The Search Institute is a non-profit organization committed to researching what adults can do to help kids and young adults thrive.
One area of interest is how adults can support brain development in the children they know. Executive function, which exists in the pre-frontal cortex of our brain allows us to defer gratification, and to remember and organize tasks, and even to calm down instead of blowing up. Understandably, it plays a large role in how well anyone can manage themselves and be productive at school or work. The strategies the Search Institute recommends to help develop and strengthen executive functioning in kids uses the acronym SOAR.
Support Imagination – Kids often have a natural bent to imagine all sorts of creative scenarios. Use this talent to help encourage and build empathy and explore how things might look and feel from another’s point of view. Reading is a great way to practice this skill!
Offer Choices within Limits – Allowing young people to have choice and control over some aspects of their lives is excellent practice for the inevitable difficult decisions we make throughout our lives. Today, it may be letting them choose which shirt and pants to wear, but these small decisions help hone their ability to make more consequential decisions later in life. An important thing to remember is that not all kids are ready to make totally independent choices – their brains are still developing. On a snowy day, for example, it’s probably wise to give them three warm-clothing options instead of allowing them to choose from their entire wardrobe.
Assist Reflection – Every event is an opportunity to reflect with your child. Taking the time to pause and consider potential outcomes before acting (or speaking) is something each of us benefits from, and kids are no different. If a difficulty comes up, working through problem-solving steps aloud with your child helps them internalize that skill to use when you aren’t around.
Raise Activity Levels – The connection between our brains and our bodies is very strong, so it’s not a surprise that physical activity helps young brains develop. Look for opportunities for your child or young person to get their blood pumping. Physical activity also contributes to stress management and limb coordination. Learning and following game rules also helps practice executive functioning – it’s all around a good thing.
The four approaches don’t need to be used independently – you can certainly do them all together. For example, when playing in the park, the child can choose between several different games, problem-solve through the game’s strategies, imagine the other participants’ thoughts/feelings, and work up a sweat.
Kids’ brains are still under construction, to the frustration of many parents and teachers. It’s helpful to remember that, as adults, we can consistently look for opportunities to support the development of these skills. Practice makes perfect (or, at least, improved). For more information on these, and other helpful tips on young people, check out www.search-institute.org .