Executive Function: What it is, what it does, and why your kids don’t have it (yet)

Have you ever been in the checkout line when it hits you—Milk!—and you have to haul it to the dairy aisle and back before it’s too late?

That’s your working memory saving you from another trip to the store. Working memory is just one component of executive function—which is a fancy term for the ability to focus, plan, remember, and have self-control.

Executive function consists of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-control—skills that help us make plans, manage time, resist temptation, and remember the milk.

However, these are not skills we’re born with.

Executive function skills develop over time, which means that little ones under the age of three are learning them, practicing them, or don’t have them at all.

But whether you’re a little one just learning or an experienced adult, nothing derails executive function skills quite like stress. And what’s more stressful than the Holidays? It’s hard enough for us grown-ups to keep our executive function skills on track this time of year—let alone our kids who are just starting to develop those skills.

Here are some tips to help you relieve your frustration and give your brain (and your kid’s!) a helping hand.

Make a list…check it twice.

Make all the lists. You can never have too many. Even if you forget the list at home, you will have the tactile memory of writing each item. However, remember the list.

You can also ask your kids to help remember the grocery list—it makes them feel involved, helps build their working memory skills, and might even save you a last minute dash from the checkout line.

Let the little ones help.

Kids can be a massive help in the kitchen, when they are given tasks that match their skill level.  Take it from my personal experience: Thanksgiving is NOT the time to start knife training—that is unless you fancy extensive urgent care lines.

Here are some tasks that all kids can help with that will give you a hand AND help them develop some executive function skills of their own:

  • Washing fruits and veggies
  • Mashing the potatoes
  • Measuring ingredients (think of the math!)
  • Making place settings
  • Setting the table
  • Cleaning up

Summon your executive function.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that stress is messing with you—and your executive function. Now that you know what those skills are and what they do, you can take a step back from the stress and remind yourself that you’re an expert. And if you feel your patience wearing thin, remember that your kids are still learning.

 

Now, go get that shopping done.

 

Petite Chefs: White Bean Dip with Veggies!

Chicago Children’s Museum teamed up with Washburne Culinary Institute to create healthy and delicious snacks for our program Petite Chefs!

Petite Chefs White Bean Dip

White Bean Dip with Veggies
Yields 4
Caregiver, in advance:
Open and drain the cannellini beans. Set aside. 
Cut vegetables if needed. 

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (16 oz.) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 teaspoons sweet paprika (optional)
  • Parsley, chopped for garnish
  • Fresh cut vegetables for dipping

Tools Needed:  

  • Plastic sealable sandwich bag
  • Scissors
  • Small bowl

Instructions:

  1. Combine white beans, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice in small bowl.
  2. Place in a plastic sealable sandwich bag.  Seal and mash with the palms of your hands until mixture reaches the desired consistency.
  3. Cut a small slit in the corner of the bag.  Squeeze dip out of the bag and return it to the bowl. 
  4. Taste and add the desired amount of salt, pepper, and paprika.
  5. Garnish with chopped parsley.