KATRA: Life skills are ‘caught’ by youth who follow our lead

May 9, 2017

“Home is where your story begins” — I first saw this phrase printed on a throw pillow a few years ago. In its simplicity it spoke volumes about our earliest location in life.

Long before adulthood, youth or even adolescence, our early childhood years have the greatest influence on our lifelong development; physically, emotionally and spiritually.

It is believed that a person’s character is formed, for the most part, by the time they reach five years of age. Think back to your earliest memories of home. Who was there with you? Who were your primary care providers? Parents, siblings, other relatives? Each had an influence on you; some probably more than others.

Now think of your current home. Does it include a child, or children, under five years old? Or do you remotely influence the life of a young child via your role as grandparent, godparent, relative, educator or neighbor?

If so, you have the opportunity to impact his or her development positively and profoundly. Today, young children from birth to five years of age are likely to have relationships with more people than what was typically experienced by previous generations.

Enrollment in parish early childhood centers or programs often provide a necessary and desired solution for working parent households. Our global mobility has caused some families to live miles away from their nearest relative.

And even the youngest of children can already have activities scheduled on the family calendar! They may be enrolled in music lessons, swimming classes, or other programs designed to enhance their overall development.

Certainly, the realities of the foundational years of life have changed over time, as well as the world we live in as adults. What has not changed is the importance of those earliest experiences (where one’s story begins) and the significant influence they have on forming our youngest parishioners for adulthood.

If there is something we can do to help strengthen the future of others, individually and collectively, it would be to understand the value and impact of executive function.
Executive function is the term used to describe a collection of mental skills.

Developmentally, most of us begin acquiring the roots of these skills between the ages of two and six; increasing during early adolescence and continuing through one’s mid-20s; ideally leading to the formation of a strong mental network in adulthood. These skills can also be learned and cultivated later in life. It’s never too late.

Executive functions are behaviors that are taught, or we could say “caught,” during the foundational years of life. These skills consists of self-regulation, impulse control, emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation and organization.

Though mental abilities are not in and of themselves visible; the manifestation of various actions can be an indicator of them. An adult with strong executive function skills would likely be described as dependable, confident, rational, etc. and probably referred to early in life as a “born leader,” or voted “most likely to succeed” later in his or her life.

When we understand the positive effect of acquiring strong executive function, we may likewise begin to sense how having poor executive function can be equally detrimental. Not having the skills needed to understand and manage everyday responsibilities produces significant challenges in all areas of life; at home, school, church or work.

There is nothing genetic about how we acquire these vital capacities for a successful life. We are not born with these skill sets. This reality is surely of great significance to parents and educators.

Parents, family members and other care providers are important role models as they directly influence how children first learn to navigate the world. Successful self-regulation and impulse control are especially critical skills. Playing games like “Simon Says” and “Red Light, Green Light” help teach impulse control.

Children who observe adults manage their own emotions and behaviors well (self-regulation) will most likely learn to do the same. Likewise, to instill and inspire a child’s Catholic identity, we must model and involve them from the beginning; praying regularly, going to Mass and adoration, bringing donations to St. Vincent De Paul, visiting the elderly, and building and maintaining healthy relationships with others.

In this month of May, when mental health awareness is highlighted, may we be more aware of our influence on others. In doing so, we’ll move from awareness to action by proactively modeling for very young children behaviors that exemplify self-control and emotional stability.

Mastery of these behaviors are markers for lifelong social, emotional and spiritual well-being. As maturity in these areas increase so does one’s self-confidence and self-esteem. When more individuals feel competent and capable in life, everyone benefits.

Let’s continue doing all that we can to provide healthy models for our youngest parishioners. Children grow up quickly so helping them develop strong minds and souls that love the Lord and others is an urgent matter.

Did you know that promoting executive function competencies in the preschool years of life is thought to be more advantageous to aiding future intellectual and social success than encouraging knowledge of numbers and letters?

And nothing could be more important than having a strong foundation for one’s faith life. Simply put, we are all the sum of the interactions we have with other people in our life; starting in our home, where our story begins. 

Charleen Katra is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.