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How Structure Improves Your Child's Brain

Teaching self-regulation without overstepping your bounds

What if your teenage daughter asks to borrow your frontal executive network rather than your shoes today? Sounds laughable? You've actually been lending it to her since she was a toddler.

Think back to your child's third birthday party. The parents all stayed at the party in order to follow their child through the chaos, squashing their impulse to grab a present, drying tears after they didn't get the first piece of cake, and keeping an eye out for the first steps in the "bathroom dance." 

A neuroscientist would say that the parents are acting as external frontal executive networks, literally lending their child their own brain's ability to modulate emotions, resist impulses, and plan into the future.

None of us would suggest that as parents we should just back off and let our toddlers be independent at birthday parties. There would be no more toddler birthday parties! Parents naturally lend their children structures that allow them to function in complex situations. There is nothing about this "loan" that gets in the way of their being able to eventually do it on their own. On the contrary, the loan of their parent's executive network allows toddlers to have the experience of birthday parties well before they would otherwise be able to independently join in the fun. As children grow and their executive networks begin to mature, they are progressively better at regulating their own emotions, resisting impulses, and organizing their time.

As parents know, we continue to lend our children structures to assist them in regulating themselves, even as they grow older. A set bed time is a good example of a structure without which most older kids would be walking around like zombies after staying up most of the night chatting on the phone with their friends.

The executive abilities to resist impulses, plan into the future, and modulate emotion are not only useful for being independent at birthday parties and staying awake during the day, but also for succeeding in the classroom. And yet there is a commonly held notion that as parents we should back off and leave kids on their own when it comes to learning and homework.

We can lend children our executive networks in academic situations so they can learn more effectively. External structures can assist a child's brain to learn more efficiently, as if they possessed a more mature frontal system. What is the difference between lending children structures and becoming a helicopter parent? Library day is a helpful example.

The helicopter parent stands at the door before school and hands their child their library book. The child never learns that they are responsible for remembering the book. A parent who lends their child a helpful structure might post a calendar near the door, where they have had their child circle each Wednesday and write "Library day" in red. This parent cues the child each morning to look at the calendar. On Wednesdays, the child sees its library day, and puts their book in their backpack. The message to the child is twofold. First, it's your responsibility to remember your book for library day, and second, here is a great way to consistently remember.

Over the next several blog posts I will share more relatively simple structures parents can lend to children that allow children to learn more efficiently.

Think better.

More from Karen Postal Ph.D., ABPP-CN
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