By Dr. Stephanny Freeman and Kristen Hayashida, BCBA
Super Parents! We know you used your Executive Function (EF) powers to prepare for summer! For most of us, this process started as early as February with camp sign-ups, enrichment programs, juggling schedules and the time-off of others, extended family, competing obligations, and maybe even a family vacation. We see summer as a hot/humid gigantic puzzle of weeks that must be filled with fortifying activities that surely and absolutely develop our young children’s minds, bodies, and souls! We fear expense, we fear boredom, we fear regression, we fear pushback or dislike, ARGH!!!
But truthfully, for us, as summer approaches, we just feel accomplished if we found anything where the kids would at least come home ‘happy and exhausted!’
That said, we know the LAST thing you want to think about is adding more pressure to yourself on how to better “enrich” your child’s summer.
Hold on though… what if we said it was easy, part of what you already do, and would embed into your summer plans?
Pass on your EF super-powers and turn any activity into executive function practice that will not only enhance and develop your child’s skills but may actually make your life easier!
The easiest and most obvious is Planning. Planning entails the ability to identify all the different steps needed to achieve a specific goal and in what order those steps need to happen. Involving your children in the planning of any outing, particularly road trips or vacations is an incredible way to develop their EF skills. For example, for very young children, have them download and print pictures of different sights, people, or locations that you might see on the outing/trip.
Organization includes the capacity to prioritize and make decisions about which tasks to undertake, as well as anticipate and keep track of needed materials or resources. So, use the printed pictures and put them in order using a calendar and a map to take into account location/day/participants. Then make a list of “things you’ll need” for each event. For example, if you are going swimming, make a list of the items needed for the pool. It is not lost on us that you all do this anyway but we encourage a little extra time to include your kids and have the visuals. We’ll bet it will also improve the likelihood that you’ll have everything you need!
Time Awareness is part of the broader skill of time management which includes the ability to anticipate how long tasks might take and be aware of time constraints. This is developmentally challenging for younger children who are still emerging in their understanding of the abstract concept of time; however, you can still enhance experiences and continue development within something you are already doing. A great opportunity for helping children develop time awareness is at amusement parks, fairs, or zoos. Look at showtimes for when the animals are being fed and help your child consider how long they have to see other exhibits before the show. Use a map and have your child consider how long it will take to walk from exhibit to exhibit and ask their input for when might be best to stop for lunch. Using a combination of visuals (e.g., maps, showtimes) and verbal support, you can help your child think about time in a more tangible way.
Inhibitory Control and Problem Solving
Within plans, there are always smaller activities. For example, a beach day might include building sandcastles, going boogie boarding, and splashing in the waves. You and your child have planned the outing, organized what you need to bring, and timed out the outing so you can squeeze all the activities in. Once at the beach, Inhibitory Control and Problem Solving become your new EF goals! Inhibitory Control involves the ability to regulate one’s attention, behavior, thinking, and emotion. We are hard-wired to be aware of and prime our children for what is unsafe (stay close to our spot on the beach, no going into the water without us, etc.). But what about doing some priming for emotion? For example, have your children try to identify what things might go a different way than expected and then come up with potential solutions. It doesn’t have to be doom and gloom (i.e., what might go wrong), but more fun and exciting – like a challenge. Ask your child as they are building their castle… “What will you do if a huge tsunami comes to your world?” Praise them for their control and problem solving and use that same language when other unexpected things happen (e.g., the Godzilla neighboring child that inadvertently stomps through the castle).
Summer is also a great time to encourage cognitive flexibility. This entails having your child shift their thinking! Change their approach! Recognize and accept when something needs to be changed. There should be a sign that parents carry with them over the summer because in my experience, everything summer-related required a relaxed attitude to keep my sanity. Not kidding — carry a sign that says, “Bendy is Fun!” and remind the children of this fact any time you use pliable materials in play (e.g., sand, play dough, clay, craft materials). These materials are fun because they can be used in so many different ways and be remolded into something else. During summer activities, point out constantly to your children with the “Bendy is Fun” board that when you tried something new, or did something different, it was being “bendy” and worked out for the best.
EF skills are very intertwined and build upon each other. We often call them “cogs” in our brain machine. EF strategies often overlap and facilitate one another so you can do just a few tiny little changes to your summer activities and make them really enriching to benefit EF skills. EF skills are for life and learning. Starting your children early and practicing these skills in the most embedded and easy ways will ensure that your summer is filled with enrichment!
About the Authors
Dr. Stephanny Freeman is a clinical professor at UCLA, a licensed clinical psychologist, and Co-Directs the Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP). For 20 years, she has educated children with ASD and other exceptionalities as a teacher, studied interventions for social emotional development, and designed curriculum and behavior plans in school and clinic settings.
Kristen Hayashida is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the UCLA Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP). For the last 10 years she has served as a therapist, researcher and educator of children and families living with autism spectrum disorder through the treatment of problem behavior.