Updated: Oct 5, 2018
Elijah and I made eye contact through the rows of classmates sitting in front of him after he yelled out in the middle of graduation practice. As the principal, I was sitting in the empty chairs of the audience, waiting to practice reading the names of my 8th grade students: right now the teachers were leading the students in their first run-through of pomp and circumstance. Elijah had already been kicked out of practice once, and his teachers weren’t sure if he was going to keep it together to be included in the ceremony on Friday night.
I talk a lot about executive functioning, which is not surprising given that I’ve spent my career educating kids in middle school. Executive functioning describes those activities that are controlled by the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, which is the final area of our brains to develop. These activities include important academic skills such as planning, working memory, and attention. Brains develop at varying rates, but the machine of school moves forward relentlessly, and the expectation is for students to demonstrate organization, self-regulation, self-control, and work completion. I’ve learned all sorts of strategies that help kids, families, and teachers manage these issues, but none of them ever work unless I first establish a partnership that puts the student in the driver’s seat.
Kids like Elijah are used to feeling like people think there’s something wrong with them, and so “helping” them without their input - reorganizing binders the way we want them, or offering seven reminders to complete an assignment - can backfire. Instead, kids need to learn the strategies and tricks to help them help themselves. Elijah was so defeated on the day his favorite teacher showed complete exasperation with him, but since he didn’t know how to change his behavior, it appeared to his teacher as if he didn’t even care. Our annoyance with kids who struggle with executive functioning is often way more hurtful than it appears. When the adults seem like they’re giving up, that’s when kids give up on themselves.
It turns out that emotion plays a larger role in learning that we realized, and kids who start to feel defeated and disconnected are even less able to effectively regulate executive functioning tasks. I asked Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and former teacher who studies how our brains integrate emotions, social interactions, and learning, how we as adults can best help kids who find executive functioning tasks difficult. She said, “When kids struggle with executive functions, they need the adults around them to be especially steady, engaged and reliable—in effect, to serve as the calming, focusing force that the child’s brain is having trouble conjuring for itself.” So as frustrating as it may be for us to print a third copy of the homework page, or to see a child wait until the last second to start a project, we need to stay patient and talk through it with them. This kind of problem solving can help create new, more effective neural pathways that get stronger with use, while also reinforcing a child's confidence and self-worth.
When everyone at graduation practice expected me to bring Elijah to the office, the look I gave him through the rows of students said a lot of things: use the strategies you’ve learned; you can do this; I believe in you. He gave me a businesslike nod, sat back in his seat, and graduated on Friday with his classmates. But it’s not enough for kids like Elijah to scrape by in school, and we can only change systems by first changing ourselves. Every Elijah needs the adults in their lives to be on their team, to be patient with their brains as neural connections grow, prune, and reorganize. For the garden of the adolescent brain to thrive, kids need us to be constant, solid, and reliable: they need us to be their rock.
Immordino-Yang, M. H., Darling-Hammond, L., & Krone, C. (2018). The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and academic development. The Aspen Institute, 1-20.