Have you ever been paralyzed by the decision-making process? Which job to take? Where to live? What to make for dinner when you’re really, really hungry and you’re trying to be healthy but you’re also so, so tired and you’re pretty sure there’s one last frozen pizza in the back of the freezer?
For students with executive function deficits, the requirement to make a decision or solve a problem can cause a melt-down moment. It’s overwhelming for kids to know where to begin, how to incorporate all factors and options, how to execute a plan, and how to reflect on the outcomes to learn from the experience…let alone shove through the “analysis paralysis” that so many kids (and adults) get stuck in!
Today I want to teach you how to get kids to use their bodies as prompts to go through a decision-making process. Kids can attach meaning to body parts, allowing them to have quick prompts available at all times. And, using their bodies to represent steps in the process can lower their stress and anxiety—what is sometimes called the “affective filter” because it filters, and often limits, thoughts through a lot of emotion. When our affective filters are lowered, we can make better decisions, and do so more easily, because we’re able to think more clearly!
Before we begin, I want to remind you: as always, when supporting students with EF deficits, strive to make the invisible visible. Do not take any step of the thought process for granted; verbalize and write down any steps taken in the mental process as a way to clarify for your kid—and in doing so, pave and strengthen the thought highways in their brain! Be prepared to demonstrate and keep in mind the following questions: “How did I know to do that?” and “Why did I take that particular step?” These sound basic, but remember, we tend to take for granted what comes easily for us. It would be like learning a sport from a professional player—think of how much you would need the steps broken down for you and how you would feel if that player told you “you should just” or “why can’t you…”
Here’s how to use your body as a decision-making toolkit:
When initially teaching this decision-making process, it’s best to have a visual for reference (besides the fact that you have a body to be seen…make a drawing/sketch on which you can write notes. Seeing the words, along with practicing the steps by talking out and touching the corresponding areas, will help your child internalize the process). It’s also a good idea to have a few practice scenarios in mind—typical situations in which your child would have to make a decision, with positive and potentially negative feelings and outcomes attached. Some examples include: deciding how to spend your time (studying or going out with friends), deciding if you’re going to fight or walk away, choosing between social options, planning how to get help for a class.
The process works head to toe. As you teach the process, remember to write down the main questions or steps on your sketch. As you practice, have your child touch the areas while they’re considering the prompts. For example, starting at the head, the child would touch his head and think or say aloud, “What do I think?”
At your head: Begin with a general statement of the problem or decision to make, in your child’s own words. “What do I think?” is a good starting prompt.
At your heart: Move next to the heart and explore, “How do I feel?” This is when we explore how the problem makes us feel, with honesty and no judgement. You can restate what your child shares by saying, “Sounds like you’re feeling____.” Please try not to judge or tell them they should or shouldn’t feel a certain way. Just listen and reflect. The more you react, the less genuine the process will be. And if your child doesn’t see value in it, then they won’t ever use it on their own.
Right hand=potential plans: I sometimes call the right hand the “maybe steps” because each finger on the hand can represent a potential path for solving a problem. Kids consider at least five ways they could solve the problem or five decisions they could make. At this point, sharing “bad” ideas is absolutely appropriate. Again, if we too heavily filter the options, the process is not genuine. It’s not realistic to pretend that “bad” choices, like fighting or using drugs, are not going to cross your child’s mind. They might even cross your child’s reality at some point. But, brain science and real life practice have shown that teaching kids how to process through these choices—examining what drove them to certain choices, how those choices went and what happened because of them—helps develop the frontal cortex of the brain—the area most associated with EF! Will it be scary to openly talk about dangerous or inappropriate choices? Yes, probably. And it won’t be easy to do so with good game face. But do your best. It’s worth it.
At this point, the right hand is just housing some options. There’s no evaluation going on. We’ll get to that in just a bit. So, kids go through and just touch each finger, naming a potential course of action on each one.
Left hand= resources for help: Each finger of the left hand can represent a resource for help. You can encourage your kid to think of people, places, information sources, and ideas or lessons as helpers in each scenario. Typical resources can include parents, friends, teachers, counselors, the Internet, notebooks, teen centers.
Remember when we listed all the potential plans on the right hand? Now is when we can go back and evaluate, deciding if potential consequences are worth it.
In the right pocket: Things I won’t say. Encourage your child to verbalize potential statements they might make while problem solving and talk about how well (or not well) these statements might go. A good way to really make this strategy work is to have peers evaluate the statements for whether or not they are “okay” in each instance. Sometimes as adults, we use our best intentions to teach adult-style speech to kids, inadvertently making them sound like dorks. So, be sure you use some other kids to “field test” phrases your child practices. Putting unwanted phrases in their pocket validates that they can think whatever they’d like, but we purposefully choose what we’re going to actually say. How many times have you thought not-so-nice things about your ding-dong co-worker but not actually said them? You’re filling your “things I won’t say” pocket all the time, even without knowing it!
In the left pocket: Things I won’t do. Along the lines of the right pocket, here kids explore potential plans that will not actually work out in their favor (or aren’t worth the potential consequences). At this point, it’s okay to guide with some questions like, “what might happen to you if you choose this plan? What might happen to others? What good could come because of this choice? What bad do you think could happen?” Another way to prompt this process is to ask, “when you visualize acting out your plan, what do you see?”
One important note is you have some leeway in how much freedom of choice you allow. Honoring a plan that hurts others or your child is never okay, but explore your own comfort level with some “safe failure.” Maybe your child chooses to confront a friend with mean words; can you stand to allow this, knowing you’ll process through it together? There’s no right or wrong answer with “safe failures,” but keep in mind that you’ll need to go back and help your child connect their choice with the result of the choice they made. You can listen to episode 9 for strategies on how to do this!
Right foot: Steps I will take: After evaluating ideas and deciding what your child won’t say or do, it’s time to make a plan. The right foot represents where students can associate the plan making process. Have your child generate steps, even just one or two, for the execution of their decision. You may want to help your child rehearse the steps at this point. Often, it’s beneficial for kids to identify and repeat key action words within their decisions to ensure they will remember and actually use their plans. For example, if your child is approaching a teacher about improving their grade, they may have the basic plan as, “excuse me, raise my grade, time and work, thank you” to sum up the most important steps they need to cover.
Left foot: Look back at my steps: After the decision is made and executed, don’t forget to close the feedback loop—help your kid reflect on how it went. What went right? What didn’t go well? What would you do differently next time? Reflecting helps remind your child of their influence over their own outcomes; because you did ___, this cool thing happened.
The beauty of this method is its versatility: we take our bodies everywhere, and you can easily modify what you associate with the body parts to make the system even more customized. This is a lot to remember (which is why it will take practice and uses your body for memory prompts). I will post a visual sheet for you to use on the blog at https://www.sarahkesty.com/blog/episode12.
Time to grab that decision-making kid of yours for this week’s very quick pep talk:
Your grown up just learned some cool strategies for helping you get unstuck when making a decision. You can use your body to remind you of the steps. Like think of your head and ask yourself, “What’s the problem?” or, “What decision do I have to make?” And touch your heart to ask yourself, “How do I feel about this problem?” Next time you have a tricky choice to make, your grown up is going to help you use this process! I think you’ll really like it!
Remember nothing is perfect, especially the first time you try it, so stick with it. You can always change little things about the strategy to make it work better for you, too!
I’m excited to hear how the process goes for you, so be sure to tell me about it on social or an email.
Sending you all my love, kid. Talk with you next week!