Understanding Impulsive Student Behavior

"Wasn't she a hustler?" belted the student.

"No, Mother Teresa was an extremely kind and caring person who devoted her life to helping others.  That comment was extremely inappropriate. Please step outside, I'll be out to speak to you momentarily " I, as calmly as possible, replied.

Character education in my Earth Science class is important.  Asking the students for an example of an altruistic individual resulted in "Mother Teresa" and as a follow-up I asked "who was mother Teresa" which elicited the above prostitute response.

After I got the activity underway, I cracked the door to address the comment.  I said nothing and received :

"Mr. R, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that.  Sometimes I just shout things- and when I think about what I'm saying, I don't know why I'm saying it.  I'm really sorry."

My response was simple: "take a breath next time, it may give you a chance to think" and since the student was on the brink of tears " and take a moment and collect yourself.  Join you group when you are ready."

Issue resolved and lesson learned.  But wow, the things they say...

Reflecting later about the disturbance, I was confused about what the student said.  Particularly, the part about shouting things before thinking.  We all say things sometimes without thinking and are all prone to impulsive behavior.  But teenagers seem more so.  They have their "act on impulse dial" turned up- any secondary teacher understands this and has grown to accept it.

But why?  Why are teenagers more impulsive?  Is there a psychological explanation?

Of course there is!

The brain, just like all components of the body, works through predictable developmental steps.  The brain is somewhat different because while many (not all) components of the body are developed and functional upon birth, the brain is not.  Said differently, our brain has some developing to do after we are born.  Further, different parts of the brain develop at different times.  We care about two parts: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.

The limbic system, among a variety of other things, drives emotion.  The prefrontal cortex, again among other things, is the core of impulse control and consequence rationalization.

So we have one system, the limbic system, which facilitates emotion driven action on one hand.  On the other hand, we have another system, the prefrontal contex, that 'considers' the future consequences of behavior and action.   One may say that the limbic system is the cause of impulsive behavior and the prefrontal cortex regulates impulsive behavior.  When the limbic system wins, an individual is impulsive.  When the prefrontal cortex wins, the impulsive behavior is kept in check.

In teenagers, the limbic system wins more often than the prefrontal cortex.  Understanding why this occurs brings us back to developmental stages.

The limbic system develops in early adolescence while the prefrontal cortex can develop late into the 20s.  The reason that teenagers act impulsively is because the area of their brain that drives emotional decision making matures sooner than the area of the brain that controls sound judgement. 

There is a maturation disconnect which results in a brain that is highly emotional (limbic) but lacking a mechanism to check and control that hyperactivity (prefrontal cortex).

They literally do things without thinking because that part of the brain that does the 'thinking' is not yet mature.

Educators can use this information in a variety of different ways.  We should not use it to cut our kids a break when they pull a bone-head move.  We can not tell ourselves "Oh, that behavior is OK.  It is not their fault, their limbic system is more mature than their prefrontal cortex."  It is not an excuse.

We can use this information, however, to encourage the development of sound decision making.  Reminding students to stop and breath will give them time to think through a behavior.  Addressing the behavior, not the student (the golden rule of management) also brings to light the consequences of impulsive actions.  Advising students by highlighting consequences while addressing an issue can teach them to be thoughtful.

Assist their prefrontal cortex by presenting behavior consequences and help them make the connection between behavior and aftereffect.  Just like any skill, development comes with practice.

Lots of great resources exist for learning more about this maturation disconnect.  A great place to start is the Scientific American article called Risky Teen Behavior is Driven By an Imbalance in Brain Development. 

Thanks for reading.

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