Category Archives: executive function

Preschoolers Store Info and Use As Needed

Here is an enlightening piece of research for those of us raising the strange little creatures known as preschoolers, and those of us providing treatment to families raising the little barbarians as well. Research by Colorado Professor Yuko Munakata suggests that three-year-olds are often listening when you give them directions — they simply choose to ignore you until there is evidence that the directions are needed. From Science Daily:

“… For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think ‘OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,’ ” said Chatham. “But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-year-old’s brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it.”

Munakata doesn’t claim to be a parental expert, but she does think their new study has relevance to parents’ daily interactions with their toddlers.

“If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective,” Munakata said. “What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don’t do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like ‘I know you don’t want to take your coat now, but when you’re standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom.”

I would argue that this tendency to ignore advice until there is evidence to support its necessity extends beyond preschool — I still go through this with my nine-year-old! The point is, you can probably save your breath and a lot of extra annoyed feelings by accepting that your small child’s brain does not operate in a way that tends to accept futuristic warnings. Showing them what will happen if they don’t listen, or helping them imagine the scenario of how they will benefit if they heed your directions, will probably be more effective than just repeating yourself ad nauseum.

(cross-posted on my psychotherapy site at

Don’t Make Decisions on a Tired Brain

(cross-posted from my private practice site.)

This article from Scientific American describes new research that suggests that if you wear your brain out with executive function activities, you might not want to make any big decisions right away. Even using your executive function for mundane self-control such as avoiding eating foods that are not good for you or following directions that tell you to ignore something that is mildly interesting, may have the effect of making you more susceptible to errors in judgment in subsequent decision-making.

This is news, but it also contains a message as old as human consciousness itself: when you are tired, rest. Forcing yourself to stay awake and perform tasks is a good way to end up making serious mistakes. Of course, taking a rest is often easier said than done. But bear in mind the option of putting off decision-making or major confrontations or attempts to solve seemingly-entrenched problems until you can come at them with a brain fully loaded with fresh executive function capability.

There’s also a wise old message for parents hidden in this research: put your children to bed. Help them settle down when they are tired. Do not try to discipline them or force them to use their executive function skills if it is the end of the day and they are unraveling. Better to let them get a good night’s sleep and start something challenging the next day, even if it means getting up earlier in the morning to make sure something is done for school.

Research on Preschool Ed with Executive Function Focus

(Cross-posted from the blog on my private practice site.)

An article in this week’s Newsweek by Wray Herbert describes some fascinating research being done on enhancing preschool education by focusing the curriculum specifically to improve executive functions. From the article:

[...] Psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been testing the EF concept in the classroom, with provocative results. In one recent study Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district (in the northeastern United States) to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.

The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: “OK, now clap.” “Twirl now.” This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain’s ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it’s the elementary school equivalent of saying “I really need stop thinking about next week’s vacation and focus on this report.”

Here’s another example from the classroom. Children tell stories to one another, but kids being kids, they all want to be the storyteller; none wants to just sit and listen. But the reality is that only one can tell a story at a time, so the designated listeners hold a picture of an ear, a prop to remind them that they are waiting their turn to talk. This helps them learn to control their natural instinct to talk out of turn. Eventually the props and private chatter are not needed, but in the beginning they help cognitively immature children stretch their executive muscles.

The research described above is more evidence that play is central to learning, and that play therapy is beneficial for enhancing executive function. Especially with very young children having behavioral difficulties, I find play-acting with them to be very helpful to working through emotional dilemmas and practicing problem-solving.

For those looking for ways to enhance executive function with video game exercises, Nintendo’s Brain Age can help with the “suppress and sub” brain exercises, such as one where you have to say the color of the lettering on the word, rather than the word itself. For this example: blue the correct answer would be “red.” This is a similar activity to the one described above in which the children were prompted to coordinate body movements with the teacher holding up certain symbols.

New Study on Meditative Mindfulness and ADHD

(This is cross-posted from my private practice site.), one of the sites in our Technology & Helping Kids blogroll, has an article by Dr. David Rabiner in which he reviews some new research on teaching mindfulness meditation to teens and adults, and how study participants with attentional problems were helped by learning and practicing these techniques. The article also provides this summary for how study participants were trained in mindfulness meditation. From the article:

- Mindfulness Training -

Mindfulness meditation is described as involving 3 basic steps: 1) bringing attention to an “attentional anchor” such as breathing; 2) noting that distraction occurs and letting go of the distraction; and, 3) refocusing back to the “attentional anchor”.

This sequence is repeated many times during the course of each meditative session. As the individual becomes better able to maintain focus on the attentional anchor, the notion of “paying attention to attention” is introduced and individuals are encouraged to bring their attention to the present moment frequently during the course of the day.

By directing one’s attention to the process of paying attention, to noticing notice when one becomes distracted, and to refocusing attention when distraction occurs, mindfulness meditation training can be thought of as an “attention training” program. As such, examining the impact of such training on individuals with ADHD becomes a very interesting question to pursue.

The results of the study are encouraging, with 78% of participants reporting an overall reduction in ADHD symptoms. This was only a pilot study, but it’s a good indicator that meditation and mindfulness may play a key role in mental health.


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