop executive functioning skills:
- Create habits and routines. Try to structure your child’s time so that they follow the same order of tasks each day. For example, having your child brush teeth immediately after breakfast, and then put on school clothes would support effective time management. Another way to promote these routines might be to create a checklist for your child: eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on clothes, put lunch in backpack, etc. Over time, these routines may become automatic, meaning the child is able to complete the expected tasks without needing the check list.
- Create to-do lists with your child. Teach your child to create lists of things they need to do, either that day or later that week. Help them determine which tasks need to be done first, second or later to support their understanding of prioritizing. Eventually they will use to-do lists on their own and will require less of your oversight as they learn to prioritize.
- Simplify directions. Using short sentences with clear instructions will support understanding of what needs to be done. An example might be to tell them, first gather your clothes from the floor, then put them in the laundry basket and bring it to me. If your child has a limited working memory, then shorter instructions are less likely to be displaced by other information and they are more likely to be successful carrying out the instructions.
- Chunk large tasks. If there is a big project or a task with many steps, help your child break it down into smaller discrete tasks, so it will feel less overwhelming to them and they are more likely to begin the task, rather than avoiding it.
- Create a reward system. Children with executive functioning deficits may require bigger and more frequent rewards to get things done due to poorer incidental learning (they may be less likely to connect “I do this and then I get that” or have difficulty waiting for rewards and need more immediate reinforcers). Frequent praise may work for some children, and others may need something more tangible. The reward needs to be large enough to genuinely motivate them to complete the work, and provided immediately when they complete the task. There are many factors when creating a rewards system, so you may want to consider working with a mental health provider if your system is not working satisfactorily.
- Allow for frequent breaks. A child with executive functioning deficits may benefit from frequent breaks, as this may help them regulate their mood, maintain their focus, and help them persist on tasks that may take a while to complete. Ideally breaks are time-limited and brief (five to ten minutes) and are not so rewarding (I.e.: playing video games) that they will have difficulty returning to a less-interesting task.
What is executive functioning?
Executive functioning is often compared to an air traffic controller who must control planes landing and planes taking off. The air traffic controller needs to pay attention to multiple details, start actions, prioritize important steps, ignore distractions (such as other conversations in the room), regulate their own emotions and persist even if work becomes tiresome.
Another example of how executive functioning skills are needed may be all the decisions needed to successfully drive a car. First, you need to know your destination and purpose for the drive (initiation). You will need to attend to the road and the drivers around you, not act on impulses to go faster or speed through the yellow light (inhibition), ignore distractions (conversations, people on the sidewalk) and give primary attention to cars stopped in front of you, change in traffic lights, the flow of traffic (prioritization). If you are stuck in traffic you will need to be patient and wait longer for the reward of getting to your destination (persistence).
In cognitive terms, our executive functioning system helps regulate the flow of information and emotions, maintains focus on tasks, prioritizes what needs to be done and keeps us organized. In fact, many of us may find that we have some difficulties with some of these skills.
It is useful to consider all the small steps that go into specific actions, as many of us take these skills for granted, when broken down it is easier to understand how being deficient in one or more of these skills can genuinely impact performance. We may need to ignore distractions, shift from one task to another, regulate our emotions, get started on tasks, plan and organize both materials and time, hold multiple pieces of information simultaneously and then effectively give ourselves feedback about how we are doing. Wow! That is a lot!
When your child has challenges with executive functioning
These skills are important and essential to knowing what to do, when to do it, and how to push ourselves to do what is needed even if is not immediately rewarding. Although challenges in executive functioning are related to some mental health diagnoses, these difficulties are not a diagnosis itself.
For example, many children with ADHD have executive functioning deficits, as do some children with learning disorders. Additionally, many children who do not have mental health disorders may still have difficulty in their execution of tasks and attention.
Children who have challenges with their executive functioning may:
- Have trouble beginning or completing tasks, like homework or a chore.
- Frequently lose things or be very disorganized.
- Act impulsively, interrupt others, say the things that most people filter.
- Appear lazy or unmotivated to do things in general or avoid tasks that require sustained attention.
- Have difficulty regulating their emotions.
- Lose track of time, be late or don’t plan for time commitments.
In behavioral terms, your child may protest daily about doing homework causing tears and frustration, or perhaps take hours to do homework that possibly could have been completed in 30 minutes by another child of the same age and grade level.
Maybe your child is frequently distracted, getting lost if there are more than a few steps in a task. You may also need to constantly prompt your child to remember things (for example, their lunch and homework) or feel that you need to repeat directions multiple times for them to do what you ask of them.
Executive functioning key points
Executive functioning is a set of mental actions that help us attend to details, begin tasks, organize tasks, keep us focused on one task at a time, continue the task even if boring and connect results (such as rewards) to our actions.
Children with difficulties in executive functioning may appear to be lazy, avoid tasks that require sustained attention, display a low frustration tolerance, not complete tasks, or miss important steps, have difficulty focusing on what is important at the moment and may be more likely to express strong emotions.
However, children with these challenges can improve their executive functioning through parental support and development of executive functioning skills. If you are finding as a parent that these tips listed above are not sufficient to support your child, please consider enlisting professional support through your mental health provider.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.