When I hear the phrase “Executive Functioning,” my mind conjures an image of a tiny businesswoman at the helm of my brain, giving no-nonsense orders to her minions, all while raising a family and putting dinner on the table each evening (women can have it all!).
In less ridiculous terms, a common analogy likens executive functioning to the brain’s Air Traffic Control system. Basically, that means Executive Functioning controls when and where tasks happen, prioritizes that order, and solves for unexpected problems that may arise.
Executive functioning is something that continues to develop through childhood and adolescence, and conversely, is often one of the first areas to deteriorate in persons with dementia. People who are neurodivergent may have difficulty with areas of executive functioning; for example, those with ADHD may have difficulty with impulse control or multitasking. Children on the autism spectrum may experience difficulty with flexible thinking.
One thing I love about making music is how it strengthens executive functioning in an inherently rewarding way.
Save for some brutal practice sessions, most people find playing music to be more “fun” than “work.” A rudimentary definition of music is sound structured through time- it’s impossible to make music without utilizing anticipation and time management.
When I play an instrument, not only am I using hand-eye coordination, I’m accessing working memory, flexible thinking (especially when I improvise), and problem-solving, as I learn new songs or overcome technical obstacles.
Music is also a great tool to teach emotional regulation.
Sesame Street has a great song about using the breath to self-regulate!
With kids who get frustrated easily, or have a hard time identifying with and coping with emotions like anger and anxiety, a song that reminds them of coping skills is a great tool to use. By repeating the song during times of stress,
we can condition a more constructive response to adverse conditions, “rewiring” our new coping skills so they become instinctual.
How Can I Use Music to Help My Child?
While the therapeutic process offers unique opportunities to address executive functioning, there are many simple ways to incorporate some of these concepts into everyday musical activities with your child.
1. Try singing familiar songs in different ways. Altering the tempo (speed), dynamics (loudness), and style of a familiar song can encourage flexible thinking and creativity. Ask your child to help you think of different ways to sing one of your favorites!
2. Let your child finish a phrase, without your help. It can be very tempting to “give the answers” when we see kids struggling, but an important part of developing executive functioning is having the wait-time to problem solve and explore without being prodded in the right direction. Some kids may instantly finish the line of a song, while others might need more time to independently recall and initiate the vocalization.
3. Use songs to reinforce skills. This Daniel Tiger song is a great tool for self-regulation. A catchy song can be a much more effective reminder to slow down, than a verbal command. Additionally, many traditional kids’ songs incorporate movements- the combination of remembering lyrics, anticipating the next line, and performing the correct motions is a great workout for executive functioning.
Tunes like “Button Factory” have the benefit of being incredibly silly, to boot!
There are likely many ways you’re working to strengthen your child’s executive functioning without being aware of it, but for a great list of ideas, I recommend THIS ACTIVITY GUIDE from Harvard.
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- Catherine Backus, MT-BC