Develop Inhibition Skills
Prime Your Child’s Choices
Your child takes off when you get to the store so that she can check out her favorite thing (lingering for 20 minutes). She gets lost at the county fair or doesn’t stick with the class and “the program” on a class trip. Whether she wanders off to find something exciting or doesn’t fully engage with the plan of the moment, she is off target. As a result, she misses out on the purpose of the outing as well as the group connection and shared goals.
Most school-age children occasionally stray from their parents’ or their classmates’ side to find something more engaging to them. But if your child does this repeatedly and disruptively, this could signal that your child is struggling to develop inhibition skills.
Attention is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.
Solution: Priming your child’s choices in advance so that he can practice his response
If you anticipate that your child might wander off, frame a likely scenario where that happens and spell out exactly what she can do instead. The advance conversation “primes” the direction of her choices. When the tempting circumstance arises, she recognizes it and is ready to override her “default” action with a different choice. The choice is a positive action, and not just avoidance of a “don’t”. If you’re going into a toy store, for instance, to choose a birthday present, ask her: “What do you think we might see there?” When she answers with the thing that will grab her attention her, say, “Yeah, we’ll see the soccer balls, but if we can get to the checkout counter without touching the soccer balls, then “X” will happen (we’ll get the birthday present for your friend and we’ll get home sooner to see Daddy. Or: you can get extra time on your iPad).
Don’t do this: Say, “Don’t wander off on your class trip!”
Do this instead: Say, “When you walk through the zoo, every time you get to another animal, make sure you make eye contact with your chaperone.”
Remember: Your child’s impulses may be strong, and her self-control relatively weak, but she can learn interventions that support better choices.
It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.