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SEN Weekly Blog

The "why" of Executive Functioning

As children develop in cognitive abilities, they develop their social and emotional abilities, and inhibition in childhood typically lessens. Children grow and are able to choose appropriate responses to the environment. So why do some children lack the ability to self-regulate when it comes to cognitive skills?

Sometimes, this developmental stage gets “stuck” and the impulsiveness does not stop, despite working on impulsivity with the child.   Impulsive actions may be a brain-based result of modulation (the ability to adapt or respond to circumstances).

In every situation, we constantly receive information from the outside world and our internal processes simultaneously. It can be difficult to regulate and modulate the sensory information to filter out the sights, sounds, and scents to focus and complete a task.

Imagine you are on the phone, 2 children are fighting with each other, one child is trying to show you their homework, as you are trying to cook dinner.  What do you do? You would likely respond in frustration, possibly yelling or in another way that you normally would not.

Impulsive actions happen when our systems are overloaded. 

For children with sensory processing issues, it can be an ongoing cycle that is different in every situation, every day.  Sensory processing is just one area to consider when it comes to explaining the "why" behind impulses. There is also attention, behavior, emotional considerations, cognitive level, or social involvement.  Often, we try to stop the behaviours with timeout and behavior plans but the behaviours continue. 

Self-regulation (i.e. taking a good look at your surroundings AND what's going on in our bodies) and changing our behavioural response is needed.

How can we stop the cycle?

Understanding the underlying factors (i.e. the “why”) can help explain the impulsive actions that impact executive functioning.  When there are underlying issues related to sensory-seeking behaviors that drive the individual’s desire for concentrated sensory input sensory diet strategies are required.  When there is underlying Executive Functioning weaknesses, it is likely that a cycle is created of impulse control issues followed by poor self-regulation and self-monitoring.

The ability to self-regulate results in a child’s ability to adjust their level of alertness and how they display their emotions through their behaviors.  This results in accomplishing the tasks while at home, school or in the community.

Another consideration is previous experiences. A child who struggles with Executive Functioning may realise they have weaknesses in certain areas that keep them from keeping up with their peers. They may not be able to verbalise these weaknesses but recognise there are limitations. They may have struggled in the past, received bad grades, or been punished or yelled at for not getting a task done. These previous "failures" can lead to decreased self-worth, poor self-esteem, or a bad attitude.

This can snowball into more challenges with Executive Functioning.  For these children, the fight-flight-freeze response to a perceived threat like stress, worry, or anxiety can further impact executive function skills like attention, working memory, planning and self-control.  Moreover, this response is triggered when a child feels they don't have control over their situation or that they cannot succeed even when they try their hardest.

All of the components that mentioned (sensory processing, executive functioning and emotional regulation) work together to help children control their impulses. If one of these components does not function adequately, their ability to control and monitor actions will be diminished.

All of this can lead to poor participation in daily tasks, inability to keep up with peers, difficulty doing what's expected, safety concerns, and more.

Knowing what's happening in the mind of a child with Executive Functioning challenges is a very important step to addressing those behaviors that interfere with function. But what happens next?