The school year is flying by. As parents, you’ve had to help your children navigate the transition from the freedom of the summer months to the schedule and rigors of the classroom. You’ve helped them adjust as once-familiar patterns were replaced by a different pace -- and newfound pressures.
But even as children settle into their routines, seemingly innocuous stressors cause them to act out, or misbehave. The good news is that knowing a little bit about the mind of your child and how it develops can go a long way toward helping them tackle the home stretch of the term and prepare them for the rest of the school year. And a growing body of research can help you predict -- or at least understand -- why your child is reacting the way she is to certain situations.
Here’s a parent’s guide to a day in the life of a child’s brain.
Getting ready in the morning can be one of the more taxing parts of the day. There is so much to do in so little time: getting dressed, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, getting to school. By the time you’re rushing out the front door barely on time, the frustration has reached a crescendo. You’ve already snapped a few times and are sounding like a broken record, asking your children to hurry up and get out the door.
But as it turns out, a child’s difficulty in keeping on task and on time is directly connected to your ability to do the same.
Because just as the concepts that underpin math and reading take time to master, it takes time for children to develop what teachers refer to as executive functions: the skills like cognitive flexibility and attention that help them with setting priorities, organizing activities, and managing time.
Executive functions are like muscles, growing through repeated use, and in a variety of contexts. Everyday activities, from playing games to practicing an instrument, offer opportunities to flex these muscles. And sometimes it’s what you do, more than what your child is doing, that helps them build these important skills.
When parents model executive functions by planning ahead and managing time well, it provides routine, predictability, and safety for children to develop these same skills — and, eventually, to get out the door on time.
They had a great day at school. And yet, as soon as they get home, your seemingly happy and well-adjusted child has a meltdown. This might be frustrating -- and even confusing -- but it’s also a totally normal reaction for a child. And, as strange as it may seem, it is a sign that the two of you have a healthy relationship.
Your child has worked all day to self-regulate. In school, they must constantly follow directions, manage emotions, and keep their attention focused. This can be difficult, and by the time you arrive to pick them up at the end of the day, they are likely experiencing fatigue. (This happens in children and adults.) But even then, they manage to hold their emotions together for a few more minutes -- until, finally, they are in a safe space with an attachment figure.
Knowing they are safe and supported, they let it all out.
It’s been a long day, and you and your child settle in for a bedtime story. You ask them to pick out a book for you to read together, and they choose Pete the Cat.
For the fiftieth time.
While you might have long bored with reading about Pete and how much he loves his white shoes, reading the tale again -- and again and again and again -- is an important part of your child’s growth, and there is a reason why they crave hearing it so many times. It’s the same reason the renowned children’s television show Blue’s Clues aired each episode five days in a row: repetition helps children build their vocabulary and develop their memory, confidence, and comprehension. They develop a greater understanding of not only the words on the page but of narrative arcs and structure. It is how they learn.
Like you, your child is trying their best. Their brain just still has many years of developing to go.
The connections necessary for higher-order thinking will continue to develop into their early twenties. Knowing and understanding a little about how your child’s mind works, and how it works in this stage of their development, can help both of you navigate the many challenges and learning opportunities childhood presents -- no matter the time of day.