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Maximize Your Kids’ Executive Function to Help Get to School on Time

You made lunches the night before. The kids picked their outfits and laid them out before lights out. Backpacks are ready and waiting by the front door. Your younger kids have a picture schedule. Your older kids are capable of telling time. Everyone knows what they need to do and when they need to do it in order to get to school on time.


It should be simple, but somehow it’s not. Despite your best planning, you’re rushing, maybe even yelling, as you herd people toward the door. You are stressed, and your kids are late. Again.

If this sounds familiar, it might be time to focus less on what’s going on in your house every morning and more on what’s going on in your kids’ brains at any given moment.

The brain’s frontal lobe is responsible for executive function, which includes time management, impulse control, planning, organizing, shifting attention, and multitasking. Executive function may be the difference between a stressful morning and a tardy slip versus a pleasant morning and a punctual arrival at school.

Strong executive functioning also means getting homework done on time, remembering to wear sneakers on phys ed. days, and starting a project long before it’s due. While some of these skills develop naturally as kids mature, there are things parents can provide to help maximize their kids’ executive function at any age.

Healthy food

A 2016 study from the British Journal of Nutrition proved what we’ve known for generations: You are what you eat. Or at least, your diet plays a large role in the way you think and act. Researchers found a strong correlation between a healthy diet and cognitive function in children and adolescents.

According to experts, filling your child’s plate with foods found along the grocery store’s perimeter and avoiding items from the center aisles, like sugary beverages and processed snack foods, is best. They cited fish and foods high in fiber (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) as particularly beneficial.

On the other hand, foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and dairy products, were found to be negatively associated with cognitive function.

Limits on screen time

A 2011 study published in Pediatrics found that watching as little as nine minutes of fast-paced television impaired preschoolers’ executive function. In this study, subjects spent nine minutes doing one of three activities: watching fast-paced television (“Sponge Bob”), watching an educational cartoon (“Caillou”), or drawing.

The children who watched “Sponge Bob” performed significantly worse on tests of executive functioning after the intervention. (I’m sorry if I am the first to tell you that “Caillou” would be a better choice for your child than “Sponge Bob”. I know which one I’d prefer.)

Meanwhile, MRI’s have confirmed that excessive screen time damages the structure of the brain responsible for executive function. A 2013 study in the European Journal of Radiology compared the brains of healthy adolescents with adolescents diagnosed with online gaming addiction (OGA). Researchers found significant gray matter atrophy in the brain’s frontal lobes of those with OGA, as compared with the brains of the healthy subjects.

Additionally, there was a positive relationship between the degree of atrophy and subjects’ scores on a standardized test of internet addiction. In other words, the more time subjects spent in front of a screen, the more likely they were to experience shrinkage of brain tissue in the frontal lobe – the center for executive function.

Opportunities for exercise

It’s no coincidence that most adults find it easier to sit at their desks after a sweat session at the gym. Science has proven what we know to be true over and over, and it turns out the benefits of exercise apply to children, too.

A 2010 literature review published in Developmental Review concluded that aerobic exercise unequivocally promotes children’s executive function. While any form of exercise helps, researchers found that forms of exercise that engage the mind (e.g. team sports, dance, martial arts) are more beneficial than those that do not. The amount of exercise can also positively impact executive function.

Subjects in a 2011 study were placed in one of three groups: a control group, a group that exercised 20 minutes per day, and a group that exercised 40 minutes per day. Using standardized testing and a functional MRI, researchers found that both groups of exercisers performed better on executive function than the control group, and that those who exercised for 40 minutes did better than those who exercised for 20 minutes.

If you’re worried that your child is so mentally disorganized that he is exercise-proof, fear not. One study found that the children who benefit most from exercise were those with the lowest executive function at baseline. And if the argument for exercise isn’t somehow compelling enough, a kid who plays a sport, dances, or practices Tae Kwon Do is, by definition, not in front of a screen.

If you find yourself scrambling to help find your daughter’s left shoe two minutes before the bus comes, remember your focus might be misplaced. When it comes to getting to school on time, putting your best foot forward might just start with the brain.

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Baking Christmas cookies together is a family tradition for many, but the Centers for Disease Control is warning parents that if your recipe contains raw flour or raw eggs, you really shouldn't sneak a bite before it is cooked, and neither should your kids.

The CDC is warning people not to eat raw cookie dough, cake mix or bread as we head into prime baking season.

The agency acknowledges the appeal of a spoonful of chocolate chip goodness but asks that we "steer clear of this temptation—eating or tasting unbaked products that are intended to be cooked, such as dough or batter, can make you sick."

Salmonella from raw eggs is, of course, a concern, and so is the raw flour. According to the CDC, flour needs to be cooked in order to kill germs like E.Coli. That's why the CDC is asking parents to "say no to raw dough," not just for eating but even for playing with.

"Children can get sick from handling or eating raw dough used for crafts or play clay, too," the CDC posted on its website.

On the Food and Drug Administration's website, that agency advises that "even though there are websites devoted to 'flour crafts,' don't give your kids raw dough or baking mixes that contain flour to play with." Health Canada also states that raw flour should not be used in children's play-dough.

The warnings follow a 2016 E.coli outbreak linked to contaminated raw flour. Dozens of people got sick that year, and a post-outbreak report notes that "state investigators identified three ill children who had been exposed to raw flour at restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas. Restaurant staff had given them raw dough to play with while they waited for their food to be served."

The CDC worries that with flour's long shelf life, products recalled during the 2016 outbreak may still be in people's pantries (although the CDC notes that any raw flour—recalled or otherwise—should not be consumed).

If your kids do have flour-based play dough, don't worry.

Some parents are still choosing to use flour-based craft dough to make Christmas ornaments or other crafts this holiday season and are reducing the risks by A) making sure the kids aren't eating their art, and B) thoroughly washing little hands, work surfaces, and utensils when the dough play is over.

Other parents are choosing other types of craft clay over flour-based dough.


During the 2016 outbreak, the FDA called for Americans to abstain from raw cookie dough, an approach Slate called "unrealistic and alarmist," noting that "the vast, vast majority of people who consume or touch uncooked flour do not contract E. coli or any other infection."

Two years ago, 63 Americans were made sick by E. coli infections linked to raw flour, according to the CDC. We don't know exactly how many Americans ate a spoonful of cookie dough or played with homemade play dough that year, but we do know that more than 319 million Americans did not get sick because of raw flour.

Are there risks associated with handling and consuming raw flour? Yes, absolutely, but it's not something to panic over.

Bottom line: Don't let your kids eat raw dough when they're helping you bake cookies for Santa, and be mindful of raw flour when choosing crafts for kids.

(And if you have just got to get your raw cookie dough fix, the CDC notes that cookie dough flavored ice cream is totally safe as it "contains dough that has been treated to kill harmful bacteria." Sounds like mama's getting Ben & Jerry's tonight.)

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Twinkling lights are everywhere I look, and the magic of the holiday season is filling our house. The kids are growing more excited each day anticipating Santa's arrival and gifts are accumulating, ready to be wrapped in beautiful paper and bows.

Elf and The Grinch have been playing on repeat and the nativity scene has found a safe spot among our decorations. It's one of the busiest times of the year and it can be hard to catch your breath in the hustle and bustle of it all.

But then something stops you.

Maybe it's a pang in your heart or a memory of someone dearly missed. Maybe it's a familiar feeling of emptiness—of wanting this person to be a part of this magical, joy-filled time of year.

It's so easy to forget that many people are struck with sadness around the holidays and are longing for someone who's missing from their lives. We give and give to our families and friends and communities this time of year—food for dinners, and toys for less-fortunate children—but people don't always realize that another type of giving is needed.

The gift of comfort.

Because someone who is missing their mother, father, brother, sister, child, friend or spouse needs your connection and warmth. They need a reminder of their loved one is not forgotten, and maybe above all—just needs a hug.

Family traditions are wonderful and cherished, but they can also feel incomplete when someone is missing.

For me, I love the holidays, and watching my kids experience all the joys this season has to offer truly fills my heart. Yet, not a Christmas goes by that I don't think about what Kendrick (my first child lost at 2 months old) would have thought of this time of year.

Would he have loved hot cocoa like his sister and brothers? Would he have gotten into all the ornaments on the tree as a toddler? What toys would he have asked Santa for? What Christmas wishes would he have made for others?

I am left to wonder these things without answer. And even though I fully embrace this time of year and relish the holidays, I can't help but miss him.

I wanted to share my story as a reminder that even though your holiday cup may be filled with joy, someone you know may be wrestling with sadness. With all the merry and bright and cups of cheer, it's important to be mindful of this and to treat people with extra care. Reach out to someone you know who has lost someone, and let them know you're thinking of them. It won't go unnoticed.

Many of us have dealt with loss at some point in our lives, and we've learned to carry these special people in our hearts so that they are always with us. But missing someone never goes away. There are so many experiences in our lives we wish we could just snap our fingers and have them right by our sides—the holidays being one of those.

So as you check off your shopping lists, make your donations, trim your tree, or light your menorah—please don't forget to show care to those who may be hurting a little this holiday season.


They're certainly in a position where they could buy every item on their kids' Christmas lists, but Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher aren't planning on piling up the presents under the Christmas tree this year.

"So far, our tradition is no presents for the kids," Kunis said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. Mom to 4-year-old daughter, Wyatt, and 2-year-old son Dmitri, Kunis says she and Kutcher are determined to not raise entitled kids—and are learning from the mistakes of Christmases past.

“We've told our parents, 'We're begging you: If you have to give her something, pick one gift,'" Kunis said. “'Otherwise, we'd like to take a charitable donation, to the Children's Hospital or a pet... Whatever you want.' That's our new tradition."

The minimalist Christmas that Kunis and Kutcher embrace makes sense on a lot of levels: It teaches kids how to be more mindful consumers, removes the emphasis on material goods... And saves you from those chaotic trips to the mall.

Going without presents doesn't mean going without

Putting a halt on presents these upcoming holidays is one way to reinforce what the season is really about: Spending quality time together as families and cherishing what we already have. But "no presents" doesn't mean "no fun," either.

Some of our favorite non-material gift suggestions include:

  • Experiences
  • Lessons
  • College contributions
  • Coupon booklets
  • Piggy bank donations
  • Gifts for others

Or you could take a cue from Kunis and Kutcher without going all the way: Maybe you only focus on one or two quality gifts. Or pass on anything that will likely get discarded to the bottom of the toy box before next year's holidays.

Think of Christmas gifts for kids kind of like eggnog: A little goes a long way.

[Originally published October 11, 2017]

After feeling alone and suffering silently for years, Gabrielle Union has been very open about her struggle with infertility since her memoir, We're Going to Need More Wine, came out last year. She surprised many by writing about how she'd suffered "8 or 9 miscarriages" while trying to conceive with husband Dwyane Wade, and just over a year later the couple surprised the world again by announcing they'd just welcomed a baby girl via surrogate.

Union's story is incredible, and one so many women needed to hear, and that's why Oprah's OWN network just aired a sit-down interview special with Union and Wade: Oprah at Home with Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade & Their New Baby.

(The audio version of the interview drops in two parts on 'Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations' podcast on Monday, December 10, and Wednesday, December 12.)

The interview, which first aired over the weekend, saw Union open up about how the years of IVF treatments and disappointment left her questioning everything she knew. "I've just always been of the mindset — because this is what people tell you: 'You work hard, you do the right things, you're a good person, it will happen for you,' eventually," Union, 46, told Oprah.

"I could not let go of this idea of creating this life within me," Union explains, adding that she felt the "need to be pregnant for everybody, including myself."

As the medical interventions escalated, Wade became worried. "I'm watching her do things to her body and to herself that it's getting to the point where it's not healthy," he told Oprah, adding that he always told Union that he wanted a baby as much as she did, but that he married her and that she was the most important thing to him.

"So it came to a point where, you know, I started to feel a certain way about that because I didn't want something to happen to her," Wade told Oprah.

So when the couple decided to explore surrogacy, Wade was pleased to see the medical part of his wife's journey come to an end.

When the couple surprised the world by announcing the birth of their daughter, Kaavia James, Union was puzzled by comments that insinuated the skin-to-skin photo she used in the birth announcement was an attempt to "act like" she'd been pregnant herself, or that she really had been pregnant herself.

She notes she never tried to make it seem like she'd been pregnant, as she explained her daughter was born via surrogate in the caption for that photo, which was taken after the surrogate had a C-section.

"Our surrogate went into recovery, and we were able to go immediately into another hospital room," Union told Oprah. "I had one of my New York & Company sweaters on, but skin-to-skin was kind of hard. And because the doctors kept coming in…it was easier to have skin to skin in a hospital gown."

Wade said he found the comments painful. "I think for me the most hurtful thing was once we had the baby, and everyone started talking about why is she in the bed holding the baby, why does she have a gown on, why is she acting that she just had a baby," Wade said.

Union and Wade say they hope talking about their story will help others tell theirs, and know that they are not alone. "So many people are suffering in silence and every time, when we're candid and transparent about our journeys, no matter what those journeys are, you are allowing people to be seen and heard and empowered in ways that they've never been," Union told Oprah.

She may have felt alone during her journey to motherhood, but by telling her story, Union is making sure other mamas don't.

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