Over the last 8 years, since I first discovered executive functioning by reading Smart but Scattered Teens, I have been fascinated by the role of the prefrontal cortex, executive functions, and our brain states in our lives. I have spent most of my waking and sleeping hours researching, making connections, and thinking through the implications of the current research and debates in the field. Over the last year or so I have come to the sad conclusion that rather than helping the children who need it most, our education system – and specifically our behaviour policies – are perpetuating trauma on our most vulnerable learners. In this blog I will attempt to explain my reasoning.

Firstly, let me explain my position on this matter. It might be easy to dismiss my words here as angry rantings of a woman who has an axe to grind with the education system. A woman whose personal experience of education and the experience of the young people in her care is a small minority of highly privileged people who want an excuse for their laziness. Please be reassured that this is not the case. I come to this writing with nothing but compassion for the dedicated professional colleagues (for I am a qualified teacher as well) with whom I am honoured to share a profession. I know all too well that learning is a lifelong process and that knowledge about the prefrontal cortex, executive functioning and brain states is very new in our field. I know that for the vast majority of the teachers and learning professionals we train, learning about the prefrontal cortex, executive functions and brain states, transforms their practice. They often remark on feeling guilty for getting it wrong, for the harm they have unwittingly done. My response is always the same: “Please don’t be hard on yourself – you didn’t know what you didn’t know. Now that you do, you have a chance to change. Don’t waste your energy feeling bad about the past – put that energy into changing things for the future.”

Let’s return to behaviour policies and psychological harm. As I alluded to in a previous blog about(insert link to Maslow’s blog here) The latest neuroscience and neuropsychological research is showing that connection with other humans and belonging are essential for optimal brain development. Thanks to the research of the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child and other top universities, we now know that psychological trauma or toxic stress impacts the brain architecture, so much so that the prefrontal cortex (where the executive functions are found) is under-developed, and the amygdala (the part of our brain responsible for our fight, flight, freeze,or fawn response) is enlarged. This is logical when we understand that the brain is malleable, growing, and developing with use. Children who experience trauma live in that fight, flight, freeze or fawn response and aren’t able to engage the prefrontal cortex, and the brain development is impacted accordingly. Children can also develop a different brain architecture because of genetics, since we are all a product of our environment and genetics.

Children who experience executive function challenges are often identified as naughty, lazy, forgetful, and disorganised. These children experience these challenges either because of their genetics or traumatic experiences, not through any choices they make. Their challenges develop overtime and are often compounded by maladaptive coping behaviours, such as lying, being charming to a fault, and avoidance (now classified as emotionally based school avoidance – EBSA). These behaviours keep them safe in a society and school system that sees their differences as ‘bad,’ where punishment for such behaviour is the means for correcting it.

Children who struggle to hand in homework have credits deducted, while those who repeatedly break the rules are given detentions. As the misdemeanours rack up, so do the punishments, resulting in isolation rooms, report cards, suspensions, and expulsions. Whilst well-meaning, rarely do these punishments have the desired effect. In fact, I would argue that they have the opposite effect.

Stay with me whilst I add more colour here: If we know that connection and belonging are fundamental to optimal brain development and that trauma and toxic stress impair that development, then it follows that what young people with executive function challenges need more than anything is an environment where they feel they are connected with the adults around them, and where they have a sense of belonging. Instead, what they get is the opposite. It is clear in the language – they are made to feel isolated, untrustworthy, and excluded. I believe that this system perpetuates trauma on the children who most need our help and compounds their challenges, when they are most vulnerable and their behaviour is a cry for help. If we meet it with punishment, the message is this: You and your challenges are not welcome here; You and your behaviour don’t belong here.

Even the positive psychology of rewarding expected behaviour contributes to this. Let’s look at a case study. James has a diagnosis of ADHD and Autism. At primary school, like all of his peers, he is given a sticker chart to help motivate him to demonstrate the expected behaviours. When he is having a good day, he can use all of his energy to comply with the expectations, but when he is low on energy (because he has had a bad night’s sleep or hasn’t eaten breakfast) he struggles to comply. His peers get their stickers and he doesn’t , that makes him angry, and as he is low on energy, he then struggles to self-regulate. He becomes dysregulated in the class, and is taken aside by a well-meaning teacher: “Come on James, you know we don’t behave like that here. I know you can do it. You managed so well yesterday.” James feels so ashamed by his behaviour, and he becomes more dysregulated. His fight response is triggered and he throws a chair across the room. The teacher sends him to the Pastoral Lead. I will leave it to your imagination as to what happens next. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that because of his diagnosis, we know that James is less able to self-regulate and follow the behaviour expectations than his peers, yet the well-intentioned traditional remedy only serves to perpetuate his challenges.

Let me draw an analogy here to help illustrate my point: In James’ school he has a classmate, Jenny, who is less able to compete in most races at sports day because she uses a wheelchair. Yes, Jenny might be able to cross the finishing line some days when her energy is up, but it will take considerably more energy for her than her peers to keep up with them. There will be some days when she just can’t summon up the energy to compete because it takes too much out of her. She just isn’t competing on a level playing field with her peers. Do we shame and punish her for that, expect her to suddenly be able to run like all her peers? No – it would be discriminatory and traumatic for her. The same applies for James. James’s disability is hidden and Jenny’s is not, but as knowledge of hidden disabilities such as ADHD and Autism grows, we must adjust our support for people with these differences so that they can be included and not discriminated against.

We must also remember that not all children respond in the same way as James; Others who have executive function challenges, respond in different ways. Some shut down, some avoid school, and others are very compliant. James experienced a fight response to being shamed because of his behaviour. Others exhibit flight, refusing to come to school. Some exhibit freeze, shutting down in the school environment, and refusing to engage. Many others experience a fawn response: They comply with what is expected of them and live their lives in a state of perpetual anxiety; thinking, “When will my executive functions next let me down, and how can I avoid being punished…” I think you will agree that none of these are ideal.

I hope this blog has gone some way to helping you understand why a shift away from traditional behaviour policies is imperative. If you are interested to learn more please join me on the 28th of February for my CPD accredited webinars. You can also read more in these wonderful books listed below.



*Cross, D., Fani, N., Powers, A., & Bradley, B. (2017). Neurobiological development in the context of childhood trauma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 24(2), 111–124. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12198

*Miyake, A. and Friedman, N.P., 2012. The nature and organization of individual differences in executive functions: Four general conclusions. Current directions in psychological science, 21(1), pp.8-14.https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411429458

*Wadsworth, M.E., 2015. Development of maladaptive coping: A functional adaptation to chronic, uncontrollable stress. Child development perspectives, 9(2), pp.96-100. https://doi.org/10.1111%2Fcdep.12112

*Siegel, D.J. (2001), Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Ment. Health J., 22: 67-94. https://doi.org/10.1002/1097-0355(200101/04)22:1<67::AID-IMHJ3>3.0.CO;2-G