Dr Bettina Hohnen one of the co-founders of Connections in Mind will be giving a workshop next week at our summit about parenting in the 21st century to support children and young people to develop executive functions skills.

Much has been written about how the world is changing and how our education system, which was invented in the 19th Century to meet the needs of industrialisation, is not necessarily equipping children with the skills they need to work in 21st century jobs. There is a growing consensus that new skills are needed to succeed in education and in the workplace as is shown in the figure below. Many of these skills are foundational and higher order executive functions (EF) skills such as persistence/grit, adaptability, initiative, critical thinking. It is said that employers are looking for individuals who can understand and analyse new information, know whether content is valid, collaborate and communicate with others while working towards a goal.

While educational professionals are busy working out how the curriculum in schools should change and adapt to incorporate this kind of learning (see Activated Learning for example, www.activatedlearning.org), there is much that parents can be doing at home to support the development of children’s EF skills. Connected Parenting is a programme that aims to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to do just that.

Students must know about their Executive Functioning skills

Connected parenting shows parents how to increase their child’s awareness of EF skills used in the home. Naming them and pointing them out is a crucial step in training them. Children use their EF skills successfully a lot of the time. For example, a child as young as 3 is able to inhibit a response (stop themselves doing things they have the urge to do), most children are able to sustain attention to a task that is not of inherent interest to them from age 5 and by the time they are 6 or 7 many children are able to plan for a trip and pack their bags ahead of time.
Yet children are not aware of the skills they are using.

By naming the skill and focusing on the process the child is going through when they are being successful, we can increase the child’s awareness or ‘metacognition’ (ability to reflect on ones own behaviour). We do not have the brain evidence (yet!), but we believe that by increasing awareness of when EF skills are being used we are stimulating the brain networks to strengthen pathways which will lead to greater competence in this area of functioning.

Of course a child’s EF skills don’t always ‘switch on’, which is perhaps not surprising given that the frontal lobes of the brain which house the EF skills are not yet developed until into the mid 20s. Inactivation of an EF skill underlies so many of the problematic behaviours that cause stress in a family, but if we can name the EF skill not being drawn on we have a chance of fixing the problem. Parents learn how important communication is and a strategy to tackle the problem in a stress-free manner.

The parent-child relationship must be the priority

Due to the nature of EF difficulties, despite parents’ best efforts, the parent-child relationship can become strained. For this reason, priority is given to helping parents to learn how to prioritise their relationship with their child while also changing their child’s behaviour for the better. Old school parenting is more about hierarchy and power with not a lot of questioning or collaborating. In old school parenting there is more of a focus on the goal and on achievement and not so much on the process, such as how we got there. New ideas in parenting focus more on dialogue and empathy, listening and deep learning. A focus on emotional intelligence and compassionate parenting, while naming the skills the child need to draw on to be more successful in that moment (the EF skill), is what Connected Parenting is all about.


Bettina Hohnen, Clinical Psychologist

June 2018