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one blue piece of jigsaw puzzlePsychologists put a lot of stock into children’s executive functioning skills. What they’re talking about is how well children can use their brains advantageously, as a resource, to get smarter. It’s an important question, since children with strong executive functioning ability tend to lead productive, happy lives. Those with executive functioning deficits struggle to achieve academic and social competency. As adults they seem destined to repetitive cycles of failure.

The good news is that the neural structures associated with executive functioning retain a high level of plasticity well into adulthood. This means they can be modified in ways that increase the brain’s capacity to think strategically, to integrate new data into previously learned concepts, and become more receptive to the flow of cognitive information. All it takes is the willingness of caring adults to engage in each of the following practices:

“Serve and return” interactions

These are playful conversations where the adult builds on the child’s lead, and together they volley words back and forth into a story that is constructed and shared between the two of them. “Serve and return” interactions shape the brain’s circuitry, and strengthen the neural pathways between language and the prefrontal cortex. They encourage self-reflection, and cultivate representational thought. Children gain new insights into the wants and motivations of others.

Forecasting or sports casting to model new behaviors

This strategy involves the adult talking to her/himself about what s/he is doing and why. It can be used to model executive functioning skills such as strategic attention, integrated reasoning, and innovative thinking.

Example: Strategic Attention 

“I want to solve this jigsaw puzzle as quickly as I can. I’ve noticed that the pieces of the outside frame that I’ve already found all have a lot of green in them. I’m going to find all the green pieces first so I can finish the frame. I’m not going to pay attention to the other pieces until that part is done.”

TNT (The Next Time)

This is an exercise in self-reflection. It is the last step in a conversational sequence known to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning. The sequence starts with a stated goal or task to be focused on. The child is then given a choice as to what s/he wants to do to achieve the goal or complete the task. After a designated time frame, the child reflects on how whether the choice s/he made was helpful in achieving what s/he set out to do. Based on the outcome, the child makes a plan for what s/he will do the next time a similar situation comes up.