What is response inhibition?

This crucial executive function is the ability to think before taking action. Young children can be impulsive and rely on caring adults to guide them and role-model response inhibition. For example, they might just step out into the road without thought for their safety, so their parent has to think for them, pointing out potential dangers and showing them how to cross safely. With age and experience, a key stage in development is for a child to acquire the ability to think for themselves, rather than totally relying on adults, to anticipate problems or dangers, then take the appropriate action.

What kinds of challenges present in not having this skill?

For children who don’t have the ability to control impulses, school life can be very difficult. Without response inhibition, children can have tendencies to interrupt others, wander around the classroom instead of remaining seated, cause distractions, act out, have no respect for others’ personal space, and play too roughly at recess. For teens, acting without considering safety consequences first can result in drinking alcohol and taking drugs, with no regard for the impact on their long-term health. The absence of response inhibition can result in students not reading the directions for their assignments or tests properly and consequently performing below their academic ability.

How to help students develop their response inhibition

It is beneficial to first observe a student in different environments to identify what typically happens right before they behave impulsively. Look for clues on what is likely to trigger their impulsivity. For example, you might observe a pattern in their emotions, where they act impulsively right after becoming overexcited, frustrated or angry. Alternatively, there might be predictable settings where a student most frequently behaves impulsively. Identifying patterns through observation then makes it possible to pre-empt their impulsivity and know when to intervene. At the point of intervening, it’s important to clearly explain why you’re intervening so the student can start to recognize for themselves what their triggers are. Offer a strategy that helps the student pause, such as focusing on taking deep breaths or stepping outside for a few minutes. Then teach the student what to do instead, as the desired behavior that is suitable in the situation. Throughout the process, remain calm and respectful to role-model to the student how you ideally want them to behave. In daily classroom life, seize any opportunity you can to genuinely praise the student for good behavior, to help build their self-esteem and counteract the negative feedback they will likely be used to hearing from adults.

The information shared here is based on research shared in ‘The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder’ by R. Branstetter (2014).

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