Executive development happens primarily in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain more sensitive to stress than any other. Even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with the neurotransmitter dopamine, causing executive functioning to shut down (Diamond, 2010). This is part 2 of a two part series (read Part 1 here).
Jared, 14, was a bright and likeable 9th grader. Difficulties at school and at home were heightened this year. Fights at home centered around how often Jared was online and playing video games instead of doing homework.
Though Jared’s parents knew he had executive function deficits, they believed that Jared lacked ambition, was lazy, and maybe defiant. They were convinced that he didn’t care enough about his future. They commented that Jared seemed selectively disabled when it came to hard work (diagnostic of these children’s paradoxical ability to hyperfocus and be drawn in by activities which naturally attract their interest.)
Jared’s mom felt helpless and anxious on Jared’s behalf as she envisioned him failing. At times she feared for him, reacting out of anxiety and frustration. “If you continue on this path, you won’t get into college or amount to anything.” You are wasting your potential.” Jared’s parents monitored him frequently, walking past his room at regular intervals to ensure he was doing his homework. They used punishments including taking away his phone and privileges. Nothing worked.
Though Jared appeared unfazed and uninterested in how he was doing at school, privately he felt stupid, frustrated and mad at himself. He had trouble keeping track of homework, felt overwhelmed by research papers, and often lost points for careless mistakes. Fights at home stressed him, causing further distraction.
Jared confided that when he felt forced to comply as a result of his parents’ threats and attempts to scare him, he lost whatever motivation he had, as it no longer felt like his own. Jared comforted himself by doing things that distracted him and gave him a sense of mastery, such as “gaming” or socializing on Facebook.
The Importance of Executive Functioning
Jared’s story is typical in many ways. His difficulties include deficits in planning, staying on task, and inhibiting impulses and distractions – all issues of capacity having little to do with laziness, lack of values, or defiance. Further, the amount of effort children with executive function deficits have to expend to perform at a level that, in the end, is still below their true intelligence, is often demoralizing. The high cost/benefit ratio, and unconscious need to avoid repeated experiences of failure, leads to procrastination and falling short of their “best.”
Disciplinary approaches using fear, reasoning, lecture, or punishment are not only ineffective but backfire, creating additional stress in children already paralyzed by inability to meet expectations, and rupturing their experience of parents as allies. These approaches (reactions) cause children to feel they aren’t good enough, and they alternate between feeling bad about themselves and angry. Without accurately understanding children’s behavior, we may intervene in ways that compound the situation, creating a control struggle on top of the original problem.
To be effective in helping children, we must accurately diagnose the problem and be curious: What’s causing this behavior? Though they may look the same, a problem of defiance is handled differently than one of capacity.
Learning difficulties involving executive functioning are neurologically based, but executive functioning is sensitive to and impeded by stress. Parents’ reactions can, in this way, become an additional impediment to children’s executive functioning.
For all of us, executive functioning goes “offline” when we are triggered into dysregulated emotional states and overreaction. We know we have fallen into these states when we find ourselves overtaken by intense feelings and pressure to react. In such situations, our capacity to respond flexibly, think clearly, and react based on our true values and judgment is compromised. Without the mental space to reflect, instead of responding to children’s needs, we are driven to react automatically and impulsively.
Executive functioning, a conscious process of regulating thought, feeling, behavior, involves a capacity to step back, reflect and take perspective. By practicing such mindfulness with ourselves, we can become conscious of when we get triggered and more aware of our emotional states. When we are more regulated, our children internalize a sense of equilibrium, ultimately learning by example, and through words, to manage their own feelings, including frustration, anger, and discouragement, without becoming as overwhelmed.