Executive Functioning isn’t Magically Fixed by ‘Higher’ Behaviour Standards

A while ago I had a conversation with a genuinely wonderful parent who was at their wits end. Their child wouldn’t listen, the teachers kept reprimanding them for ‘doodling’ on worksheets, they never followed directions, they could finish things in minutes once they started, they were always talking…

“The only thing that works is to yell at them.” They finally said, with a sigh.

I understood. You see I was that child. Bright, but scattered; gifted, with executive functioning issues (in my case, undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD).

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Executive Functioning and ADHD

The thing is, ADHD brains aren’t motivated by urgency and importance, but by emotion and interest.

Of course they didn’t listen. They could barely filter out the sensory overload most of the time. That doodling? That was a way of burning the incessant energy just enough so they could concentrate on what the teacher was saying. Only reacting when you yelled? Fear is an emotion. Get scared enough, and an ADHD brain gets enough chemical ‘push’ to work. For a gifted ADHD brain, the doing is the easy part – the starting is the mountain. And though the talking may pause, the inner monologue never, ever stops.

No wonder none of their parenting strategies really worked. Using ‘normal’ parenting techniques might sometimes do the trick, but they are, by and large not very helpful for kids with executive functioning (EF) challenges.  Executive functioning challenges come with the territory for both ADHD and Autism

Understanding what works and what doesn’t – and how that differs from kids with normal levels of executive functioning ability – is essential to parent and interact with them in a respectful and thoughtful manner.

Knowing and Doing are Different Things

The thing is, kids (and adults) with EF issues often know exactly what they should do, but they can’t do it. That’s  because the bit of their brain – the part that controls impulsive behaviour and planning – doesn’t work the same way as kids without it.

Doing things the same way as generations past is setting them up for failure. Punishing bad behaviour won’t work if the behaviour is due to, say, the environment being too overwhelming. Patience, understanding – real understanding, which involves learning how your child’s brain works, and not assuming the reason for the behaviour – is probably going to be more effective, particularly in the long term.

This is not the same as saying that we allow our kids to do whatever they want, consequence free. Not at all! Giving up on our kids, and assuming that ‘bad’ behaviour will just have to keep being acceptable, helps no one.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

But we need to work smarter, rather than work harder.

Figure out how their brain works, then help them find a strategy that works for them to function the best that they can.

For ADHD adults, that might mean setting up their life to make impulsive decisions harder – because it’s going to happen. Expecting self control to be internalised is probably just setting them up for failure as adults.

For Autistics, they use patterns and routine to navigate a very confusing sensory world. They may never learn to cope with getting the blue rather than the pink cup. Forcing them to ‘look ok’ because they should be able to cope is actually a form of gaslighting, and it sets them up to distrust their own instincts. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse as adults.

Twice-exceptional kids may end up being better at masking these problems because they’re smart and can figure out what their loved ones don’t like. But that doesn’t mean they are learning lessons on self-restraint, or impulse control. And with their often heightened emotional sensitivity, control can be much, much harder to learn. Many will end up with maladaptive behaviours just so that they’look’ ok, and appear to manage.

According to recent research done in Western Australia on the children in juvenile prison, our prisons are full of kids with EF issues serious enough for a disability diagnosis.

Punishing behaviour that is a natural consequence of brain wiring and poor environmental fit isn’t going to help anyone. And if doing exactly what has been done in the past worked, it would have worked by now.

Finding smart ways to improve behaviour that is respectful of their different brain wiring and needs? That can do wonders.

4 Replies to “Executive Functioning isn’t Magically Fixed by ‘Higher’ Behaviour Standards”

  1. To think that our quirkiest brains may be languishing in jails when their ‘different’ thinking could enliven our insights into many social issues if they hadn’t been made to feel so unacceptable – just appalling.

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