Executive function, trauma, and play

I have just finished reading a really terrific book and I promised I would share it with you. Other people might as well benefit from my compulsive reading about brains. Of course, this benefit is only accrued if you are willing to slog through my ridiculously long post. If you can't manage it, just read the books I've recommended (second and fourth paragraphs for the skimmers among you.)

If you've ever talked trauma in children with me, I have probably recommended the book, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene. It made a huge difference for us in how we approached some of our children who were exploders. Possibly the most helpful thing it did was to give us a way to reframe their behavior. Instead of thinking of them as being stubborn, short-tempered, and disobedient, we began to see these behaviors as reactions to a deeper issue of immature emotional regulatory systems, and in the case of one of our children, an extremely immature emotional regulatory system.

[Before I go further, I need to give my thinking-good-parenting-means-you-won't-have-a-brat-speech. If you've read it before you can skip to the next paragraph. If you think I'm dismissing bad behavior in children too easily, read on. I will be the first to say that before our experience of trying to parent such a child, I would have been leading the chorus of saying it was just an excuse for raising brats. What these children needed was more consistent parenting; clear cause-and effect consequences; making the tough calls every time behavior you didn't like reared its head. After all, this is what worked... and worked well... for our first five children. Experience is a humbling thing and I learned (though I was slow to learn it) that if that sort of parenting was going to work on my son, he would have become the best behaved child on the planet. It wasn't our parenting that was at issue (well, it was, but in a different way), but his brain and how trauma had wired it, that was at issue.]

While The Explosive Child gave us a new vocabulary and framework for approaching our children, it was a little lacking in practicalities. This is why I was so excited about Executive Function and Child Development by Marcie Yeager and Daniel Yeager. This book gives the method to The Explosive Child's theory. In fact, I think they should be sold as a boxed set. The Yeager's book first gives an explanation of what executive function is. Pretty much, executive function encompasses a person's ability at using working memory, inhibiting responses, and having cognitive flexibility and goal orientation. These are all functions which the brain processes in the frontal lobe. That would be the part of the brain right there behind your forehead and about as far away from your brain stem at the base of your skull at the spinal column as you can get.

There is a reason our children from hard backgrounds are particularly susceptible to executive function problems, and why so many children who have experienced trauma display ADHD-like behaviors. Their frontal lobes have been stopped from truly developing the skills needed to function at their chronological ages. Our brains are constantly rebuilding themselves based on the relationship between outside experiences and the brain's own response to those experiences. It's a little dance with neurotransmitters going on inside our heads. One example is how our brain interprets things more positively when we smile, such as I described in the post about movement and our brain.

Or here's a longer explanation.

"These 'modulator' neurons are located in the brain stem and the basal forebrain, and they are influenced by the interactions of the organism at any given moment. Modulator neurons distribute neuro-transmitters (such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine) to widespread regions of the cerebral cortex and subcortical nuclei, This clever arrangement can be described as follows (1) the innate regulatory circuits are involved in the business of organism survival and because of that they are privy to what is happening in the more modern sectors of the brain; (2) the goodness and badness of situations is regularly signaled to them, and (3) they express their inherent reaction to goodness and badness by influencing how the rest of the brain is shaped, so that it can assist survival in the most efficacious ways.

Thus, as we develop from infancy to adulthood, the design of brain circuitries that represent our evolving body and its interaction with the world seems to depend on the activities in which the organism engages, and on the action of innate bioregulatory circuitries, as the latter react to such activities." p. 111 from Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio R. Damasio

What this is saying is that our brain stems are the parts of our brains that are concerned with survival and they send out messages in the form of neurotransmitters that influence the rest of the brain. The rest of the brain takes action based on those messages. If the brain stem perceives threat and danger, the rest of the brain is going to hunker down and act accordingly. It is the mental equivalent of preparing a house for a hurricane... only essential things are left open, the rest is boarded up. The frontal lobes and their executive function uses are essentially glass windows which have been sealed behind plywood to protect them. You can't use them and you can't see out of them. The analogy fails, though, to take into account the lack of development. Probably it would be more accurate to say the window spaces have been boarded up and there is no way to even put the glass in them in this state.

Our job as parents is to first stop the hurricane warnings and allow our children to feel safe enough to take down the plywood. Then comes the time consuming task of putting in the glass panes. One thing I found most interesting in what the authors suggest for helping to develop executive function skills... play, and a very specific type of play. They use the games that children play on the playground (or used to when children had recess and unstructured play time with other children who also had free time.) You probably played them as a child: Red Light, Green Light; Mother May I?; Simon Says, etc. All of these games help develop executive function because they require executive function skills, though at a beginning level, to play... attention and working memory, behavior inhibition, goal setting. So for anyone who wanted a reason for recess and play time, this is probably the single biggest argument for it out there.

Guess what we're going to be doing a lot of for the rest of the summer? You guessed it. Playground games. And I have enough people to play them, though we're happy to include others if you want to come by.


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