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Category: Education

Maintaining friendships is key to your child’s resilience.

Maintaining friendships is key to your child’s resilience.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

Most children will see their friends nearly every day of the week. However, with schools closed and access to outdoor play facilities and social spaces restricted, reduced contact with friends can be quite upsetting and stressful for some children. Maintaining these friendships will help your child develop resilience by learning how to manage periods of difficult change, both now and as a skill that will be carried into later life.

What do we mean by resilience?

When we talk about resilience we mean a persons’ ability to bounce back and recover from stress, challenges and difficult life events. Remember, resilience is not something that we either have or don’t; it is a skill that needs to be built and nurtured within your child.

Why is resilience important?

Research has shown that children who are more resilient are happier, less stressed and are better equipped to handle life’s curveballs*. They are also more likely to take healthy risks as they don’t fear falling short of expectations**. Building resilience will help your child learn how to manage their emotions when faced with adversity so that they can continue working towards their goals. In terms of executive functions resilience is a mixture of goal directed persistence and flexibility.

Why is maintaining friendships key to building resilience?

Like all of us, children need to spend quality time with the important people in their lives. Staying connected will give them the opportunities they need to talk to a friend about a concern or something that they may be finding difficult to adjust to. This will provide them with the emotional support necessary for developing coping strategies that can help them overcome the issue. Maintaining these friendships will help them build resilience by better equipping them to cope with stress and uncertainty and can help them recover from periods of difficult change quicker***. The more quality social support they can draw upon from friends, the more flexible and resilient they can be in stressful situations. Essentially, these friendships will provide the support system that your child needs during these times of social and educational adjustment.

As a parent, how can you help your child stay connected?

Make it routine

With the daily juggling of home-schooling and working from home, it can be easy for time to slip away. As a parent, it is important that you set enough time aside in your children’s schedule so that they can regularly connect with friends. Including it as part of their daily routine will make them feel safe, less stressed and create a calmer household.

Set up virtual playdates

There are plenty of apps and services available such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom that can make it easy for your child to stay connected whilst remaining physically distant. You could organise a virtual playdate where they cook or watch a film together. You could even create a classroom-like environment by letting them video call their friends whilst they are doing their school work. They could also play some games across a video platform, games like Battleships or Hangman work brilliantly. Better yet, these types of online social interactions can actually support their executive function development. For example, it can help them practice turn-taking and inhibiting responses, and help them learn how to maintain focus in a distraction-rich environment.

Write a letter…and get creative!

It may be a bit retro but in today’s society, the opportunity for children to learn the mechanics of writing and sending letters is fairly limited. Particularly for younger children, this is the perfect opportunity to help them develop their handwriting skills. You could also get creative by sending photos, drawings and including small care packages for friends or relatives. Just imagine the excitement when they receive a letter back in the mail addressed to them!

Write a story

Use email to encourage your child to start writing. Get them to write the first chapter and then send to one of their friends to write the next chapter or section. Not only will this help your child develop planning and prioritisation, but will link the components of executive functions (working memory, cognitive flexibility) with the components of imagination, such as symbolic thought and imaginary companions. Plus, you will have a wonderful story memory to share when your children are reunited in person again. 

But my child hates doing anything I suggest. What can I do in this situation?

It is natural and normal for teenagers to reject the suggestions of their parents – it is part of what has made human societies so adaptable over the years as teenagers reject the status quo and opt to do something different. Working with a trained professional in these circumstances can be invaluable. They can offer a safe space to discuss how your child is feeling and work on a practical plan to boost EFs according to your child’s goals.

If a coach was helping a child with this particular issue they would find a good time to discuss how they were feeling about being in self-isolation and then set some goals around milestones they would like to achieve. Like: I would like to chat to my favourite Aunty once a week on Zoom. They would then brainstorm and put together a workable bespoke plan to do this: teach Aunty Kate to use Zoom, and then schedule a convenient time, and have a topic they can discuss so that the chat is more meaningful than just a chit chat. The coach can then check back in to tweak the plan over time.

If you would like to know more about executive function coaching and how it can help your children, you, or even yourself as a parent then book a free discovery call with our Client Services Manager today.

* Resilience in development: The importance of early childhood. (Masten & Gewirtz, 2006)

**Resilience giving children the skills to bounce back. (Hall, Pearson & Reaching, 2003)

***Best friends and better coping: Facilitating psychological resilience through boys’ and girls’ closest friendships. (Graber, Turner & Madill, 2016)

Create a Child Friendly Workspace in your Home.

Create a Child Friendly Workspace in your Home.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

With everything going on in the world at the moment we are all in a huge period of adjustment. Parents are working from home, children are off school and we are unsure about how much longer we will be able to move around our normal outside routines. So how can we harness what we know about executive functions and apply them to our home spaces and make homeschooling for our children that little bit easier? One of our suggested ways is to create a child friendly workspace in your home.

Setting up a workspace which is free from distractions, clutter and is comfortable for your child will help support motivation, task initiation and completion.

Setup

First, consider your child’s studying style. If they are easily distracted, a secluded, quiet spot is best, but if they are more comfortable working with other people around, choose a corner of the living room or kitchen. Make sure the area is free of clutter and that other family members respect “working time.”

While music may be okay at low levels, TVs should be turned off — very few people can resist becoming distracted by the TV. But no matter where your child does her homework, research* shows the benefits of a quiet space with natural lighting, relative quiet**, and close-at-hand supplies.

Two other essentials are a reasonably large work surface and comfortable seating. If you can afford an adjustable chair, that’s great, but you can also adjust your existing furniture by stacking pillows on the seat. If your child’s feet don’t rest on the floor, use a footrest, boxes, or more stacked books. A final tip is to use a rolled-up towel or small pillow between the back of the chair and the child’s lower back to provide lumbar support.

Finally, let your child take part in creating their study space so they will feel more comfortable and be less likely to think of home working as a chore. Your child may feel less intimidated if he has a favourite toy sitting beside him to “help” study spelling words, or if she has a “magic thinking hat” to wear when stumped by a math problem.

Computers

A few additional ergonomic guidelines should be followed when your child works at a computer. The monitor should be level with their head, and it should be directly in front of them, about 18 to 30 inches away. Make sure there’s no glare falling on the screen or use an anti-glare screen, as glare causes eyestrain. If your child is very young, consider getting a child-sized keyboard and mouse or switching to a trackball, as little hands often have trouble using these adult-sized components.

Necessary Stuff

Once you’ve got the space and furniture covered, stock up on basic supplies. For younger children, also include arts and crafts materials. For older children, including a dictionary, thesaurus, and an atlas. Use colourful jars to hold supplies, or for a portable option, use plastic stackable cubes or even a sturdy shoebox.

For children working at a common area such as the kitchen table, bringing out the “homework supplies” is also a great way to indicate that “working” time has begun. The other essential item for all ages is a wall calendar where your child can record dates and other important information.

By setting up your child with a workspace that works for him or her, the homeschooling process will be a smoother one for everyone.

At Connections in Mind we believe, and research*** has proven, that children who plan and organise their work, build in short and long term goals and reflect on their processes are more likely to succeed. Not only in their education but throughout their lives. If you would like to know more about executive function coaching and how it can help your children or you, as parents then book a free discovery call with our Client Services Manager today.

Research

*The home learning environment and achievement during childhood (Dearing & Tang); In Handbook of school-family partnerships (Sandra, Christenson & Reschly, 2010). “Strong correlations between having learning materials in the home and nearly all areas of achievement” and “children’s access to literacy materials is an excellent predictor of literacy achievement”. 

**Does noise affect learning? A short review on noise effects on cognitive performance in children. (Klatte, Bergstrom & Lachmann, 2013), “enduring exposure to environmental noise may affect children’s cognitive development”. 

***Executive function and early childhood education (Blair, 2016), “…important contributor to school readiness and school success”.

More Haste less Speed – the neuroscience behind the old proverb.

More Haste less Speed – the neuroscience behind the old proverb.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

Have you ever wondered why when you are against the clock everything seems to be against you?  If you are superstitious perhaps you believe that fate is actually against you and it is punishing you for not leaving enough time. Perhaps you have negative self talk telling you if you had only left more time you wouldn’t be in such a pickle? Well believe it or not the answer lies not in the universe being against you, but instead in the unique way our brains are wired.

Picture the scene: you overslept your alarm and wake up 10 minutes before you should be leaving the house. You know that each element of your routine should only take a few minutes so in theory it shouldn’t take you more than 20 minute to leave the house but everything seems to be against you. You put your phone down somewhere and spend 5 minutes turning the sitting room upside down looking for it before you find it in the bathroom. You pour orange juice in your tea instead of milk and you have to boil the kettle all over again. And the icing on the cake – you pat your pocket as you walk down the street and realise that you have locked your house keys in the house and have to go to your partner’s office on the way into work to make sure you can get in after work as you have plans that night.  Is it fate? Completely out of your control? Or is something going on in your brain to prevent you from executing your tasks as you would like to? You guessed it, executive functions are the answer.

Yes I know, it is amazing how I manage to see EFs everywhere, but it is such an interesting lens to consider the challenges we face through, and in my view so helpful. 

So what do EFs and neuroscience have to do this having a bad day?  Well everything!

Let’s think about the example above. You wake up you realise you are late and you panic.  What happens to our brain when we panic? We revert to our instinctual brain and bypass our prefrontal cortex where the executive functions are found.

Panic literally disconnects our EFs from our brain and makes it much more difficult for us to execute normal tasks.  This is because the brain is hardwired to keep us safe in traditionally threatening environments – like an animal attack or an ambush. Ironically it also kicks in when we panic about 21st century parts of our lives – like timekeeping.  So exactly when we need our EFs to execute all the tasks we need to do to make up time quickly our emotional state renders our brains pretty useless for these tasks.  Isn’t that ironic? 

In practice this means that the working memory we need to remember that we left our phone on the shelf while we brushed our teeth is disabled, we are so preoccupied by running for the bus that we forget to even think about our keys and its possible our emotional control is compromised so we have a little cry on the way to our partners office and mutter an unhelpful cross word or two with ourselves about being “hopeless” .

The great news is that because our brains are malleable we can change these patterns and step out of the downward spiral of disaster when we are in panic mode.  Techniques such as mindfulness, breathing exercises and in some cases simply understanding and visualising what is going on in our brains can help. Some people are happy to put these practices into place on their own whilst others have great intentions and never actually get around to it. 

Our executive function coaches have a plethora of helpful techniques to help us overcome our EF challenges, they are ready and waiting to help you find practical solutions to your challenges and set up bespoke strategies which really work for you. We are also running a series of complimentary webinars throughout January. Our next is on 15th January at 2pm and will be looking at how EF’s are the bottleneck to success within the workplace especially when managing teams. To book your space on the webinar please click here https://zoom.us/meeting/register/v5YrcOuorDgrGzvI2Q-wYRJQjeQYYsLVMw

About Victoria

Victoria, is a pioneer in the field of executive function skills development and passionately believes that applying the latest developments in neuroscience is the key to unlocking the potential of the human brain. She regards poor executive functions as the bottleneck to productivity and is committed to working with people of all ages to help them overcome their executive function challenges in order to flourish.

Reflections on 5 years of working with EF’s

Reflections on 5 years of working with EF’s

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

I have recently been chatting to lots of people about executive functions, and one question that always comes up is how I first learnt about executive functions.  

Well, I have Dr Claire Casey to thank for that. In late 2014 Claire and I were working on a particularly concerning adolescent case, I was supporting the young lady in question with her school work as a tutor and Clare was supporting her from a psychiatric perspective. I was flummoxed by our ward’s seemingly endless intellectual capacity but her inability to complete some of the simplest tasks, also her crippling perfectionism and performance anxiety and how it inhibited her ability to crack on with her school work. 

Claire recommended I read ‘Smart but Scattered Teens’ by Dr Peg Dawson and Dr Richard Guare, a pioneering parent handbook about executive function development in teenagers. I was hooked from the first chapter. Everything in the book all made absolute sense to me and what’s more I could identify with these struggles myself as dyslexic who has unknowingly struggled to cope with executive function challenges all my life. 

How did reading a book lead to setting up Connections in Mind

After reading the book I signed up for Peg Dawson’s next available one day training in Boston USA and jumped on a plane to go meet her and learn from the master herself. We met over lunch and discussed ideas about bringing executive function coaching to the UK. I began piloting executive function coaching with a number of clients online and found the results to be phenomenal. 

Convinced by the approach, I wrote to Peg to ask her to come to the UK to train the first round of executive function coaches in the UK. She didn’t need much persuasion and we set a date for December 2015. Peg did the first two days and I concluded with a 3rd day about EF coaching in the UK environment. During the course I met Imogen Moore Shelley and later Dr Bettina Hohnen where we discovered we had a shared passion for executive function development and later agreed to form a company to start offering coaching through Connections in Mind at the beginning of the next school year, September 2016. 

Before we began we enlisted the help of eminent Professor of Child Psychiatry Peter Hill to record an informative video about our services and how executive function coaching can help develop strong executive functions and put together a website. In September 2016, as planned, we began offering Peg Dawson’s model of coaching in the UK with a team of just 4 coaches including ourselves. Things have gone from strength to strength: we now have a team of over 40 coaches delivering a range of services to 6 – 90 year olds based on our learnings, research and development. 

What 10 things have you learned about executive function development in the last 5 years? 

  1. Everyone has a unique executive function profile. No one is perfect and everyone can improve their executive functions, from childhood, through to adolescence and right into adulthood. It might surprise readers to know that not one of the 500 teachers we trained last year through the Connections in Mind Foundation had a perfect profile. 
  2. Executive function terminology is easy to learn and natural for people to adopt. We have seen time and time again, in a variety of different contexts, that children as young as 6 can adopt and skilfully deploy the executive function terminology we use in our work. Indeed it helps them immensely to have a term to use to name their challenge so that they can recognise it and seek help to work on it. 
  3. Executive function challenges are not character flaws. Those with weak executive functions carry around a lot of shame about their character which is totally scientifically unfounded. When we hold public talks about executive functions we often have people close to tears as they realise they are not a bad person but their brain works slightly differently to others. 
  4. Executive functions wax and wain. Executive functions change depending on sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress and other environmental factors. In order to start working on executive functions we must first get the ground work done in terms of the environment before real and lasting progress can be made. 
  5. Coaching only works if you are committed to change. When we started Connections in Mind we took on any client whose parents wanted their child to try coaching. Sounds great, right? But we soon realised that just because the parents were keen on coaching it didn’t mean their children were. Progress with these clients was slow, if any progress at all, as the students self awareness or need to change was holding them back. As a result of this we developed our metacognition building programme, a six week introduction to coaching. This programme paves the way for coaching, teaching adolescents about their executive functions, brain plasticity and growth mindset to help them to investigate if working on their executive functions is something they are willing to invest time and effort in.
  6. Coaching is more tricky with younger children. Young children simply don’t have the metacognition to understand why they should work on their executive functions nor the motivation to change, so any work on development of executive functions needs to be fun and engaging. Off the back of this we developed Executive Function Adventures – our 10 session play based intervention which helps develop executive function literacy and works on every day strategies which form the basis of subsequent parent lead development. 
  7. Coaching is most effective when the parents are on board with our approach. We find that parents find it very difficult to stop being their child’s prefrontal cortex and step back and let them develop their executive functions at their own pace. We have developed our Connected Minds Parent course to help parents learn the tools to support strong executive function development at home. Enticing all parents to attend the course is a challenge and we are looking into flexible ways to deliver this course to fit in with busy lives. 
  8. The skill of the coach and the strength of their connection with the client is key to success. Without doubt the key to any professional relationship is trust and connection as the client has to trust they are completely understood and in a non judgemental space. We urge all our clients to look for a spark of connection with their coach, if it isn’t there with one coach it doesn’t mean it won’t be with another.  
  9. Executive function coaching is an expert skill. When we first started coaching we tried to keep costs down for clients by recruiting younger, relatable coaches such as psychology graduates and tutors. However, we quickly learnt that people with executive function challenges have often developed quite sophisticated coping mechanisms to protect themselves against the shame of having weak executive functions. They are often completely charming and adept at telling white lies and diverting you from the real issue in hand. Thus coaches need to be experienced in working with people and know how to hold them to account in firm but empathetic ways. 
  10. You need a strong support system. The best way to develop strong executive functions is through a collaborative home and school support system which actively works on developing strong executive functions. We have written a whole chapter in an upcoming book on neuroscience to be published later this year. Watch this space for more information. 

I am hugely passionate about sharing all there is to know about executive functions and how, by learning and understanding them we can support clients to change their lives in order to flourish.

If you would like to find out more about Connections in Mind and the services we provide then please visit our website. Or, if you feel you or your child, could benefit from executive function coaching then please book a free, 30 minute, discovery call with our executive function coaching expert to better understand the process and tailored programmes.  

Also, we are currently hosting a series of free webinars about executive functions please find more information online here.

About Victoria

Victoria, is a pioneer in the field of executive function skills development and passionately believes that applying the latest developments in neuroscience is the key to unlocking the potential of the human brain. She regards poor executive functions as the bottleneck to productivity and is committed to working with people of all ages to help them overcome their executive function challenges in order to flourish.

Guest Blog: Welcome to Mock Exam Season

Guest Blog: Welcome to Mock Exam Season

December 2nd is the start of two weeks of mock exams for year 11. Although these are practice exams, we encourage students to take them seriously so that they develop good habits for the real thing. As parents, you have the tricky job of finding the balance between supporting and challenging your child. What does this mean? It means being supportive without being overly helpful, and being challenging without being overly critical.

Helpful comments encourage independence and make a student feel good; unhelpful comments discourage students and make them feel bad. When you are tempted to say something critical to your child, ask yourself if it is really about them, or is it about you? Are you projecting your own expectations onto your child in an unrealistic way? As humans we often learn the most from the things we get wrong, so have some patience and allow room for your child to experiment and find out what work for them. Here are some examples:

Helpful

“You’ve been very focused for the last hour – well done.”

“I see that you’re having trouble getting started Would you like me to quiz you with your flashcards?”

“No matter how you do on your exams, I’m proud of you for trying your hardest.”

Unhelpful

“You’ve only revised for one hour – that’s not good enough!”

“You’re just messing around and not getting anything done. Don’t be so lazy!”

“If you fail your exams I’ll be so embarrassed and your life will be a disaster!”

Similarly, the right questions can empower students, while the wrong ones put students on the defensive. Generally speaking, questions that require more than a ‘yes or no’ answer are best as they require some thought to answer and encourage students to take responsibility for themselves:

Helpful

“What’s your plan for revision this weekend?”

“How will you prepare for your maths exam today”

“What’s getting in the way of your revision plans?”

Unhelpful

“Don’t you have anything you should be doing?”

“Aren’t you going to revise for maths today?”

“Are you going to just sit there on your phone all day?”

Finally, resist the urge to be overly helpful – it robs your child of the chance to learn or practice a skill and encourages dependence. Notice the difference between “Would you like some help creating a revision timetable?” and “Here, let me make a timetable for you!” Being too helpful is unhelpful!

Tricia Nearn is one of our specialist parenting coach with Connections in Mind. Tricia’s coaching combines a knowledge of adolescent brain development with coaching strategies to help children develop resilience, tenacity, creativity and the ability to self-reflect. Tricia and Connections in Mind believe that academic success is not always the end-game, but it is often the side-effect of building a strong coaching relationship.

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