Previously we have talked about how parents can support executive function (EF) development in young children. Specifically, parenting behaviors that are “autonomy-supportive,” meaning they actively support a child’s goals, efforts, and choices, are related to children’s EF skills. What does an autonomy-supportive parent look like in everyday life? Let’s think of an example of a parent working on a jigsaw puzzle with a preschooler. An autonomy-supportive parent would (1) offer the child choice by asking which puzzle pieces she wants to start with and which pieces to look for next, (2)provide the child enough support to accomplish more than she would on her own,(3) allow the child enough time to put pieces together on her own, but provide help when necessary, and (4) encourage the child when she does not get it right the first time and praise her when she succeeds.

We can think about autonomy-supportive behaviors as a nice middle ground between two extremes. On one end, parents provide excessive structure and control over the task. While doing a puzzle with their child, they might choose all of the pieces for the child, put in many pieces rather than letting the child have ownership over the puzzle, and might rush the child along at a pace that is too fast for her abilities. In this case, children are simply observers and are not given enough challenge to improve their EF skills. On the other end, parents do not provide enough support and are uninvolved. While doing the same puzzle, these parents might let the child struggle for so long that she becomes discouraged or angry, offer very few hints that would help the child understand what to do next, and might allow the child to simply move onto another task if she cannot do it. In this case, the child is not able to complete any more of the puzzle than she would have done on her own, which also will not help to improve her EF skills.

At this point, you might be thinking this is a lot to keep in mind for something as simple as working on a puzzle with your child! Could a parent’s own EF skills be playing a role? A recent study from our lab was conducted to better understand the links among parents’own EF skills, their autonomy-supportive behaviors, and their children’s EF skills. We had 85 parents (72 mothers and 13 fathers) from a low-middle income community in the U.S. participate with their 3- to 5-year-old children. Parents and children each completed the MEFS, and then parents and children worked on a puzzle together for 10 minutes. We found that parents’ EF is important for autonomy-supportive parenting. Imagine helping your own child with the same jigsaw puzzle described earlier. It might be tempting to simply put together many of the pieces while your child watches. But, children’s own EF is bolstered when they experience the right amount of challenge to try things on their own. Instead, to be autonomy-supportive, parents need to use their inhibitory control skills to stop themselves from doing the puzzle, especially when their child is working very slowly. Parents also have to use their cognitive flexibility to switch between strategies for helping their child. Instead of saying, “Find the piece with the horse” repeatedly, they switch to another suggestion, “Can you find the pieces with red on them?”Finally, parents use their working memory to remember what suggestions they have already made and hold in mind the goals of the task.

This figure shows the results from a recent study done in our lab with mothers and fathers and their preschool-aged children. We found that one of the ways that parents’own EF skills are related to their children’s EF skills is through quality parenting behaviors. Parents with good EF skills are more likely to be “autonomy-supportive”, which is related to their children’s developing EF.

Another important finding from our study was that one way parents’ own EF skills influence their children’s EF skills is through parents’ use of autonomy support. Some may think that children simply inherit their parents’ EF skills, like they inherit eye or hair color, but our study suggests that parenting behaviors may matter more. In fact, one possible reason that previous studies have found associations between parent and child EF skills is that parents with good EF are more likely to provide high-quality parenting, which in turn bolsters children’s developing EF skills.

Tips to Support Executive Function

As our study found, good EF skills play an important role in parenting. However, daily stressors and hassles can negatively impact our own EF, so it is important to spend some time each day focusing on your own EF skills by incorporating some of the following tips:

  • Be Mindful of Your Own EF: We all act impulsively or reactively sometimes, but taking a moment to pause and reflect on your options before responding means that you are using your EF skills to the best of your ability.
  • Decrease Stress: Being stressed, tired, or even hungry can hurt our EF skills, so make sure to take some time for self-care. When your EF skills are in tiptop shape, your child will benefit the most from your interactions with them.
  • Set Aside Quality Time: If time and space allow, try setting aside specific times during the day to work with your child on a task that will improve EF skills, like doing a jigsaw puzzle. When we are trying to work with our child on a puzzle while also making dinner, sending a few quick emails, and cleaning up the dog’s mess, our EF skills are overwhelmed, which will likely impact our parenting in those moments.

Now that we have some tips for making sure our own EF skills are strong, what are some ways to become more autonomy-supportive?

  • Guide children’s behavior rather than doing things for them: “If you are not sure where that puzzle piece goes, you can look at the picture on the box.”
  • Acknowledge frustration and provide support: “It can be frustrating when a piece does not fit. What happens if you try turning it a little?”
  • Offer choices between just a few good options: “Should we start with the blue sky or the green grass?”
  • Offer encouragement and praise effort: “I can see that you are working really hard on getting that piece in and I think you can do it.”

About the Author:

Rebecca Distefano is currently a Ph.D. Candidate in Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the social influences of executive function development, with an emphasis on how parents bolster their children’s EF skills in high-risk contexts. She has supplemented her PhD studies with numerous courses in Prevention Science, with the goal of designing and implementing interventions to promote resilience in children and parents.

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