December 3, 2014

The power of modeling: show off your executive function skills!

All parents hope their children will grow up to be responsible, conscientious, and compassionate individuals. We read how-to books, scour the internet, and seek out professionals to discover the best ways to prepare our children for life’s challenges. When it comes to education, we may feel at a particular loss, wondering how best to prepare our kids for complicated assignments and responsibilities. But–in reality–the answers we seek are not so far-fetched or so far away.

One of the best ways to teach your child these skills is by modeling. Demonstrate the behaviors you hope your children will someday develop.  You already teach your children manners by setting an example yourself; you say “Please” and “Thank You” at appropriate times, hold doors for others, and treat people the way you’d like to be treated. But when it comes to your child’s schoolwork, it may seem difficult to model strong study skills, since, as a parent, it’s been a long time since you sat for an exam. Fair point! However, you can certainly aid your child by demonstrating life skills — your own executive function skills — on a daily basis.

Why the brain learns from examples

While setting an example for your child may seem simple, its effects cannot be denied. In previous posts, we’ve discussed operant conditioning, the type of learning that occurs through reinforcement and celebration. Today’s post focuses on “observational learning,” the term psychologists use to describe behaviors that children learn by viewing and imitating an example. Observational learning is considered the earliest form of learning; in his famous “Bobo Doll” experiment, Albert Bandura showed how babies learned to interact with a new toy (in either neutral, positive, or aggressive ways) based on observations of adult role models. Similarly, babies learn to understand and replicate facial expressions from a very early age, simply by watching their parents and caretakers. As children age, they adopt more and more of their role models’ behaviors, and even assimilate cues from their social environments at large. That’s why it’s so important for children to have supportive mentors, guardians, and friends in their lives!

Role models

Model these behaviors at home

With so much research supporting the idea of observational learning, there’s no reason not to use modeling to your child’s advantage. Consider these three ways to demonstrate your own sophisticated executive function:

  1. Use an agenda, address book, or calendar. Specifically, using a family calendar that includes your child in the organizational process can be a great way to model your own executive function skills. Hang the calendar somewhere central in your home, so your children will see it and contribute to its ongoing maintenance. Or consider a digital calendar with sharing capabilities, so your family members can access and edit it freely.
  2. Be on time as often as possible. If you set a precedent in your household to arrive early for important meetings, your children will adopt similar plans. Consider this oft-used idea: “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable!” Reinforce the importance of promptness and plan ahead in case of delays; your children will do the same.
  3. Avoid procrastination. As an adult, you are capable of finishing a project in the eleventh hour with an extra cup of coffee and a bit of willpower. Unfortunately, your children are not so well-equipped to bounce back from procrastination. Their willpower is limited. Their stress management strategies cannot shoulder eleventh-hour pressure. Save your child (and yourself!) the trouble. Eliminate procrastination and show your child how you work in advance of deadlines.    

The more often you can model organization, planning, and time-management, the more likely your child is to follow your lead. Similarly, surrounding your child with organized professionals, relatives, and peers can expedite the learning process. Teachers and tutors make excellent organizational role models for children, especially specialized executive function coaches. So gather some helpful mentors, hang up your calendar, show off your strong planning skills, and see your student follow-suit!