Science has shown that we can change our brain wiring and improve our executive functions. What this means for parents is that while your child may have difficulties at home or at school that are at least partially based on delays or differences in executive functions, through training and practice he or she can develop these lagging skills. Strengthened executive functions will enable your child to be more successful academically, become better able to cope with life’s daily challenges and improve their ability to relate with others—leading to a more satisfying and productive life.
You can help your child develop these skills through brain training exercises—or better yet, games. Children naturally learn through play. Play involves the whole child in the experience and thus intensifies the learning experience. Make it fun and keep at it, and you’ll see gains.
1. Elevator Breathing.
Practicing deep breathing (“elevator breathing” or moving the breath to all parts of the body) helps improve memory as well as emotional control. Kids love doing this, so do it often. Start out by having your child sitting in a cross-legged position or lying down and breathing naturally. After she has practiced breathing naturally, say: Imagine that your breath is like an elevator taking a ride through your body. To start the elevator, I want you to breathe in through your nose. Now breathe out all your air. Now breathe in and take your elevator breath up to your chest. Hold it. Now breathe out all of your air. Now breathe in and take your elevator breath up to the top floor, up through your throat into your face and forehead. Hold it. Now breathe out and feel your elevator breath take all your troubles and worries down through your chest, your belly, your legs and out the elevator door in your feet.
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2. The Brain/Body Coordination Workout.
Our brains and our bodies are part of our whole self, and both parts need exercise. When we “exercise” them together, we are actually helping various functions of the brain work more collaboratively and stay in sync. Motor coordination is a function of our brain as well as our body. “Exercises” like those below promote integration between essential brain functions, leading to an overall better performing brain.
- Toe Wiggling. This greatly helps coordination. Kids of all ages can easily learn to do this. Every morning before getting out of bed, have your child slowly begin to move all their toes on both feet up and down, and then change to just the two big toes.
- Your Other Hand. Have your child try doing things with their non-dominant hand. If they are right-handed, have them use their left and if left-handed, use their right for things like writing, getting dressed and eating.
- Get Moving. You can do simple exercises with your child like sitting and touching your right elbow to your left knee. Do this five times and then do left elbow to right knee. Repeat several times. Or you can do the “windmill” by standing with feet spread apart and alternate between touching your left foot with your right hand and vice versa. Repeat several times.
- Tickle the Ivories. Learning to play either the piano or an electronic keyboard is one of the best ways to improve brain integration. An internet search will bring up instructional videos you can use at home. If you can find a Yamaha music program for children in your area, I highly recommend it for children as young as three up to young teens.
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3. The Concentration Game. Activities to improve memory and concentration are important for all of us! For younger children, you can take a few of their toys and line them up. Then cover them and take one away. See if they can tell you which one is missing. You can also have them try to remember short lists of familiar objects in the home. Try remembering them forward and backward. For older children and teens, try putting random objects in front of them for 15 seconds, then remove the objects and see how many they can remember. Start out with five and keep increasing the number as they master the task. You can also help auditory memory by giving them a random list of numbers or words orally and having them repeat them. Start with only 2 or 3 and work up from there.
Taking time to teach, encourage and participate with your child in these activities will not only improve brain function but build relationships and reduce stress in all who participate. Play may be the work of the child but it is good for adults to slip into their own inner child now and then as well. So “exercise” your brain along with your child’s, knowing you are having fun together while promoting growth.