Why are children often so maddeningly impulsive?

They so often act without thinking, become obsessed with interests and hobbies and just as quickly drop them.  They have the ability to make crazy plans without considering the implications and so often need the adults around them to save things at the last minute.  Homework plans usually consist of leaving everything to the last minute!  Why can’t they be more mature, thoughtful and organised?

Limited life experience obviously plays a role in shaping the behaviour of children.  But there are invisible biological factors at play.  Hormonal fluctuations certainly contribute to the mix.

What is the role of the frontal lobes and the pre frontal cortex in explaining your child’s behaviour?

But there is a part of the brain that even in most teenagers that is surprisingly late to develop.  The frontal lobes make up a large part of the human brain.  Frontal lobes perform a myriad of tasks.

One area in particular, the pre-frontal cortex is concerned with making sense of particular information from our environment.  This includes social cues from other people, sequences or patterns in incoming information, whether situations are new or familiar.

Being able to interpret this information quickly and efficiently allows good planning and organisation, good understanding of subtle social information, when to act and sometimes more importantly when to hold back from reacting.

Put simply we need a healthy pre-frontal cortex to be tactful, polite, well organised and have reasonable judgement.

How and when does the pre frontal cortex develop?

The pre-frontal cortex is present in the human brain at birth.  Infants and young children definitely use their pre-frontal cortex.  However there is also a lot of growth in the pre-frontal cortex over childhood.

Myelination, the growth of a fatty insulating layer over nerve fibres continues to develop as we grow and makes it easier for the information to be communicated between the nerve cells.

Specialisation of groups of nerve cells and the strengthening of the pathways between the nerve cells (called dendritic arborisation and synaptogenesis) is thought to develop in spurts throughout childhood with growth spurts around age 6 years, 10 years and finally in mid adolescence .

The growth process going on throughout the pre-frontal cortex is analogous to the growth of a sapling into a tree. With areas of dense growth, some parts of the tree have specialised functions: flowers, leaves or twigs.  Basically the whole system gets stronger and better able to react to the environment as it gets older.

What can teachers and parents do to adapt their responses to children and adolescents based on an understanding of brain development?

  • Biology is relevant. Remind yourself that there are some biological reasons why your children make mistakes at times, have short attention spans and their behaviour can drive you crazy at times.
  • Provide structure and take into account their developmental level. It also explains why a structured education plan is so valuable for children.  Skilled teachers can take into account the skills children might not have yet and point out things to them that they might not realise.
  • Be patient and reach out to support your children when emotions are intense. Emotionally it helps us understand why life changes can be hard for children to work through. Complex relationship situations like divorce of parents, deaths or welcoming in new family members can be challenging for children as they have to work through complex environmental and social information with an immature nervous system.

That is why it can take patience and  lots of telling and re-explaining to help children process these types of changes.  So it is worth remembering that even in children whose physical bodies are fully mature, important parts of their brains are still developing and changing.

If you need further support about your child’s behaviour or are concerned about behaviours like lack of organisation, difficulty seeing things from others point of view, please contact us to make an appointment.

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