Executive Function

What I really love about child development is many of the concepts and ideas really, truly make sense to most people. Unlike many other fields, the terms that developmental psychologists use to describe concepts are usually pretty straight forward. For example, “Attachment” yep, it means exactly what it says, how well attached- or emotionally connected-is the child to an adult caregiver.“Reinforcement” and “punishment”, clear as day, reinforcement occurs when you do something to increase the chances of a behavior happening again (e.g., giving a child and M&M when they use the potty during toilet training) and punishment is something you do when you want to stop a behavior from happening again (e.g., time outs as punishment for hitting a sibling).
Of course there are quite a few concepts that have wacky names that don’t seem at all intuitive to most parents.  What am I talking about? Things like Executive Functioning… To me this sounds like something that is done in a large, stuffy board room, with a bunch of people dressed in suits, in order to get some big deal accomplished. (Much like The Apprentice Boardroom below)

When it comes to child development Executive Functioning, is actually a really interesting and almost overwhelming concept.  And actually the name is a pretty accurate description if you can disassociate the term “executive” from “businessperson”. Executive functioning is the group of mental processes that a child uses to achieve a range of goals. That makes perfect sense, right? No it doesn’t! Executive function is really hard to explain because it encompasses a whole bunch different mental processes (meaning things that you do in your head!).

Its easier to understand executive functioning by understanding some of the parts that make up the whole:

Attention: The ability to focus attention when needed is an important part of children’s executive functioning. For example, a child’s ability to sit still and read a book or their ability to attend to a long list of directions before starting an activity.
Working Memory: This is the ability to keep something in mind and to pull it out of memory when you need it. This can be something like remembering to take out the garbage after you finish your homework or remembering to complete all parts of multi-step math problem.
Task Shifting: This is the ability to switch between tasks and directions depending on the situation. For example, in music class children may play freeze dance. Children have to understand the rules of the game and shift and adjust their behavior depending on whether the music is playing (they can dance) or if it turns off (they must stop).
Inhibition: This is a child’s ability to STOP their behavior. For example, if you leave a cookie out on the table and tell a toddler not to touch it until you come back, you are testing his inhibition skills (same goes for adults!). (The image above of a child with 2 marshmallows is a classic executive functioning task)
These are just a few of the concepts that fall under the umbrella of executive functioning. Planning, flexible thinking, problem solving, and multi-tasking also play a role.

Why should parents care or think about executive functioning? Well, executive functioning skills tend to be highly correlated with a range of academic abilities. Kids who have better executive functioning skills (meaning kids who can pay attention, inhibit their behavior, plan activities, switch and adjust appropriately to directions, etc) tend to better in school (Blair & Razza, 2007;Bull, Espy, & Wiebe, 2008; Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).

It is important for parents to understand that this is a developmental process.  Executive function skills develop over time- a long time!  Some research suggests that the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain behind your forehead that is largely responsible for controlling executive functions) doesn’t fully develop until your 20’s (Department of Health and Human Services)!  So parents, be aware of executive functioning skills with your children and  practice and reinforce behavior that is related to executive functioning (attention: sitting still; inhibition: no hitting, etc) but remember that these skills are developing and will be developing for quiet some time!

Note: Lindsay Lohan is 25 years old (DOB July, 1986).  Her prefrontal cortex and executive functioning abilities are likely not fully developed yet.

Blair, C. and Razza, R. P. (2007), Relating Effortful Control, Executive Function, and False Belief Understanding to Emerging Math and Literacy Ability in Kindergarten. Child Development, 78: 647–663. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01019.x
Bull, R., Espy, K. A., Wiebe, S. A. (2008). Short-term memory, working memory, and executive functioning in preschoolers: Longitudinal predictors of mathematical achievement at age 7 years. Developmental Neuropsychology, 33, 205-228.
Graziano, P.A., Reavis,R.D., Keane, S.P.,& Calkins,S.D. (2007). The role of emotion regulation in children’s early academic success, Journal of School Psychology, 45, 3-19.

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Child Care Options

Just the other day, I was talking to a soon-to-be father!  In the excitement of the new baby news we discussed the gender of the baby, the due date, and whether or not they were going to tell the baby’s name.  Very basic, “so you are having a baby” conversation.  And like most soon-to-be parents, they had figured out their doctor, birthing plan, and were now at the stage of figuring out childcare.  Yes, in America, it seems that planning for childcare is something that many parents do well before the baby is born and often times well before the baby is even conceived!

Sadly, that is the state of affairs for American families.  Before you have a baby you need to figure out who the heck is going to take care of that baby, likely for up to 50 hours a week!  So what are the options for new parents? Good public schools? Yes but unfortunately, public kindergarten doesn’t start for about 5 more years, if you are lucky to live in one of the few states with a universal Pre-K program you may have only 4 years to worry about… So what are parents to do for the first 4 years?

Best Option:.  Win the lottery, quit your job, and get a PhD in child development and an MD in pediatrics and stay at home with your baby.

If that doesn’t work out for you here are your alternatives to consider and evaluate in  your area:

1.  Center Based Care.  An expert in child care Beth Meloy posted about the details of childcare on PlayLearnParent back in February of 2011.  There are a lot of options and a lot of resources out there for helping you to pick a quality child care program.  Child care programs can introduce your children to other kids, teach lessons about sharing, encourage social-emotional development, etc.  But with very little ones be sure to ask what the teacher to infant ratio is.  At  under 1 year of age, love, comfort, attention, and interaction by a caring adult is crucial for healthy development, so make sure the center can offer lots of one-on-one time for your baby.

2.  At Home Child Care.  These programs can range dramatically so be sure to spend time to learn as much as possible about the specific family center that you are interested in.  Generally at home child care is offered at someone’s home.  Usually, the provider has fewer children in her care than a center based program but there is often a larger range of ages of children in her care.  Many programs will have 1 infant, a couple toddlers, and a few preschool-aged children all in the same room for the day.  Whereas center based program usually break kids into classrooms based on their age or developmentally ability.  Most at home child care centers will only take 1 or 2 infants at a time whereas centers can have upwards of 15 infants.  Again, ask about adult to child ratios and be aware that infants and toddlers need more one-on-one attention.  At home child care centers are usually at someone’s home so it is important to ask about the facilities available.  Are there separate rooms for sleeping? What type of outdoor area is there for playing?  Remember that children of different ages have different needs.  Ask how the program maintains safety for each of the different children (for example, infants and toddlers can easily fall down stairs where as 4 year olds are much more capable of maneuvering around these obstacles).

3.  Nanny.  If staying at home full-time with your baby is not an option for you, consider hiring a nanny to spend that time with your child.  Your child will become attached and comfortable with a nanny (don’t worry your child will not love the nanny more than you!) and the nanny can offer many of the affordances that you would have if you stayed at home with your child.  Some benefits include: more individual attention, interaction, and care as well as keeping your child in your home so they can sleep in their own crib and play with their own toys.  Nanny’s of course can be quite expensive depending on where you live, between $15 and $25 an hour is not unheard of (that can cost more than $600 per week!).

4.  Nanny Share.  This is the new hot thing in many metropolitan areas and is exactly what it sounds like- families with babies will share a nanny. Rather than each family paying $600 a week for a nanny, two families get together, generally with children of similar ages, and hire a nanny to watch both kids.  Prices vary for the nanny but this can often save families up to 50% on childcare costs.  Nanny shares can offer benefits beyond just monetary ones.  By sharing a nanny you can rotate who’s house the nanny comes to, which increases your child’s access to new toys, parks, and experiences.  Of course sharing a nanny with another kid can also help your child develop their social emotional skills like sharing and patience like they would get in childcare but with a 1 adult to 2 kid ratio which provides lots of interaction and time for hugs and kisses!

5.  Get Creative.  Yes, babies do well when they have routines but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative with your child care schedule.  Some creative things I have recently heard about. A friend of mine did a different kind of nanny share, she only needed childcare for 2 days while her friend needed child care for 3 days, so they split the nanny that way and kept the nanny busy 5 days a week but still got one-on-one care for their babies.  My mom nanny’s for twins in the middle of the day during the week, the mom goes into work early and comes home early, and the dad goes into work late and comes home late, to decrease the amount of child care time/costs.  Another friend is a dentist and is going to opt to work Saturdays instead of a workday so she can be with the baby at home one day a week and the father can stay with the baby on Saturday.  Share child care time with friends and family.  Offer to watch a friend’s kids on Tuesday evenings when they have late meetings in exchange for them watching your kids monday mornings when you have to teach a class, etc.  Bring on the family members!  If you have family in the area (especially retired grandparents) see if they want to participate in child care responsibilities (but please do not drop this expectation on them!).

 *REMEMBER* In all cases be sure to ask for multiple references! You want to ask a range of parents about their experiences leaving their children in this person’s or center’s care.


Day Care: Choosing a Good Center FamilyDoctor.org

Choosing a Day Care Provider ivillage


How to Hire a Baby Nanny



About Nanny Shares:

BabyCenter Nanny Shares

Nanny Network Nanny Share


Filed under All Kids, Infants

Valentine’s Day, Teaching About Love

Valentine’s Day, much like Halloween, is a holiday that kids love, primarily for the candy.  But the nice thing about Valentine’s Day is it’s about love and kindness and these are two very important concepts for children to learn about while they are young and throughout their life.  With all of the conversation about preventing negative behaviors (e.g., bullying prevention) it seems like we, as parents and teachers, get caught up in telling our children how not to behave rather than focusing on encouraging and empowering them to behave in a way that we want them to.  So here are a couple of ideas to teach your kids about love and kindness (both today and throughout the year) and I’m going to throw empathy in here as well because it’s just so important for acting with kindness.

Making Cards.  Valentine’s day cards are a very popular activity and one that can be a wonderful teaching opportunity when it is done with thought and care.  Kids generally have to send cards to everyone in their class, work with your child to think about each child as you address the card for each classmates.  Depending on the age of your child, have your child either write or say one nice quality about that classmate.  For example, “I like how Naomi shares the blocks with me.”  Making cards for friends and other people for other occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, or first day of school is a nice way to remind your children about the importance of thinking about other people’s feelings and working to make them feel special and happy.

Get Creative.  Help your child think of novel ways to tell their friends and family that they love them.  Encourage your child to draw pictures, write a story, or make up a song of a time when they were nice to a friend or when a friend was especially nice to them.  By working with your child to create something you open up the opportunity for conversation and discussion about the different behaviors or experiences that make people feel happy as well as the ones that make people feel sad.

Gifts.  I’m not a big proponent of gifts just for the sake of giving gifts but of course that is one way in which people do show and demonstrate kindness.  A gift can be anything and does not need to be purchased at a store. Talk to your children about the many different types of gifts that exist and some of the best “presents” you have ever received to help them understand that kindness and thoughtfulness is often a wonderful “gift”.  Also talk about the importance of thinking about what type of gift you may want to give to someone based on the other person’s interests rather than your own. This is something that is often hard for young kids to understand.  They may think that because they love the color blue that they should get all of their friend’s blue gifts, even if they know that their friend Sophia loves the color purple.  Understanding that other people may think differently than you is a very complex task for young children to understand so be sure to talk to them about this often.

Do Something Special for Someone Else.  This is something that many families think about during Thanksgiving or Christmas-time, but tend to forget to do as much as the year goes on.  Valentine’s day could be another great holiday to give back and give kindness to people in need.  Whether that means giving a piece of chocolate to a homeless man on the street or singing a song for children in a hospital.  Valentine’s day is about showing love and kindess both to people in your life who you love and care for but you can also share love and kindness with others to make them feel special.

Model Love and Kindness.  As parents it is easy to get wrapped up in the day to day activities and forget to go out of your way to show kindness to your children, your spouse, or your friends.  Remember that your children are learning from your behavior so make a conscious effort to discuss acts of kindness that others have done and the ways in which you acted kindly to others.  Also talk explicitly about acting kind at home, explain that it was really nice that Daddy picked up the carton of milk that the family needed or that it was really kind and thoughtful of your son to clean up his toys without being asked.  Talking about these events and recognizing good behavior is sometimes hard when we feel like we constantly have to remind kids about what not to do, but try to take a few minutes each day to talk about the nice things that people did for you or that you did for others, maybe over dinner or before going to bed.

These are just a few ideas to think about.  I hope that everyone gets a chance to share their love and kindess today, either because it’s Valentine’s Day or just because it’s another Tuesday.


The Baby Center. The Caring Child: How to Teach Empathy.

Sesame Street.  Empathy in Children by James Herzog & Katherine Ross

Kaboose.  Top 10 Tips to Share with your Children.
This also includes some book suggestions as well

Reading Rockets Valentine’s Day Writing Ideas

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Birthday Parties


Tips for Children’s Birthday Parties That Encourage Proper Development

by Lisa Moore

We begin attending birthday parties at a very young age and keep up with the social tradition till the end of our lives. It’s one of those cross-cultural, social traditions that it is important to feel comfortable with from early on in life. When your child is the host or when your child is the guest there are certain social norms and behaviors they need to learn how to follow. Here are a few things to discuss with your child before they attend or host a birthday party, and a few ways to deal with problems that may arise.

Before Going to a Party Preparation:

  1. Monitor the blood sugar. If the party is at a strange time or they are sure to serve pizza, soda, and ice cream there is a blood sugar variable that as a parent you need to monitor. A solid breakfast, wholesome snacks, and plenty of water paired with a good night’s sleep will help prevent mood shifts from insulin spikes and crashes.
  2. Talk about what to expect at the party and read over the invitation together. Remind your child that the party is about the birthday boy/girl and that when their birthday comes around then it will be their turn to have a special celebration for their birthday.
  3. Remind them about the importance of “please” and “thank you” responses and other good manners. Manners put other people at ease, mastering them at an early age will make a huge difference in life.

Before Hosting a Party Preparation:

  1. The same techniques from above can be implemented for blood sugar, telling your child what to expect, and for good manners.
  2. Childhood parties are our first forays into a lifetime of hosting, so discuss matters of etiquette; hosting guests is an art and something to be proud of. Talk about ways that you and your child can make sure your guests will be comfortable. Also, explain to your child that even though he is the birthday boy, considerate and unselfish behavior is still expected.

Going to a Party:

  1. Offer to help at the party or chaperone so you aren’t just abandoning your child.
  2. Watch for any potential conflict and do your best to either prevent it altogether or step in before escalation. Fights over toys or taking turns are the most common.
  3. if your child is old enough, make-up a signal in advance that you can use with your child to alert them of inappropriate behavior without embarrassing them in front of the group.

Hosting the Party:

  1. Have structured activities planned.
  2. Keep a movie on hand in case the kids need some quiet time.
  3. Keep your energy relaxed, kids pick up on your anxiety and can’t help but be affected.

Birthday parties are wonderful if you can keep them running smoothly. It is important for kids to learn how to handle these social interactions when they’re young, because they certainly aren’t going to lessen in frequency as they get older.

About the Author: Lisa writes about throwing successful birthday parties with the help of Mario birthday party supplies, proven hosting techniques and fun activities and crafts.

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That’s a Bad Word

A few weeks ago the  Modern Family Episode “Little Bo Bleep” brought up the ever common experience of kids swearing.  While, I wasn’t impressed with the “realness” of Lily’s swearing escapade it did provide an excellent viewpoint of the options that parents tend to take when their child swears.  Cam found the swearing uncontrollably funny and Mitchell, true to character, found it inappropriate and vowed to teach Lily that it was bad to say that word. The lesson in the end is that children will swear, likely at inappropriate times, especially if they are as old as Lily is realize that using this word results in attention and laughter from others.

OK great.   Don’t laugh.  Lesson learned. We can move on to the next subject.  Yeah we all get that you aren’t supposed to laugh, but trust me, when a kid swears and it comes completely out of the blue, it will take more will power than most parents have NOT to laugh.  With a Ph.D. in child development, years working in a preschool, and decades babysitting children, most times when I hear a child swear, I have to either leave the room or shove a dish towel in my mouth to contain the laughter.  Literally just this morning I had to bury my face in a couch cushion, when out of nowhere, a friend’s 2-year-old daughter said, “No, that’s not a *BLEEPing* doll.”

To me, Modern Family failed in the realness factor with the arbitrary use of the swear word.  Most kids, actually don’t say these words completely out of the blue or without any sort of context, unless they are older and already have picked up on the fact that it is a bad word and will get some sort of reaction.  Language learning occurs through hearing adult speech and through repetition.  As children get older they begin to copy the sounds they have heard over the years. First it’s things like: “momma” “dadda” “doggie” “no”.  Then as they get older they begin putting two and three word phrases together “more please” “that’s mine” “doggie running.”  It can be around this stage when your kid might drop a swear word in a sentence they have heard before.  As children begin using full-sentences you may start to hear swear words used in an appropriate but novel context rather than a direct imitation.  We are impressed when our children hear us saying something like, “wow this dinner is delicious” and then on their own transfer it to a new context “wow, mommy, this ice cream is delicious”.  Great!  the word delicious was learned and is now being used in novel ways by our children.  Unfortunately for us, bad words are learned in the exact same way.

A good friend of mine (with a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology- so don’t worry it happens to all of us!) has a great story of when her 2-year-old went to the store with his father.  The father was in hurry and looking all over for diapers and the kid said, “Dad, where are the *Bleeping* diapers”.  The context was correct (frustration and stressed).  Placement and use of the word was correct in the sentence. Apparently the word was successfully learned.

So, word (sometimes bad word) learning happens and what’s amazing is how quickly and easily young children pick up on language.  Anyone else have a good “bad word” story they want to share to spice up our Fridays?

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Happy Birthday!

PlayLearnParent has turned 1 (DOB: 1/9/2011)!  Amazingly, just one year after the launch of this website, research has  come out to back up the importance of a space like PlayLearnParent where parents can get child development information!  Zero To Three, a wonderful organization that is dedicated to improving the lives of infants and toddlers by informing policy makers, professionals, and parents, just reported in their Journal of Zero to Three about a survey they conducted to understand the complicated world of parents today.

The findings from this survey indicate that parents have a better understanding about the importance of reading, singing, and communicating with their children than they did 10 years ago, but parents still struggle to grasp the importance of babies earliest experiences.  Additionally, parents still struggle with common challenging situations like: temper tantrums, controlling emotions, and sleeping and eating issues (Hart Research Associates, 2010).

Other findings from the survey indicate the value and role that technology has on parenting today.  Parents frequently turn to parenting websites, especially when their children are very young.  About 25% of parents use parenting blogs, chat rooms, and other social networking sites to find information on a regular basis.

In response to these findings, Zero To Three has created a new podcast series Little Kids, Big Questions to provide parents with more information on important topics.  And of course PlayLearnParent is here to help translate some of this complicated research and information for parents too!


Hart Research Associates.  (2010).  Parenting infants and toddlers today: A survey among parents of children birth to three years old in the U.s.s. for the period June 4-11, 2009, Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.

ZERO TO THREE website: http://www.zerotothree.org/

University of Minnesota: Parenting Education http://www.extension.umn.edu/FamilyRelations/

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Infant Memory


Babies are so incredibly impressive.  They come into this overwhelming and overstimulating world with a “lets figure this out” attitude.  Without fear they just jump right to it.  They begin to explore the world and people around them using whatever capabilities they have at those young ages. Through their explorations they learn all sorts of things and remember many things as well!

Most people, and many researchers, were convinced that infants went through something called infantile amnesia, meaning that they couldn’t remember experiences that occurred prior to the toddler years.  More recent research has begun to show that infants, even very young infants, do store memories (Peterson, 2011) and that most likely their memory capabilities are very similar to those of older children and adults (See Rovee-Collier, 1999).

How in the world do we know that infants have memories?  A series of great studies by Carolyn Rovee-Collier  has demonstrated that infants as young as 2 months are able to remember and that with age their ability to remember increases (Rovee-Collier, 1999).  So, for example, kids at 2 months will remember something but for a much shorter amount of time than 18-month-olds.  How does she test something like this?  Well, one way is to use a behavioral test of memory (since you can’t ask a 6-month-old what they remember).  Rovee-Collier used a mobile in a crib (similar to the one in the picture above) and she tied a ribbon to the baby’s foot and connected the ribbon to the mobile.  This way, if the baby kicks his legs the mobile moves-teaching the baby that this movements can control the movement of the mobile.  The child is trained (training is just repeatedly letting the child do this until she learns) that kicking causes the mobile to move.  Once the child has learned this the child leaves the lab setting for a period of time.  To test the child’s memory, the child returns a few days later (or longer depending on the age of the child) and is returned to the crib, but this time the ribbon is not tied to the mobile, so the baby has no control of the mobile’s movement.  If the child kicks when placed back in the crib (more than he did prior to being attached to the original mobile a few days before) the experimenter determines that the child remembers and is attempting to move the mobile by kicking his feet. (See Rovee-Collier, 1999).

So what does this mean for parents?  Does it mean if you slip-up once and a you swear in front of your infant that she will remember forever and it will be the first word out of her mouth?  Luckily, probably not.  But it does mean that infants and toddlers are remembering from experiences they have at very young ages.  Once your child is verbal it’s amazing to see how much their remember.  If they were started by a firetruck when at an aunt’s house, the next time you go over there the child may be saying “fire truck” more often than usual.  Since your infant is learning, imitating, and remembering, you can try to test them out at home too.  Bring out a novel, age-appropriate toy and demonstrate how to use it with your infant, put it away for a few days and bring it back out and see what she does with it.  Don’t panic if they don’t remember, some things are more memorable than others and just like adults children will forget or won’t be interested enough initially to process and remember what you are doing.  Keep trying and just take note of times when your child imitates something you did a few days ago -it’s impressive to see what they do remember!


Faull, J. & Oliver, J. M.  (2010).  Amazing Minds: The Science of Nurturing Your Child’s Developing Mind with Games, Activities, and More.  Berkley Books: NY.

Peterson, C. Warren, K. L., & Short, M. M. (2011) Infantile Amnesia Across the Years: A 2-year follow-up of children’s earliest memories.  Child Development, 82, 1092-1105.DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01597.x

Rovee-Collier, C. (1999).  The Development of Infant Memory.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 80-85.



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