As the mother of a middle school boy, I often find myself doing a lot of nagging—reminding my son for the upteenth time that he needs to unload his lunch box first thing we he gets home from school and that he can’t have computer time until he’s done his morning chores. But it wasn’t until I read Executive Function & Child Development, by social workers Marcie and Daniel Yeager, that I saw my son’s behavior as possibly due to poor executive functioning rather than laziness or defiance.

WW Norton, 2013

The term executive functioning refers to the ability to focus one’s attention without distraction, use working memory, delay gratification, and other useful higher order thinking. Though kids develop EF at different ages and to different degrees, parents and teachers often expect kids to manage complex tasks involving multiple steps without taking into consideration developmental differences and the need for some kids to learn coping skills.

For example, many of us have learned the benefits of delaying gratification. Remember the famous Stanford marshmallow experiments that showed how kids who could defer getting a reward would grow up to have higher SAT scores and better health? But fewer of us know that kids can be given tools to increase their ability to wait for later rewards, such as using distraction and self-talk to avoid giving in to temptation too quickly. In addition, kids who have trouble keeping multiple tasks in mind can benefit from a list of activities to check off, just like their parents who sometimes need shopping lists to remember all their groceries.

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Though the book is designed primarily for therapists, it’s also an informative read for parents and teachers who seek to better understand the kids in their care. The Yeagers use lots of examples from real-life children to illustrate how providing appropriate supports to kids and engaging them through play can help them mature and improve their executive functioning…without relying on punishments.

I, for one, plan to take their message to heart, first by reframing my concerns for my kids in a more positive light and second by thinking of ways to help them stay focused and less distracted. No one—including me—will miss the nagging.

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