Follow Your Child’s Lead to Boost Social, Emotional and Executive Functioning Skills

I often find that my kids are my best teachers and reminders of best practices when it comes to parenting and supporting them. A recent experience with my 15-year-old son brought me back to a powerful evidence-based strategy that leads to surefire results related to motivation and learning.

In advance of summer, our family maps out a plan detailing what each child will do with their time. We try to be thoughtful and intentional in order to create a balance of physical, social, and learning activities. We often focus on areas in which the kids need extra support, since summer offers the time to do so.

My older son could benefit from a focus on building his executive functioning skills, and it’s also a good time for him to start thinking about vocational skills. We discussed being a junior camp counselor, lifeguard, or babysitter, but these ideas were met with a shrug. We also talked about how to work on executive functioning skills that are involved in finding a job, such as researching, organizing information, and following through on leads. But it was clear that my son wasn’t eager to dive into these challenging tasks when the work options didn’t excite him.

A few days later, he came home from school all fired up about a class project related to the environment. He was suddenly talking about plastics in the ocean and what could be done about it. He took the initiative to organize a gathering of classmates and together they came up with ideas for creating an environmentally friendly business (One Step Closer). INTRINSIC MOTIVATION

As he did this, I realized that he was practicing many executive function and job skills such as coordinating and planning a meeting, taking notes, and coming up with goals. The group organized themselves and made a website and other social media sites.As I observed this process, I tried to be intentional in ranking the priorities for the coming months. It quickly became apparent to me that improving his executive functioning skills is probably the best thing my son could do with his time this summer.

The larger message is that intrinsic motivation leads to self-determination and positive action. If we can identify the things our child truly cares about, we can use those interests to support learning and goal development. Let’s say your child needs practice in math but won’t engage in flash cards or robotics. How about tackling math through home cooking projects or a cooking class? Or, if your child is struggling with reading skills and loves sports, how about investing in a subscription to Sports Illustrated? My younger son needs work on fine motor skills, and he loves to score baseball. We put these things together and got him a scoring sheet, which requires fine motor skills to fill in all the small boxes.
If you’re unsure of what will motivate your child, here are some ways to find activities that will spark excitement:

  1. Pay attention to how they prefer spending their free time.  What ideas or activities do they gravitate toward?
  2. Listen to what your child likes to talk about. Initiate conversations that might evoke topics of interests (e.g., “What was your favorite activity at school this week?” or “If you had a free day, what would you do this weekend?”).
  3. What does your child like to read about? What types of tv shows or movies do they prefer?
  4. If their hobbies or interests are limited or they are resistant to trying activities that you bring up, offer them the opportunity to observe various activities. Most classes will allow you to observe before you sign up or you may be able to find a short YouTube clip showing the activity online.

Be patient with this process and try not to invest too much hope or money in any particular hobby; experimenting can be a good way to learn.

To help determine your child’s areas of interest, I’ve developed a checklist to support this process. The guiding principle is to follow your child’s lead. Then have fun finding out what motivates your child and sprinkling in some learning along the way!


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