Holiday-Themed Executive Functioning Activities for Kids

Winter activityThe holidays offer many opportunities for children to practice executive functioning skills.  Below are some holiday-themed ideas and activities that incorporate the skills involved in executive functioning.

  • Compare/contrast several holiday celebrations. To encourage flexibility in thinking, research and practice celebrations or customs that are different from what your child has traditionally celebrated. In the United States, most families are familiar with the Christmas celebration, but there are many other occasions that occur during this time of year. Here are a few examples:
    • Hanukkah offers many opportunities for various kid-friendly cooking, games, and rituals.
    • The Winter Solstice is celebrated by many different ethnic groups; each has a different name for it: Yalda (Iranian), Modraniht (Saxon), and Saturnalia (Roman).
    • Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration that focuses on positive character traits, giving, and feasting.
  • Complete a craft project that requires planning several steps. A great holiday project that any child enjoys is creating a gingerbread house. Kits are available at large retail stores and grocery stores. It is also easy to construct a smaller “gingerbread” house using a small empty milk carton as a mold for graham crackers. Use icing to glue the crackers to the sides and top of the cartons, and then use it to glue decorative candies to their houses. Have your children separate the pieces, plan their creation, and then take action!
  • Organize gift-wrapping supplies and holiday decorations. There are several solutions to organizing wrapping paper supplies available at home hardware stores, but you can also use old shipping boxes, a large gift bag, large plastic storage bags, or plastic storage bin to keep tape, ribbons, tissue paper, and other supplies at bay. Enlist the help of your children, or give them this project to do on their own.
  • Play “freeze” games. If the weather outside is frightful, stay inside with your children and play games that allow them to practice behavioral control and inhibition.  Research has shown that games such as the following lead to increased self-control in preschool aged children:
    • The Freeze game. Play music for your children, and encourage them to dance! But when the music stops, they must freeze until it starts again. Dance quickly for fast-tempo songs, and dance slowly for slow-tempo songs. These cues can also be reversed, so that they dance slowly to fast music and vice versa.
    • Color-matching freeze. In this version of the freeze game, children are assigned colors. When the music stops, they must find a colored mat and stand on it.
    • Conducting an orchestra. Kids play musical instruments (like maracas and bells) whenever an adult waves her baton, increasing their tempo when the baton moves quickly and reducing their tempo when the baton slows down. Then the opposite rules apply (e.g., kids play faster when the baton moves slowly).
    • Drum beats. Children are to respond to different drum cues with specific body movements. For example, they might jump in place when they hear a fast drum beat and walk in slow circles when they hear a slow drum beat. These cues can also be reversed after the children have grown accustomed to them.

And most importantly, have fun!!

Happy Holidays!

What is Executive Function?

Reference:

Tominey S, & McClelland M. (2011). Red light, purple light: Findings from a randomized trial using circle time games to improve behavioral self-regulation in preschool. Early Education & Development 22(3): 489-519.

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Thanksgiving and Beyond: Gratitude All Year Long

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As Thanksgiving approaches, we often reflect on the things in our lives for which we are thankful, both big and small. Perhaps you have developed “thankful rituals” and passed those on to your children, such as making lists of all the reasons to feel gracious and thankful to share with the rest of the family during the Thanksgiving feast. How quickly that attitude of gratitude can turn into commercialization and mile-long wish lists of the holiday season. By the time we ring in the New Year, we have often forgotten about Thanksgiving and the thankful attitude that accompanies it. It is easy to lose thankfulness in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but there are some things we can do and things we can model for and encourage our children to do that will foster thankfulness all year long.

  • Keep a daily Gratitude Journal. At the end of each day, write down two or three things in your gratitude journal. Help your children to create their own journals, and encourage them to participate. This activity can be a great addition to the bedtime ritual, and it teaches your children to be reflective of the day. Very young children might need help with the writing, but they can certainly draw pictures to accompany your words. Feeling gracious every day for the good things that happen in our lives can help to foster an overall positive outlook and optimistic attitude. Once you have maintained a journal for a full year, it can be fun to read the things for which you were thankful the year before in addition to writing new things for the current year. You can also do a project as a family such as My Family’s Thankful Book.
  • Make “Thank You” a frequent part of your interactions. How often do we say, “Thank you?” We might ask our children to do things, such as pick up their toys or wash their hands before dinner; but, how often do we then thank them for following these directions? How often do we thank them for displaying proper table manners, for sharing their toys with each other nicely, or getting dressed by themselves? As parents, we have to model the kinds of behaviors we want to see in our children. Therefore, thank them sincerely and often! Reinforce them, as well, when they thank you and other adults, as well as when they thank each other.
  • Write real “Thank You” notes. Encourage your children to write thank-you notes for all gifts they receive throughout the year. Keep a box of thank-you notes handy, or create some out of nice paper and colored pencils. Stock stamps and envelopes as well. Point out those occasions when people treat either you or your child especially well, such as a waitress, a cashier, the mailman, a relative, or a teacher. Together, you and your child can recognize these “random acts of kindness” with a real thank-you note. It will brighten someone’s day and teach your child the importance of saying, “Thank you.”
  • Show Anonymous appreciation to local heroes. Two or three times over the course of the year, you and your child can pick a “local hero” to recognize with a token of your appreciation. An easy thing to do is have your child help you bake a cake, cupcakes, or cookies and deliver them along with a note of gratitude. The following list contains possible “local heroes”:
    • Police officers
    • Firemen
    • EMS workers
    • Postal workers
    • Workers at the animal shelter

In addition to brightening someone’s day, you can also teach your child a valuable lesson in the kinds of services these people provide, and why they deserve our thanks.

  • Practice self-appreciation. Appreciate your self by giving your bodies and minds proper care. We do this by getting enough sleep, eating balanced diets, getting plenty of rest, keeping our minds appropriately stimulated, and having time for play. Model these behaviors for your children and encourage them to take care of themselves physically and mentally.

These are just a few ideas for keeping an attitude of gratitude all year long, not just during the Thanksgiving season. Remembering often to take care of ourselves, to recognize the positive influences others have in our life, and to appreciate things that others do for us will not only keep us gracious, but will model these behaviors and attitudes for our children. 

Kicking Off the School Year with Positive School-Home Connections

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Summer is over, and the new school year is in full swing! It’s not always easy for younger children to adjust to the routines and demands of school. As parents, there are many things you can do to help “prime” your children to be successful in school.

  • Establish a consistent routine at home. Children who have consistent routines at home are more likely to accept and adapt to the routine and scheduled day they have at school. Consistent daily bedtimes and wake-up times are very important in setting your child’s sleep and wake-up schedule. Consistent mealtimes and snack times will help regulate his/her hunger patterns and energy levels. Having routines at these times, such as always washing hands before meals and always reading for a few minutes before bed, helps children understand and accept the steps that are involved in routines at school. Enforcing the completion of homework before fun and games not only gets homework out of the way before it interferes with dinner and bedtime, but it also teaches your child to prioritize schoolwork over play, which creates better habits for the future. It might also be helpful to ask your child’s teacher to describe any consistent routines in the classroom so you can attempt to mimic them at home.
  • Establish an organized workspace at home for your child. Whether your child completes his/her homework at a desk in her bedroom or at the kitchen table, it is important to have all the necessary supplies, such as paper and pencils, readily accessible and organized. A small desk with drawers can be great for this, but if your child prefers to work at the kitchen table, a container large enough to hold paper and pencils is a great way to keep these supplies at hand when needed and tucked away when it is time to set the table for dinner.
  • Do morning legwork the night before. All supplies for school should be packed up and ready to go before your child goes to bed so that he/she is not frantically searching for his/her books and homework as he/she heads out the door to catch the bus. It might also help to pack lunch and choose his/her clothing before he/she goes to bed. This can all be part of his/her nightly routine!
  • Read with your child at least 20 minutes a day. Research shows that children who engage in at least 20 minutes of reading activities at home with their caregivers are more likely to be successful readers. Family reading time is an important part of your daily routine because it emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning and allows your child extra time to practice reading skills. Whether you sit together on the couch and read to yourselves silently or read a book out loud together, this is a great way for you to be involved with your child’s reading. When time is up, have a discussion about what you are each reading, including a synopsis and perhaps the most interesting fact you each learned from what you read.
  • Get to know your child’s teacher. Not only is it important that you have open lines of communication with your child’s teacher, but it is also important for your child to know about it. In this age of technology, most teachers are readily available via email to answer your questions. Many schools also offer websites for each specific class with online bulletin boards where you and your child can post questions or start discussions. Teacher websites are a great resource for finding out about any upcoming important information, such as projects and field trips. Let your child see that you respect her teacher and have a good, open relationship with him or her. Modeling that respect for your child’s teacher will go a long way toward enhancing your child’s own attitude toward her teacher!

These are all easy ways to structure your family life so that your child will experience success in school, not just this year but well into the future. The school-friendly family is one that emphasizes the importance of school success and structures itself to promote good habits and productive learning. Students learn to value and thrive on routines that allow them to be successful in school, and they

Preparing for Kindergarten: The Importance of Non-Academic Readiness Skills

by Sunny Im-Wang, PsyD, SSP

Smiling teacher at the school class.

Academic standards for today’s kindergarteners are much more rigorous than they were for today’s parents. Nevertheless, research indicates that kindergarten teachers feel that “executive functioning” skills, or skills that allow a child to control his or her behavior and emotions in a variety of settings, are better indicators of school readiness in today’s five-year-olds than academic readiness skills such as knowing the alphabet or being able to hold a pencil (Dockett & Perry, 2003). In fact, 75 percent of kindergarten teachers polled by Heaviside and Farris (1993) felt that children who are in good physical health, who have the ability to verbally communicate wants and needs, and who are curious and enthusiastic about participating in new activities are likely to successfully transition to a formal school environment and be  successful during their kindergarten year. Fifty percent of the same group of teachers felt that behavioral control, empathy, and socialization skills were also important skills for students to possess prior to entering kindergarten. Teachers of preschool-aged children can directly influence and enhance the development of these skills that will help ensure school success.

The following are key social/emotional skills that children need as they begin school:

  • Self-confidence
  • Ability to develop positive relationships with adults and other children
  • Ability to communicate emotions and feelings
  • Ability to listen to and follow directions
  • Ability to solve social problems

Children who have not learned these skills often develop behavior problems that then need to be managed, so it is important to expose them to activities and experiences that will enhance the development of these skills prior to their first day of formal schooling.

Self-Confidence

In order to foster self-confidence in young children, it is essential to use positive language as much as possible. When giving praise, it is important to be specific and praise actions and behaviors. For example, “You are doing a great job sharing your toy with Bobby,” is a much more informative statement than, “You are being good right now.” Telling a child specifically what he is doing right informs him of how to behave again in the future. These verbal reinforcements of positive behaviors will naturally decrease negative behaviors, because children want to behave in ways that please their caregivers and provide themselves with positive attention. It is this positive attention that also increases their sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Social Interaction

Prior to entering school, children should be exposed to a variety of social situations. Whether through team sports, group activities, lessons, preschool experiences, or extended family interactions, children learn how to get along with other children by being around other children. In order to successfully interact with others in these situations, preschool teachers should teach children how to initiate and maintain interactions with others, to solve problems, to communicate their emotions in appropriate ways, and to control their anger (Fox, et al., 2003).Take advantage of children’s personalities and activity preferences when engaging them in activities with other children. If a child is a very active child, engaging in physical activities with other children might be more beneficial for that particular child than, for example, taking a trip to the local library for story time. They are likely to find “kindred spirits” with whom to interact, and to experience these interactions as enjoyable.

Communicating Feelings

It is important that young children learn to communicate their feelings and emotions as specifically and correctly as they can, as well as to recognize the emotions of others. Children need a range of “emotional vocabulary words” in order to do this, and preschool teachers are in a great position to teach a variety of these words to children. It is important, for example, that children understand the meanings and implications of words such as frustrated, proud, afraid, excited, worried, and confused. Teachers can model the appropriate use of these feeling words by expressing their own feelings as specifically as possible, as well as by pointing out specific feelings that they observe in the children. When reading out loud to children, teachers can frequently stop to discuss the feelings of the characters involved, and also ask the children how they might feel if they were in similar situations as described in the stories. It can also be helpful to have children practice labeling the emotions and feelings of other children either during role-playing activities or by looking at photographs of other children.

Listening and following directions

The ability to listen to and follow directions is probably the most challenging behavioral skill that a five-year-old can accomplish. Children must direct and sustain their attention on someone else, understand what is being said, remember what to do, and then successfully execute the directive. To teach these skills, start slow and simple with easy, one-step directions. It can be helpful to cue children with an auditory signal, such as a clapping pattern, that alerts them it is time to stop talking and listen to the teacher. The children can repeat the clapping pattern back as an indication that they are ready to listen. Pairing auditory directions with visual cues, such as photographs or simple lists, can help children to remember the direction and stay focused while carrying out the specified behavior. Once single-step directions are effectively followed, two-step directions can be given. Again, visual cues such as photos in sequential order or a written list (for older children) can be very effective.

Problem-solving

In the school environment, children will be faced with a variety of social problems that they will need to be able to solve on their own or with minimal help from their teachers. Arguments on the playground, hurt feelings, frustration over what is packed for lunch, etc., are all potential minefields where a child can either learn to cope effectively or break down. Prepare children for these potential pitfalls by presenting hypothetical (or real) stories and scenarios to the children and then guiding them through the analysis and solution to each problem. Teaching a specific problem-solving strategy can be helpful: identify the problem, think of some solutions, discuss the pros and cons of each solution, choose a solution, and evaluate the outcome. The use of role-playing activities can serve as a great way for children to practice their problem-solving skills.

In sum, research has indicated that skills related to children’s successful behavioral and emotional control are considered more crucial to their successful transition to kindergarten than their mastery of pre-academic reading and math skills. Teachers of daycare centers and preschools are in an excellent position to help foster the development of these skills for children, ensuring that they will be emotionally and behaviorally ready for the challenges of the formal school environment.

© 2013 lilSprout Press. For permission to reprint, please write to: Permissions@lilsproutpress.com

References
Dockett, S., & Perry, B.(2003). The transition to school: What’s important? Educational Leadership, 60(7), 30-33.
Fox, L., Dunlap, G., Hemmeter, M. L., Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (2003). The teaching pyramid: A model for supporting social competence and preventing challenging behavior in young children. Young Children, 58(4), 48-53.
Heaviside, S., & Farris, S.(1993). Public school kindergarten teachers’ views on children’s readiness for school. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

New Release: A Children’s Book About Feelings

HappySad&EverythingIt’s finally here!  A book about emotional literacy for kids!!

Emotional literacy is one of the key ingredients to success in school and life. In her new book Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist, shows kids how to identify and manage their feelings—and have lots of fun while becoming emotion savvy 

With all the emphasis on preparing our kids to succeed in a high tech, competitive world it’s easy to forget one of the most essential life skills—emotional literacy. HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: ALL ABOUT MY FEELINGS (lilSprout Press, April 2013, Hardcover) by Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D., offers kids (ages 4-8) a fun and easy program to learn how to identify and manage their feelings.

THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION

“Did you know that your feelings and your body are connected,” asks Kai, the narrator of HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. She goes on to explain how various emotions feel in the body and how we can change our emotions by addressing our physical sensations. This not only provides kids with critical emotional literacy tools, but it also helps them identify feelings that they may not be able to articulate in words. This is an example of mindfulness in action.

Each page of the book addresses a different emotion, including silly, jealous, shy, excited, loving, and lonely, and offers age-appropriate guidance for understanding and appropriately expressing all the feelings on the emotional spectrum. This book also includes kid-friendly, research-supported skills for relieving and managing difficult emotions, such as anger and frustration. These skills include mindfulness, which is the practice of being in the moment and recognizing physical and emotional sensations in a nonjudgmental way. This includes recognizing how emotions feel throughout the body—not just how they register on our faces.

HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN helps kids understand the complex concept of emotions and gives them age-appropriate tools for managing them.

Why Emotional Literacy?

HappyFACE

Emotional literacy is the ability to identify, understand, and respond to emotions in oneself and others in appropriate and healthy way. It is easy to label emotions as good or bad, but it is important to help children understand that all emotions are valuable in that they can inform us of situations that we might want to change or avoid.

Emotional literacy is essential to long-term success at home, in school, and throughout life.  It can improve quality of life for children as they will feel more empowered by understanding emotions, which can sometimes be confusing, even for adults.

Emotional literacy is not just about knowing the definition of each emotion.

It involves:

  • Identifying the emotion
  • Recognizing emotions in oneself
  • Knowing ways to manage and regulate emotions, and
  • Empathizing with others

See how Happy, Sad, & Everything In Between: All About My Feelings can help you introduce emotional literacy to your child!

Coming April 30th: A book on emotional literacy for kids

Emotional literacy is one of the key ingredients to success in school and life

HappySadFrontCoverOnlyIn her new book Dr. Sunny Im-Wang, a pediatric psychologist, shows kids how to identify and manage their feelings—and have lots of fun while becoming emotion savvy.

With all the emphasis on preparing our kids to succeed in a high tech, competitive world it’s easy to forget one of the most essential life skills—emotional literacy. HAPPY, SAD & EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: ALL ABOUT MY FEELINGS, offers kids (ages 4-8) a fun and easy program to learn how to identify and manage their feelings.

Each page of the book addresses a different emotion, including silly, jealous, shy, excited, loving, and lonely, and offers age-appropriate guidance for understanding and appropriately expressing all the feelings on the emotional spectrum. This book also includes kid-friendly, research-supported skills for relieving and managing difficult emotions, such as anger and frustration. These skills include mindfulness, which is the practice of being in the moment and recognizing physical and emotional sensations in a nonjudgmental way. This includes recognizing how emotions feel throughout the body—not just how they register on our faces, which too often is the only way kids are taught to identify feelings.

Look inside the book!