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Engaging Parental Support for Smarter Thinking

Parents can help develop their children's executive function by modeling inquiry and reasoning, demonstrating real-world uses for what they learn in school, and creating an ideal study space.

By Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers

Originally published (October 3, 2016) ©; George Lucas Educational Foundation

© Hero Images/500px

Given that students spend much more time outside of school than in the classroom, partnering with parents can be an effective way to help children and youth enhance their executive function. Reinforcing messages and strategies related to taking charge of their thinking at home also illustrates how truly useful it can be to be the boss of your brain.

Many parents won't be familiar with the concept of executive function -- or indeed the idea of guiding students to learn how to learn. In their own K-12 education, today's parents likely never encountered lessons about how the human brain learns and how people can become more effective learners. As a result, it will be helpful to share three key messages with parents:

  1. The term executive function refers to the capacities of the human mind to develop and carry out plans, to get and stay organized, to make decisions, to hold information in working memory, and to focus attention on the task at hand. A helpful metaphor is to think of executive function as the brain's CEO directing other parts of the brain, such as those that control the senses and body movement, to take action to carry out plans and perform tasks.

  2. Many people believe that these kinds of thinking skills are inherent (for example, you're either naturally organized or you're not), but researchers have established that it is possible to improve various aspects of executive function through conscious effort and practice. For instance, over time, you can improve your working memory, which makes it easier to solve problems and remember all the steps in a task.

  3. There are simple strategies that you can use at home with your children to help them -- and you -- learn to think smarter. Enhancing executive function can make a difference in schoolwork, on the job, and in personal pursuits such as hobbies and other pastimes.


Encourage parents to use these strategies at home to reinforce what students are learning in the classroom.

Be the learner that you want your child to be. Learning doesn't stop at graduation. Especially in today's quickly changing world, adults always need to learn new skills on the job and in their personal lives. Underscore the importance of lifelong learning and the many examples of applying executive function in daily life. For example:

  • "I couldn't figure out this new app on my phone until I sat down this morning and focused all my attention on reading the directions and practicing how to use it."

  • "There are so many things we could do on our vacation. Let's come up with a systematic plan to compare our options and choose the things we'd most like to do."

Learn out loud. Take advantage of opportunities to model problem solving, planning, and organizational strategies. For example, you might ask, "What does incomprehensible mean? Let's see if we can break it down. Part of the word is comprehend. We know what that means, right? To understand. And in- at the beginning of a word often means 'not,' so this word probably means not understandable. Let's look it up to check and see if we're right!"

Apply classroom learning to life outside of school. A common lament in the classroom is, "Why do I need to learn this? I'll never use it again!" Parents can demonstrate the many ways that academic learning comes in handy in real life -- by working with your child to double the ingredients in a recipe, for example, or to measure a room to figure out how much paint to buy when remodeling.

Plan a trip to the grocery store. A practical way for elementary-age children to develop their planning and organizational skills is to help parents develop and write a grocery shopping list. Enlist their help in taking an inventory of needed groceries, planning meals and identifying the necessary ingredients, sorting through coupons and figuring how much savings they will offer, and making an efficient list by organizing all the items in order of the path you will take through the store.

Organize a space and time for studying and reading at home. With your child, find and furnish a well-lit, comfortable study nook that is free from distractions. Set aside a quiet time after school or in the evening for homework and reading. Make a habit of reading with younger children, and let older children see you enjoy reading on your own.

Predict what happens next. Predicting what will happen next in a story employs key aspects of executive function, as we think about how the plot is organized and what clues are available that suggest where the story is going. When reading with children, stop and ask them what they think will happen next. When you're watching TV together, mute the sound during commercials and encourage children to predict the next scene or conclusion of the program.

By practicing smarter thinking with their children, parents may well discover how learning remains a positive experience at any stage of life.

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