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Executive Functioning

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Parents of Teens with Executive Function Deficiencies: How to Find Balance

By Adolescents/Teens, Executive Functioning No Comments

Parenting is a roller coaster ride for anyone, but especially if you parent a child or teenager with executive function deficiencies. There are days with the thrill of victory and days with the agony of defeat, and many days with a bit of both. Every parent desperately wants to succeed, and to guide their children toward success too. Often, the result becomes trying too hard, which seems counter-intuitive.

In her work, The Disintegrating Student: Super Smart and Falling Apart, psychologist Jeannine Jannot, cites several categories of “parental influences,” where parents have good intentions, but which can backfire when applied too intensely in the life of the family. Here are some of them:

1. Too Much Praise

Kids understand when they receive lavish, unearned, overused, or inappropriate praise. This can have a negative impact on their performance as the value of the praise becomes watered-down because kids know it has diminished value. Kids understand when they have received a participation trophy, when they didn’t do anything all that special. Rather, encourage effort and determination in tackling difficult tasks, as this will foster self-confidence as challenges will be seen as fun and exciting rather than frustrating and threatening.

2.Protect, Shield, and Shelter

Parents who rush to their child’s defense every time something goes wrong in their life, don’t allow them learn to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems. Plus, it can create a sense of entitlement and dependency on other people to intercede for them. When a negative situation arises in your child’s life, whenever possible, sleep on it, talk to a trusted friend, or write your thoughts down in a journal, in order to get your emotions centered.

3. Alleviate Stress

Many parents cannot handle it emotionally when their children are stressed or uncomfortable, even in minor ways. A common response is for the adult to alleviate the stress for their teenager, because that is what a loving parent does, as the rationalization goes.

But stress is a natural part of life and designed to aid in survival, when properly managed. From a biological perspective, the body’s stress response is quite complex. The brain and adrenal glands release the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine, which gives a burst of energy. The liver delivers sugar and fat into the bloodstream, then non-essential systems such as digestion and the immune system slow down, and smaller blood vessels constrict to limit blood flow in case of an injury. These are natural and healthy responses in the animal kingdom and with humankind as well.

Parents who are tempted to alleviate stress, even when the kids don’t need it or want it, can hinder their child’s physical and emotional development. They can even unintentionally sow seeds of doubt about their own abilities to handle hard situations.

4. Indulge

Parents should provide children with the things they need, such as food, shelter, clothing, and education. And they ought to try and provide children with things they want up to a reasonable point. But children who are given everything do not appreciate the amount of hard work their parents exert to achieve success in life. When something is given and not earned, there will likely be skewed expectations and disappointments as they get older.

Parents have a duty to say “no” to their child once in a while. And in the context of the family, when the kids become prioritized over everything else in life, something loses out. It might be one’s job, marriage, or even one’s own mental and emotional health.

5. Responsibilities and Expectations

If kids and teenagers don’t have chores and responsibilities around the house, then assign them. It doesn’t need to be done with a parental lecture on the philosophy of hard work attached, but just an expectation moving forward. The good habits will form quickly.

Teenagers and young adults who have little to no household responsibility may have a difficult time transitioning to living outside their parents’ home. No one wants to be the roommate of someone who refuses to take out the trash.

In her summary conclusion with regard to parental influences and styles, Dr. Jannot writes, “Decades of research support the finding that the best outcomes for our children are associated with being raised by authoritative parents who offer unconditional love” (Disintegrating, p. 98). Love isn’t base on performance, especially comparing performance to others. Nor is love without boundaries and expectations. Finding the right balance in these areas listed above is different from child to child, and will require never-ending reflection and wisdom as we raise our kids and teenagers the best we know how.

From the perspective of how our executive function coaches work with teenagers, keep the focus upon improvement, rather than perfection; reaching one’s own potential, rather than comparison toward others. And one day, hopefully, our children have grown to become independent, confident adults, content with who they are and who they are not.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Screens, Teens, and Automobiles

By Adolescents/Teens, Executive Functioning No Comments

The explosion of cutting-edge technology has exponentially increased in the power of computer processing, software, and phone apps, and over the past several decades has improved life overall.  But these powerful tools must be handled with caution.  
 
Compare the technological advancement of computers and phones to the automobile.  The invention of the automobile was a revolutionary technological advancement, but placed in the hands of teenagers, an automobile can be a deadly weapon.  Statistical analysis shows that an inordinate amount of car accidents, injuries and deaths are attributed to drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 years old.  You can’t even rent a car until you are 25!  No one would throw the keys to the car at their 16-year old without specific training and licensing.  Kids and teenagers using cutting-edge technology requires similar protocol as driving an automobile; students need to be taught how to use technology responsibly so they are not hampered academically, emotionally, socially, and physically.
 
Here are some examples of the collateral damage related to the overuse of screens by teens and their effects upon the executive functioning of the brain:
 
1.     Wasted time.  Students who get lost into a gaming world, watching videos, or just reading comments on Instagram lose track of time and can waste hours in a single day.  Time management, initiating tasks, and understanding how much time is needed to finish a project are a few executive function skills with which every teenager naturally struggles.  
 
2.     Sleep problems.  According to research conducted by the Harvard Medical School, the blue light emitted from screens such as smartphones and TV monitors can interfere with natural sleep patterns because it suppresses the secretion of the hormone melatonin.  Sleep deprivation leads to a myriad of executive function problems.
 
3.     Short-term memory loss.  This is directly connected to sleep deprivation, as deep REM sleep is crucial for brain development, and for processing and storing information, even from the day before.  Focus, concentration, staying on task, and recalling important information are executive function areas that are affected here.
 
4.     Lack of exercise.  The allure of screens, which often involves sitting for long periods of time is one major factor that can cause the bodies of teenagers to atrophy, leading to obesity and other side-effects such as diabetes.  Students need exercise to keep their metabolism up, maintain strong muscles, and to relieve stress.  It is highly recommended that students take periodic breaks from studying, but then get a quick burst of exercise; even a short, brisk walk can settle and refocus the mind.
 
5.     Addiction.  Viewing screens can be highly addictive.  Numerous university studies have determined that the brain interacting with a smartphone is similar to a brain on cocaine.  In both cases we get a “high” every time a notification pops up or we get likes on our last Instagram post.  Physiologically, it’s the dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in our brains that is released whenever we experience something enjoyable.  This is primarily connected to “time wasted” above.  But in this case, students haven’t lost track of time, rather they intentionally choose not to transition to homework or other responsibility not as “fun” as screen time.
 
For teenagers who already struggle with executive function skills, the distraction from the screens on their phones and other devices can be crippling to the more important tasks they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  Screens can be a serious obstacle to motivation, organization, time management, initiating tasks, concentration, short-term memory, and other executive function skills that kids and teenagers must sharpen in order to become successful adults.  The Dayspring Executive Function coaches will work with parents to help equip and monitor this aspect of a student’s daily life.  Managing this powerful tool successfully can be a pathway to help each student reach his or her full potential.  

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Growth Mindset: Avoiding the Comparison Trap : Part 2

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In the 1980s and 1990s, one of the popular TV shows was “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  Audiences watched episodes portraying the lives of entertainers, athletes, and business magnates, who owned the fanciest homes, yachts, cars, and private jets.  The host, Robin Leach, would close each show with his signature phrase, encouraging “champagne wishes and caviar dreams!”  It was a fun show and those who watched could escape their seemingly humdrum existence to envision a life of comfort in faraway exotic locales.

Television shows are one thing, but when fantasy crosses over into everyday thoughts and activities, comparison of ourselves with others can turn sour.  Today, teenagers are bombarded with images on social media, music, movies, and the like, which reminds them of others who are smarter, more attractive, richer, funnier, and better athletes.  But here is reality.  That’s all true!  None of us can keep up with the Kardashians, or the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and that’s perfectly okay.

And for teenagers who struggle simply getting out the door for school on time with completed homework assignments, writing an English essay, or concentrating through an entire Algebra class: seeing the amazing accomplishments of others can create negative attitudes, low self-esteem, and even hopelessness.   In other words, teenagers can become trapped into a fixed mindset that things are the way they are for me, I will never measure up, and nothing I do can improve my lot in life.

As parents, teachers, tutors, coaches, and adult influencers in the lives of teens, we have the responsibility to create better perspectives, and push them away from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.  Many articles have been written on the mindset research of Dweck, mentioned in the last blog.  Here is a cherry-picked list of ways to move from a fixed-mindset, toward a more positive outlook.

  1. Accept your imperfections.  No one is perfect, and it’s unfair to expect this of yourself or others.  Maybe this can lighten the burden for you; you are not exceptionally talented at everything.  No one is.
  2. Acknowledge your gifts and talents.  It’s not necessarily arrogant to understand where you excel.  In fact, this can help you pursue dreams and goals that align with those abilities.
  3. View challenges as “opportunities.”  Many people, especially teenagers, don’t want to look stupid.  For them, losing a soccer game, or earning a low grade on a test, making new friends, or failing to get into the Ivy League school they desperately desired, is too much to bear.  Some people avoid challenges, because they don’t want to fail.  But for those who take on a difficult task and succeed, the thrill of victory will be fantastic!
  4. Stop seeking approval from others.  This is extremely difficult for teenagers who dwell in the chaotic mental space of wanting to be their own individual, but at the same time, never wanting to appear different, or to have those differences pointed out by peers.
  5. Cultivate a sense of purpose in your life.  Actively seek advice from peers and adults you respect and admire.  Have one-on-one discussions, or read books and articles to grow in the wisdom of how to do life well.

Let’s instill these elements of a growth mindset in our teenagers, and in ourselves too, parents.  Each of these principles are philosophical underpinnings of Executive Function coaching sessions.  We want students to focus upon their own situation and avoid the noise and distraction of the world around them that makes them feel like they aren’t enough.  It takes time to build self-confidence and understanding of one’s place in this world, and can be every bit as demanding for older adults as it is for teenagers who have yet to make their mark.

And for those of you who love champagne and caviar, go for it.  I will happily settle for a bacon cheeseburger and a root beer!

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Growth Mindset and Executive Function: Part 1

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The History Channel has produced an enlightening series called, “The Food that Built America.”  It’s about the generations of visionaries and entrepreneurs such as James Kraft, Milton Hershey, Nathan Handwerker, the Swanson family, and others, who revolutionized food in America.  They created new foods, better ways to store it, distribute it, and make it available to all.  The series highlights foods such as hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, potato chips, ice cream, candy, cookies and more.  We tend to forget that someone had to invent and innovate, and that there were times when these fantastic foods were only available to the rich.  These food heroes were not held back by obstacles, criticism, or seemingly impossible odds.  Rather, they saw opportunities, and brilliantly executed plans to achieve them, which resulted in great wealth for them, and cheaper, great-tasting food for the rest of us.  They were willing to learn new things, take risks, learn from the successes and failures of others, and display unending determination in the face of opposition.  They had what we call today, a “growth mindset.”

In the 1980s, Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, wrote, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  She discovered through decades of research that the way people view themselves has a profound impact on how they lead their lives.  Some people have a fixed mindset, and others have a growth mindset.  According to Dweck, those with a fixed mindset:

  • Avoid challenges
  • Give up easily
  • See effort as a waste of time
  • Ignore constructive criticism
  • Feel threatened by the success of others.

But those with a growth mindset:

  • Accept challenges
  • Are resolute in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to expertise
  • Learn from constructive criticism
  • Derive inspiration and knowledge from the successes of others

A fixed mindset believes that one’s intelligence, creative ability, social acumen, and other gifts and talents are static, and cannot be altered or improved.  A person with a fixed mindset will avoid risk and difficult challenges in order to prevent failure or expose any shortcomings.  While a person with a growth mindset embraces challenges, and sees them as launchpads for increased success, as they seek to get smarter and more skilled, as they chase their dreams and find purpose in life.

In recent years, neuro-science researchers have validated Dweck’s findings, by discovering that the brain is more malleable than thought in the past.  They call it brain “plasticity.”  Brains can physiologically change and develop as we get older.  Neurons in the brain that are not used are “pruned,” basically become dormant and disappear, while new neural pathways can be grown.

Here is why these findings are crucial to understand as it relates to parents and kids.  Students who have struggled academically in certain subject areas, are disorganized, forgetful, lack social awareness, or been afraid to try hard things, can be guided to think differently.  Higher levels of achievement will result, as well as a sense of accomplishment, and overall happiness in life.  This isn’t some sort of “power of positive thinking,” pop psychology, but scientifically-based brain research.

At Dayspring, our Executive Function coaches seek to instill a growth mindset into students.  Research substantiates that teenagers, and adults too, can be inspired to recognize their gifts, take risks, and triumph, even in areas where they have been unsuccessful in the past.  And when small victories are strung together, they become big victories, creating positive momentum for individuals that will help them realize their full potential.  And hopefully, by the end of their life, reflect on what a remarkable journey it has been.  And who knows, maybe they will be the next big food mogul, and forge an even better hot dog!