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Executive Functions Challenge
By Melvin Hayden
We are entering an age where behavior is less likely to get a child suspended. We are becoming more and more trauma informed about the behavior, which means altering our view on the causes, which means consequences are not the same. Chronic trauma affects children’s memory, their ability to pay attention, plan, think things through and other executive functions. Kids who have ADHD as well as trauma may be especially impaired in these skills. Because trauma effects the whole body, mind and spirit of a child, it is difficult to foresee the impact of completing tasks in school and the ability to plan behavior, rather than acting impulsively and deciding on the best way to communicate needs and feelings.
When behavior is obvious in a child’s attempt to communicate, what is upsetting to a child is the inability to predict the outcome before the question or task has begun. Anxiety rules the moment when what is coming up next is not what they expect. A child can only predict what is about to happen based on what has constantly happened and they do one of two things: defend themselves with words or remove themselves with action.
Another executive function that may be weak is the ability to self-narrate — to mentally talk themselves through what they need to do as they are carrying out a task. It is a skill young children learn from listening to their parents talk to them when they are babies and if they haven’t had the experience, they may need help developing the skill. Behavior is challenging for educators to address. Kids do not express the distress they are feeling in a way that is easily recognizable. Children who have experienced trauma that shows up in their daily behavior are master’s at masking their pain. Children have one weapon at their disposal that they use 100 percent of the time when they are threatened and that is there attitude. Behavior is an attitude that shields them from being hurt when they feel attacked.
Identifying the patterns of behavior in the children can help educators understand these confusing outburst and attitudes. When educators are well informed, it can help avoid misdiagnosis, especially when communication with the parent has been established. Behavior patterns can often mimic other problems, including ADHD and other related disorders.
The goal is to connect to their pattern of feelings. We try to connect with what they are attempting to tell us through their actions. However, we must understand there must be some levels of tolerance to get to the words they cannot say. We do not have to be right - just available. Trust me when I say children do not have a problem correcting us.
Miller, C. (2020) How Trauma Affects Kids in School: Child Mind Institute