For some these words evoke tremendous euphoria while others are feeling distraught, overwhelmed and not sure how to effectively prepare for the return of students to the classroom. The children who left last March due to the pandemic are not the same children who are returning. Their schedules, routines, learning strategies, ability to form relationships with adults and peers, sustaining attention to task, planning, and organizing their work have all changed. In essence, they have been de-programed and need to be re-taught the basics of how to function in school. Teachers will be expected to manage a host of behaviors that they did not encounter before school closure. How will they manage? What explanations will they ascribe to student’s aberrant behaviors and how will they intervene to eradicate these behaviors? Many of the answers to these questions and much more can be found by taking a closer look at the powerhouse of the body: the amazing brain!
A Little Brain Anatomy
One way to conceptualize our brain is to think of it in two parts: our Thinking Brain and our Emotional/Feeling Brain. “The Thinking Brain represents your conscious thoughts, your ability to make calculations, and your ability to reason through various options and express ideas through language. Your Feeling Brain represents your emotions, impulses, intuition, and instincts.” (Fast Company 5-14-19). While we would like to believe our Thinking Brain is in control of our Emotional Brain, it is the other way around. Our emotions found in our limbic system – comprised of the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus – process incoming stimuli and determine our emotional and behavioral response. When our emotions become too intense, we become dysregulated which compromises our ability to access the Thinking Brain. Emotional dysregulation takes us out of the frontal lobe of the brain, where executive function is housed, and pulls us deep into the brains emotional center. In a dysregulated state, the two areas of the brain have difficulty communicating with one another (Nappa, Alexa; 9/6/16). Our cognitive “energy” resources are spent on keeping us safe and dealing with our emotional response to threat resulting in a decrease in executive function skills. This explains why we may respond in an irrational, unacceptable fashion when confronted with intense fear, stress and/or anxiety – our Emotional Brain has taken control!
What Are Executive Function Skills?
So, what are executive functions skills and why are they important especially in reference to students returning to the classroom? Let’s start with a simple definition from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:
“Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully, just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
12 Critical Brain Functions
Children aren’t born with executive function skills but develop them over time from their relationships and conditions within their environments. There are multiple ways to group executive function skills, however we align our practice with those identified by Peg Dawson’s work. We have also grouped them into three categories or “Buckets” for easy understanding: “Thought” Skills, “Action” Skills, and “Emotion” Skills.
We Are All Different When It Comes to Executive Function
Each of us has strengths and weaknesses within this group of skills. Our brains have the capacity to grow and develop them over time. Typically, executive function skills first begin to develop at about 6 months of age through environmental learning, including many in the first two years of life. This development continues throughout young adulthood. When we improve and boost our executive function skills, we begin to develop our self-regulation skills and the internal resources to manage life’s challenges.
Executive Function Skills and Kids Returning to the Classrooms
Many of our children will be experiencing lags in their executive function skills due to the uncertainty and anxiety resulting from the pandemic. Their Emotional Brain has consumed tremendous resources that negatively impact their executive skills. They may have difficulty sustaining attention, following directions, planning, initiating tasks and complying with expectations. They may have anxiety about meeting the expectations of the adults in the school and as a result seem noncompliant, or even oppositional. School personnel need to remember that just as adults have experienced stress, confusion, and anxiety, so too have our students. More than likely our children are functioning out of the fight-flight-flee response (remember the Amygdala?) as they try to meet expectations and form relationships with adults in school.
What To Do?
When children are unable to meet expectations school personnel should seek to understand the behavior rather than correct it. They should use the opportunity to build relationships with children to understand their needs. Psychology Today (http://psychologytoday.com/us/blog/self-reg/201607/self-reg-self-regulation-vs-self-control) reported the following:
It all sounds rather daunting, but what it really comes down to is that we have to rethink some of our most time-honored assumptions about what children and youth most need from us. So much of the parenting advice that abounds today centers around how to teach children about the consequences of their actions and make these lessons stick; or how to build up a child’s self-control. But what neuroscience is telling us is that kids aren’t’ going to learn anything from lectures however well-intentioned while they’re in survival brain mode. And what is astonishing is to see just how many children and youth this applies to and absorb what you’re saying much less think about consequences and have the capacity to choose a different action.
An Important Reminder
As our students return, educators need to consider how they will manage student behavior through the lens of empathy and compassion. In addition, they will need to have an understanding of the Emotional and Thinking Brain and remember that that many students will be returning with their Emotional Brain in control and their Thinking Brain unable to access critical executive function skills. Some strategies to assist with a smooth transition back to school include:
- Making school a safe place for children to talk about their feelings;
- Helping children acknowledge and name their emotions;
- Allowing children to share their experiences while being home and demonstrate empathy;
- Teaching social emotional behavioral skills to all children;
- Helping children develop self-regulation skills through mindfulness, mediation and explicit skill development;
- Taking time to build a relationship with every child; and
- Focusing on positive attention.
Our students need us more than ever as the school doors open and kids spend time in the classrooms they left a year ago. Be brave, give yourself grace and work hard to create safe, affirming spaces for all. And most importantly, be kind to yourself and one another.