Executive Function – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

It was another quiet Saturday on zoom, but that’s all good…it gave me a chance to review my notes on that superb webinar I teased in Friday’s RIE win email.

Last week, I finally got around to listening to Executive Function and Challenging Behavior: A New Approach with Ellen Galinsky (pro-tip: head over to www.earlychildhoodwebinars.com for some truly excellent (and free) webinars on a whole host of topics…upcoming ones include discussions on social justice and equity in early childhood classrooms, for example).

Galinsky is a contemporary early childhood development and family theorist, who’s a prolific researcher and writer (she’s the one who came up with the 6 stages of parenthood, realizing that it isn’t just children who move through stages of development…parents do, too!). In the early 2000’s, she became interested in what children need in order to grow up healthy and successful in life and learning. Preschool and its effects were first studied back in the 60’s, and yes, longitudinal data did show a measurable impact on children’s lives, especially at-risk children, over the course of their lifetimes. Children who went to preschool grew into adults earned more than those who didn’t. They were more likely to go further in school and less likely to be arrested or have teenage pregnancy. But it wasn’t simply that children had a jump on learning their abc’s, colors, and shapes…no, the academic ‘gains’ children demonstrated disappeared after a couple of years in elementary school. Galinsky wondered: what, then, was the protective benefit of preschool?

What she (and many other researchers) discovered is that isn’t so much what children learn, but how they learn to think that makes the difference. Particularly, our executive function: our cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control…or, the ability to adapt your thinking and consider things from a different point of view, hold ideas in your mind, and resist impulses. Galinsky breaks that idea down further, though, into seven specific skills that help children (well, anyone), thrive:

And the best part is the things really excellent preschool teachers do, RIE parents do already…you’re already practicing them. I want to emphasize, though, that the most critical precursor to healthy executive function development is secure attachment! But what RIE parents do, while providing for the development of healthy and secure attachment, lays the groundwork for robust executive functioning in children. My mentor and colleague, Elizabeth Memel, wrote about exactly how* in the 2012 issue of the RIE newsletter, Educaring. One of the brilliant things she did was show how each of RIE’s 7 Basic Principles align with Galinsky’s 7 skills.

Going a little further, Galinsky flat out says that the parental style necessary for fostering healthy executive function is what she calls “autonomy supportive”…one that is neither over-controlling (helicopter) nor under-controlling (permissive)…which is exactly the balance we strike in RIE.

However, it isn’t enough to have an authoritative parenting style, Galinsky also emphasizes the importance of mindset. In particular, having an opportunity mindset when confronted with challenging behavior in your child, makes all the difference. She explains it like this:

  • I can think of reasons why my child behaved this way
  • I can see this as an opportunity for me to better understand my child
  • I know that this behavior is specific to this moment and not a sign of the future
  • I see it as an opportunity for me to improve how I handle these types of situations

Guys, this is why I got into the field of parent education in the first place…to help parents understand the reasons behind why their children behave the way they do and to better understand them! So much of what children do that drives us straight up the wall is developmental and expected…that doesn’t mean they get a pass, but if you can start here, it helps so much.

I love the optimism of the opportunity mindset, but I do understand that it can be so easy to have to let our actions be driven by fear; to think that things will never change, that you can’t make any difference, that the way things are right now is how they will be forever. (What Galinsky calls an adversity mindset.) It can be hard to get yourself out of that way of thinking, especially if it has been a hard day…week…month…But if you just start with curiosity, some sensitive observation…ask yourself: what could be some reasons for this behavior? It leads you to a deeper understanding of your child, a personalization. Reminding yourself that this is behavior of a moment, not a lifetime, even if it has persisted for a while now, is helpful…just kind of saying it out loud to yourself is tremendously helpful…like we do in RIE classes…it normalizes it…and that gives you the strength to keep trying.

So, you have this opportunity mindset and a challenging child. What do you do? Well, you engage ‘autonomy supportive approaches,’ of course! And this is really where RIE meets Galinsky:

  • Start by taking your child’s point of view and consider what they can do at this age and stage of their life
  • Share your reasons and your expectations with your child
  • Instead of fixing the issue, engage your child in joint problem solving, giving them real and meaningful choices
  • Scaffold: you want to give them as much help as they need, but not too much

Yes! I love that she starts with taking your child’s point of view: that’s where RIE starts, too. Starting here helps you see where children really are, developmentally, what they can and can’t do: Magda often said we underestimate infants and overestimate toddlers, but go further than that and think about children’s physical and emotional states. It can be easy to overlook: I did just this past week…trying to problem solve with a parent about a child who kept waking in the night, inconsolable. We puzzled over cognitive leaps and big emotional changes only to realize later her daughter was going through a growth spurt and was famished. Yeah…I’m surly, too, when I’m hungry!!

From there, Galinsky’s strategies really are simply inviting children to be active participants in resolving challenges. Yes: talking with children and involving them elicits cooperation. Note: I say elicits, not guarantees… It’s not going to work every time, and even when something has been consistently working, you have to remember it’s not static…children’s frontal lobes are developing from age 2 to 22 (well, a little longer than that, but 2 to 25 or 26 doesn’t have the same ring), so it is a process. Further, we’re dealing with humans here…what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. It’s not a function of your process, but a function of human beings.

Let’s look at an example of this…how about a child who throws a fit at the end of bathtime. Every. Time. (Recently).

^^^Start there and adjust your mindset: Yes, this is a current challenge, but it hasn’t been this way since the beginning of time, and surely it will end at some point…she won’t be a teenager refusing to get out of the shower…oh, well, she might be, but that’s a different story. Consider the reasons for this (is she tired/is bedtime too close to bath?, does she have enough time for play? Too much? Maybe this is just a super challenging time of her life right now?…). What’s this behavior telling you about your child, the way they think, what they feel? And then gather yourself and try to look at this as an opportunity to hone your skills.

Then talk to your child! With infants, talk through what is going to happen, and ask for cooperation…with toddlers, give real, but limited choices like: do you want to get out when the tub is full or empty? Do you want to climb out or shall I carry you out? Do you want the pink towel or the blue one? And remember to move slowly and mindfully. If she still has a tantrum, recognize that you bringing her out and moving her along the path toward bed is part of scaffolding: right now, she still needs a lot of help. But if you keep following this pattern, gradually, she’ll need less and less help.

The whole idea is not to fix problems for children, but to help them figure out solutions for themselves…guiding children to solving their own problems, to look to themselves for answers and to you for support, that’s what RIE is all about…and, turns out, is what fosters healthy executive function, leading to successful futures for your children.

I’d love to know if the information in this article is helpful and meaningful. The next time you’re faced with a challenging moment with your child, go through the steps and let me know how it goes!

*If you’d like to dig more deeply into the details of how each of the principles supports Galinsky’s skills, I’m happy to send you a copy of Liz’s article, just let me know.

And as always, a reading from The Parents’ Tao Te Ching. I actually sent this one to my online RIE class this week, but I loved it so much, I had to share it here, too:

57. Reward and Punishment

Be careful of rules for your children.
Rules diminish responsibility.
Be careful of rewards for your children.
Rewards diminish self-esteem.
Be careful of punishments for your children.
Punishments diminish trust.

Let lessons be imposed
by the nature of things,
not by your own agendas
or your own needs.
Integrity will replace rules.
Contentment will replace striving.
Spirituality will replace religion.
Songs will replace arguments.
Dances will replace battles.
Don’t tell me this is overly simple.
Perhaps the most courageous act
of any parent’s life
will be that moment when,
even though it breaks your heart,
you stand aside
and let your children
take the natural consequences
of their actions.