Parents around the world are in a time of flux. With so many schools closed or the future unclear, it’s easy to feel that education has stopped. We worry that our kids will fall behind without everyday instruction. We feel like we need to jump in as fully-fledged teachers with all the skills and knowledge to continue what they did in school. I am an actual teacher who has that option, but I am not taking it. Our home will never mimic school and I don’t want it to. We, as parents, are uniquely situated in this time to focus on an area of learning that many teachers address but cannot fully facilitate: Executive Function.

What is Executive Function

Executive Function is a term to define a set of skills that manage everything in a person’s life. You know those movies with high-powered bosses that bark orders at their assistants, who basically keep their lives running? If executive function were a movie character, it would be that assistant. It includes self-control, focus and attention, organization, memory, and the ability to change your plan or opinion based on new information or situations. We start developing these skills as babies with our first game of peek-a-boo and then continue to grow into our twenties. Honestly, I think I’m still working on it!

Yes. Academics are important. That cannot be questioned. But we all have experienced that moment when you know you’ve “learned” something but you just don’t remember it anymore. Schools aim to give kids an understanding of the world, but we all accept that they won’t remember every detail. Or, in the case of many students out there right now, they might miss chunks of information through disrupted education. Executive function can help a student recognize what they need to learn, plan how to get that knowledge, deal with the frustration of needing to put in extra effort, and follow through to acquire it. Frankly, in some ways, if your kids don’t learn another academic thing this school year, but come away with more developed executive function, they will come out ahead.

What Does Executive Function Look Like?

This development looks different at every age. For a toddler, it might mean that they remember and stick to a morning routine or begin to learn how to control their frustrations when something doesn’t go their way. An elementary-aged student learns how to focus for longer times on a single activity or how to work through many steps to complete a project. Middle-schoolers begin to manage a large number of tasks at the same time as well as more complex relationships. Ideally, high school students begin to plan for the future and initiate actions that will further those plans on their own.

How Does Executive Function Develop?

A good portion of this growth comes innately from brain development and experience. Schools automatically add practice of these skills as kids navigate the learning process. It’s easy to assume that these things will just “come with time.” It’s true to a certain extent. The brain will mature and life will teach some of these lessons. Parents, however, have a truly unique opportunity to personalize advice, experiences, and support to their children’s specific personalities. You know where your child excels. You know what you worry might never happen. In this more unstructured time, you have more freedom to create situations in which your child faces those struggles while you are there to give assistance.

Without school, your children’s education probably feels at risk. It’s true that things will be up in the air for a while. Don’t be discouraged! Instead of trying to fill every potential academic gap, you can use this unexpected time to strengthen your children’s ability to cope with those gaps, and anything else life throws at them. If you need practical ideas on how to do this in real life, check out next week’s article: Executive Function: How on Earth Do I Teach That?