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Executive Function: Ain’t Misbehavin’

Three-year-old Sam and his mother are playing in the front yard. She tosses him his favorite ball, but he can’t quite catch it, and it bounces down the hill and into the street. Sam happily runs after the ball, while his mom yells, “Stop right there!” Sam keeps running, chasing his ball across the road. He safely gets to the other side, where he throws his body on top of the ball and laughs.

Sam is overjoyed! And what might Sam’s mother be thinking?

  • Thank God he’s okay – he could have gotten hurt!
  • He knows better than that!
  • How do I get him to listen to me?
  • Why doesn’t he respect me?
  • Why doesn’t he care about rules?

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Many of us feel and think these things when children don’t listen. But there are some questions missing from that list that are really important:

  • Why couldn’t he listen to me / respect me / follow the rules?
  • How can I help him to think before he acts?

If you stop and think about it, Sam probably does know the rules about listening to his mother and about looking both ways before crossing the street. If you ask Sam, “Should you chase a ball into the street?” he’d probably say, “No!” and he probably is afraid of getting hit by a car. Sam probably also does care about doing what he’s supposed to do and would choose to listen to his mom… if he could.

At age 3, Sam, like his peers, has trouble stopping himself from acting impulsively. In the heat of the moment, when he sees his ball bounce into the street, he doesn’t decide to chase after it even though it’s dangerous and against the rules. He chases after it because he wants to and there’s no time to think about options, the pros and cons, and what he will do. He just skips to doing it.

Capture

As adults, we know not to do things so impulsively, and we (mostly) know how to stop ourselves. We have developed “executive function” (EF) skills – the skills to help control our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Impulse control is a huge part of EF, and it allows us to take a step back and think before we act. With EF skills, we can think flexibly – brainstorm about options and consider different perspectives. We also use our EF skills of working memory – to keep in mind the goals that guide our behaviors.

When children “misbehave” by breaking the rules – running after they’ve been told to stop, hitting when they get angry – we often respond with punishments, like time-outs. As noted recently in media outlets such as the Atlantic and PBS, punishing children for disobeying us often does not help anyone. And why would it help, if children simply don’t have the EF skills to “behave”?

Many schools in the United States are turning to approaches such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which involves establishing a set of clear behavioral expectations, training students in the underlying skills, and providing opportunities for them to practice and to get positive feedback for appropriate behavior. Similarly, some clinical programs (such as those run by Dr. Ross Greene or Dr. Stuart Ablon) designed to address children’s challenging behaviors specifically focus on how adults can support children’s EF development.

Whether at school, a clinical setting, or at home, EF skills are built slowly, through practice during calm times and with adult support. Games like “Simon Says” and “Red Light, Green Light,” are simple, fun ways to get children exercising their EF skills by first thinking about when and how to move. Adults can also coach children to manage their emotions, like by taking deep breaths when they start to feel angry because something isn’t going their way.

If we ourselves can think flexibly, we can rethink children’s “misbehaviors.” Instead of, “Why won’t they…?” let’s try asking, “Why can’t they…?” Help them to build their EF skills – not only so they will follow our rules but, importantly, so they can wait their turn, be good friends, focus during school, and be more curious and creative. Let’s take a deep breath ourselves and give it a try!

Meet the Author

ToubTamara Spiewak Toub earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and is a Professional Development Specialist at Reflection Sciences, as well as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Temple University Infant and Child Lab. Her dissertation work at the University of Washington examined the links between preschoolers’ pretend play and executive function skills. Dr. Toub also assisted in the facilitation of parent training sessions at an evidence-based clinical program aimed at helping children with behavioral problems develop self-regulatory and social skills. She embraces opportunities to promote the application of research findings in children’s everyday lives. At Temple, she has been instrumental in the design and implementation of evidence-based activities to use in preschool classrooms to promote children’s vocabulary learning and spatial skills development. She is also working with colleagues to identify ways that theater can be used to promote development of key social skills, particularly for children with autism. Her commitment to connecting science and application has led to her collaborations with organizations such as the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, as well as Reflection Sciences. She has written for educators, policymakers, and families, in addition to presenting her research in the academic community through peer-reviewed journals and national and international conferences.

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