Tantrums, Meltdowns and More: Executive Dysfunction and Behavior
My teen has regular meltdowns, even when minor things go wrong.
My child is forever getting time-outs for disrupting the classroom by calling out, interrupting and refusing to take turns.
Does this describe your child?
Executive function skills allow us to control our impulses and emotions, be flexible, plan and organize. These cognitive skills are not only crucial for learning but play an important role in day-to-day behavior. Children who struggle with executive function may have great difficulty in behaving appropriately in classrooms, at home and in other settings.
Think about a child who gets a reputation as a class troublemaker. This is a child who responds excessively to everything, good or bad. He is impulsive and prone to temper tantrums. He does not respond well to change and seems to not be able to control his emotions. Plenty of people would point to this class troublemaker and say his behavior is the result of being lazy, undisciplined, or spoiled. But the truth is more complicated: This child may be deficient in the executive skills most closely related to social and emotional growth, including impulse control, emotional control, flexibility and self-monitoring. Executive skill delays are directly associated with emotional and behavioral challenges.
As you may know, executive function deficits are very common in children with LD and ADHD. You’ve probably already considered how executive dysfunction may play a role in your child’s learning and academic performance. But it’s crucial to consider the role executive function may be having on your child’s behavior. This will help you avoid the common trap of treating all inappropriate behavior as something under your child’s control (He’s just a lazy, spoiled brat) and move toward finding solutions to help your child improve her executive function skills and behave in more positive ways. Executive skill development is gradual and developmental, not automatic. Children and teens with LD or ADHD need extra help in many areas of life, including the development of self-control, resilience, and sensitivity towards their own and others’ feelings.
Controlling Impulses and EmotionsWe all speak and act impulsively at times, and who hasn’t had to apologize for doing so? But every time you consider of the consequences of an action before you do it or hold back a comment until an appropriate time, you’re exercising an important executive skill: the ability to control your impulses. This can be a huge challenge for Children and teens who struggle with executive function, and especially for those with ADHD (impulsiveness is one sign of the disorder). Children and teens lacking in impulse control have a diminished ability to regulate their speech and behavior. They find it difficult to stop and think. They haven’t learned to ask themselves: What is happening here? When this happened to me before, what did I do? If I say this or do that, will I help the situation or make it worse? Children and teens who struggle with impulse control often have difficulty following rules and directions and sitting still in class. They may seem to talk incessantly and interrupt others.
Closely linked to impulse control is emotional control, the ability to manage our emotions so they don’t control our lives. When your child isn’t invited to a birthday party or when your teen gets a speeding ticket, frustration and anger—even fear—are normal emotional reactions. However, throwing a tantrum, becoming silent and withdrawn, or arguing with a police officer are unproductive, self-destructive ways to react. The ability to monitor emotions so they don’t spill out and cause embarrassment or worse is a crucial executive skill that helps avoid difficulty in all kinds of interpersonal situations.
A child who struggles with emotional control may have a low threshold for frustration. He may overreact to obstacles that wouldn’t affect other children. Without a strong capacity for emotional control, your child’s overreactions may rapidly escalate, leading to rage, tears, or withdrawal. Even happiness may affect your child differently, leading to excessive giddiness or silliness.
Flexibility and Self-MonitoringDoes your child’s behavior get worse during school breaks or vacations, when he is away from his normal routine? Does your child struggle with understanding the difference between an “outdoor” and “indoor” voice? These difficulties may be related to executive function: cognitive flexibility, or the ability to think flexibly and to shift approaches, is another executive function process that can lead to behavioral problems when it breaks down.
Think of it this way: every time you switch from one activity or setting to another, you know that there are a different set of rules and expectations for how you will act. You wouldn’t behave exactly the same way in a meeting with your boss as you would when you’re out to lunch with your co-workers. Children and teens who struggle with this aspect of executive function have trouble shifting their behavior from one situation to the next. For example, while running might be okay at recess, it’s definitely against the rules in school hallways. But a child with executive dysfunction may have trouble switching from “recess behavior” to “classroom behavior,” continue to run when recess is over, and get in trouble for doing so.
Promoting Positive Behavior in Children With Executive Dysfunction With parents’ guidance and support, children and teens can improve their executive functioning skills and move toward improving their behavior. Here are some tips to help.
- Make sure your child receives a comprehensive assessment including aspects of executive function and behavior. Based on the results, you and school staff members can determine the most important behavioral skills your child needs to work on. A focus on executive function skills can improve not only your child’s behavior, but his academic performance as well. If your child has an IEP or 504 plan, be sure that specific executive skill guidelines are included.
- Communicate with teachers and other school staff about your efforts to help your child regulate his or her behavior. You and your child’s teacher or counselor may decide to work on the same skill at the same time. Home and school need to reinforce each other.
- Set clear and consistent rules. Your child or teen needs to know what language or behavior you won’t accept (for example, violence, name-calling, abusive or profane language, door-slamming, harming himself or others). Discuss consequences for breaking the rules and be consistent in applying them. Beyond this zero-tolerance list, treat any tantrums or meltdowns as problems to be solved cooperatively. Research clearly shows that the best way to see improvements in social skills is to give your child positive reinforcement.
Bonnie Z. Goldsmith earned a doctorate in English from Ohio State University. She has worked in the field of education throughout her professional life, as a writer, editor and teacher. She lives in Minneapolis.