Executive Function Tools: Part 4 of a 4-Part Series on Anxiety in the Brain
This is the final of a four-part series on how to help children with anxiety by finding its source in the brain.
The executive system, located in the neocortex of the brain, is the last to develop. This system is responsible for all that we choose to do, such as talk, run, and play Uno.
The most evolved part of the neocortex is the prefrontal cortex. Anxiety originating in the executive function often stems from its underutilization. The following are tools to reduce childhood anxiety by getting the prefrontal cortex into gear:
Anxiety often comes from lack of confidence and a sense of disempowerment. Responsibility gives children a sense of purpose and lets them contribute to the greater good. Teaching them how to do needed tasks and making them responsible for them fires up the prefrontal cortex and relieves anxiety.
Having important and stimulating work is a basic prefrontal cortex need.This can be as simple as laundry and as complex as changing the oil in the car. In the moment, children may feel lazy about helping around the house or classroom; but the big-picture feeling is one of accomplishment and importance.
Questions versus Commands
A common culprit for causing anxiety in the executive system is removing responsibility by giving children too many commands. The more stressed parents and teachers become, the more commands they give children. Commands take away a child’s sense of agency and put them in a one-down position.
Commands also turn down prefrontal cortex activity. I liken it to following a GPS. Often when I arrive at a place after following Waze, I have no idea how I got there. Just following directions someone else gives puts that area of the brain to sleep. If we don’t have to think, we won’t.
A Positive Discipline tool for helping children move from helpless to confident is to ask how and what questions rather than give commands. Asking questions helps children become more thoughtful, and repetition of thoughtfulness exercises the prefrontal cortex, giving it a stronger role in a child’s functioning. Here are some examples:
It’s cold outside. Put on your coat before you leave this house.
What can you do to stay warm outside?
Brush your teeth.
What do you need to do to keep your teeth healthy?
Eat your dinner.
What can you do so you aren’t hungry in the middle of the night?
Don’t hit your sister.
How can you work out this problem with your sister without hurting her?
Hey, I told you to empty the dishwasher!
When will the dishwasher be empty? How will you remember?
Do your homework.
What will happen if you don’t complete your homework? What is your plan to prevent that from happening?
Listen to me!
What can we do to help your body calm down so you can hear what I need to tell you?
A word of caution: Be careful about questions if they make you feel weak. Giving up your authority is only another way of giving children anxiety. If there is a risk of being permissive, consider going back to commands until you can ask a question with firm resolve about the value you are enforcing. (See April's post for more information on teaching values.)
The question, "Why," turns prefrontal cortex activity down because it shifts attention and locus of control away from the child and onto the adult. Asking "Why?" as in, "Why did you do that?" and "Why should you..." often makes a child's defenses come up, and defense causes dysregulation. Dysregulation turns prefrontal cortex activity down.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for inhibiting impulses. The more impulsive children are, the more they are told "no," "stop," and "don't." When these words are overused, they can become ineffectual, leaving impulsivity unchecked by the prefrontal cortex. Varying the words used to stop behavior helps because the prefrontal cortex responds to novelty. Consider replacing tired words with any of the following:
Freeze! -- This can be taught as a game where children not only stop what they are doing, but stop all body movement until you say the word, "Unfreeze!" A conversation can then take place about why their body needed to stop.
Ice Sculpture! -- An enhancement to the freeze game, Ice Sculpture is where children strike a pose when an adult wants them to stop and listen.
Pause Button! -- This has the children stopping their bodies by pressing an imaginary pause button. They can use different parts of the body to push the button with commands like "Press the pause button with your elbow!" Or, "Press the pause button with your shoe!" For more prefrontal activity, children can think about what body part they want to use themselves after they have had some practice with this.
Release! -- Here, children are conditioned to release all tension in their muscles, rendering them unable to continue.
1 - 2 - 3, Melt! Counting first gives children the opportunity to prepare, which is helpful for spurring prefrontal cortex activity. Melting has the same effect as the releasing above.
Another way to get this part of the brain online is to encourage reflection during times of dysregulation. Reflection is a way of bringing mindfulness to a situation where space is made for the moment to slow down, the scene can be observed and taken in, and information can be processed. An inner feeling of urgency is a good cue that reflection is needed to invite prefrontal cortex activity into a situation.
To use reflection, an adult can use one of the stopping cues above, and then ask, "Where is your hand?" and "What is it about to do?" Then, "If your hand does that, how might that help you (or us)?" And then, "If your hand does that, how might it hurt you (or us)?" Stopping and slowing the situation down to discuss it before continuing the action is a strong prefrontal cortex builder.
Most of what we do throughout the day is not rational, but reactive. Our actions tend to be elicited by past experiences, future fears, and perceived demands. The prefrontal cortex, our rational part of the brain, can be used as a remedy for anxiety because its use alone regulates us. It's use also inspires competence and confidence. By using these tools, we can give children a firmer sense of purpose and a stronger sense of self-worth.