Executive Function & Child Development

By Marcie Yeager and Daniel Yeager

Reviewed by Gwen Nicodemus

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Working with children with ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome, or other challenges isn’t easy. Various issues can make it hard for these kids to get through everyday tasks. In their book, Executive Function & Child Development, Marcie Yeager and Daniel Yeager provide a framework for teachers, parents, pediatricians, and therapists to help children with developmental and other issues become more independent.

The authors explain concepts clearly and provide concrete tips to help kids get through everyday activities. Most important, perhaps, is that their approach shows respect for children’s autonomy. The emphasis is on how to help children calm themselves down through self-soothing, as well as how to provide kids with the tools to help them further their own capacities — all of which fosters independence at a young age.

The first part of the book answers the question “What is executive function?” Simply put, it’s what allows you to complete tasks and survive in society. Marcie and Daniel Yeager explain that psychologists credit executive function with anywhere from three to 36 abilities, but that they’ve chosen to simplify the list of abilities into four categories.

The first ability of executive function they name, working memory, refers to how much we can keep track of in our heads at any given time. For instance, to “get ready to leave the house for school” a child probably has to eat breakfast, drink water, get dressed, brush his teeth, comb his hair, feed the dog, find his lunch box, find his homework, pack his school bag, and keep track of the time. Remembering all those tasks is the job of working memory.

The ability to shift focus, meanwhile, allows us to put our attention on tasks that we need to do while shifting away from distractions. Imagine that you’re folding and putting away the laundry and your cell phone rings. Your real intention is to finish the laundry. If you can ignore the phone, you’ve successfully shifted your focus back to the task you meant to do and worked toward your goal.

Inhibition is another capacity: It gives us the ability to stop and think of a second or third way of dealing with a situation after an initial plan pops into our mind. For instance, you might want to hit someone when he steals your favorite toy, but you’re able to stop and realize that you need a plan B.

Creating and carrying out the steps necessary to complete a goal form the fourth executive function, the authors tell us. To get ready for a vacation, for instance, you need to get your daily life settled and take steps to prepare for the trip. Maybe you need to kennel the dogs, contact someone to pick up your mail, set the sprinklers to automatically water your lawn, get the oil changed in the car, and lock the windows in the house. This goal-setting function involves understanding the big picture and also figuring out what all the little parts of the picture are.

After explaining these four capacities, the authors go on to explain childhood development, using case studies that demonstrate both “normal” and not-so-normal development, and then offer tools to help children who are struggling in one of the executive function areas. One tool in particular appealed to me, so I tried it with my kids. It’s what the authors call a “wrist list,” which can be used in place of a regular to-do list and which is meant to problems with working memory.

Because  to-do lists only work if you remember to look at them, they’re easy to forget. A child who gets distracted from his morning routine by a dog asking to play ball won’t remember to look at a list. Instead, the authors suggest that the child write each task on a thin strip of paper and attach it to his or her wrist. This acts as a visible, physical reminder that he or she carries around.

My kids both seemed amused by the concept. Regardless, when they used the wrist list they completed their chores and schoolwork in record time, without any arguments. From a parenting perspective, the tool was a win. From my kids’ perspectives, they finished everything they needed to and got to spend more time playing on the computer—so it was a win for them as well.

The wrist list tool worked so well, I tried a few others from the book. I had my husband and kids do what the authors call an “Angel Wings” exercise. To do angel wings, you put your hands high above your head, stretch, and take in a big breath. Then, you slowly exhale as you lower your arms in a slow and controlled fashion. The exercise is meant to promote physical calmness and reduce anxiety, nervousness, and anger. It didn’t work as well for my family as the wrist list did, but I can see how it would work with some kids.

In addition to finding some of these concrete suggestions helpful, I found that the book’s case studies were of great use, too. In particular, they helped me gain perspective on children I’ve encountered. In fact, one case seemed to perfectly describe a friend of my son’s. I think I now have a better idea of why that child seems to fib a lot and start fights. Maybe I’ll be a little more understanding with him, and perhaps even able to help.

Another aspect of the book I appreciated was that the authors write in more-or-less everyday speech—no academic language, with its over-reliance on passive sentences. The writers don’t use “one” as a subject very often, and they don’t cram in too many footnotes.

Finally, I appreciated the attitude of “teach independence” that the authors convey. External aids and tools, like the wrist list, are okay, because a child can make those aids on her own and take responsibility for her actions. After all, one of my goals as a parent is to help my kids become adapted, independent citizens. And as Marcie and Daniel Yeager believe, that should be the goal of anyone who works with kids, too.

Executive Function & Child Development
W. W. Norton & Company, February, 2013
Hardcover, 272 pages
$24.95

Psych Central's Recommendation:
Worth Your Time! +++

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APA Reference
Nicodemus, G. (2013). Executive Function & Child Development. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/executive-function-child-development/00015677
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Mar 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.