The ‘executive brain’ in teens

courtesy of Loren Swanson • Dr. David Walsh discussed executive function and what it means for managing one’s behavior at the Roseville Area Optimist Club’s Dec. 8 meeting.

Speaking to members and guests of the Roseville Area Optimist club on Dec. 8, psychologist and author Dr. David Walsh said executive function is the hottest topic in education today. 

He was talking about the ability to manage one’s own behavior — for a child, teen or adult — and about delayed gratification. 

Started a year ago, the Roseville Area Optimist Club meets once a month in order to bring people together for networking and to learn from speakers, as well as to combat negativity.

Walsh is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the topic of executive function and his talk was peppered with anecdotes to make his point. He told about asking his mother for a treat when the Good Humor ice cream man was driving around his neighborhood on a hot summer day when he was a child. His mother would say “No.”

“The lesson from Mom: ‘It’s not good to always get what you want,’” Walsh said. His mother was surrounded by a culture that was comfortable saying “no.” But he said today’s culture more often says “yes.”

He talked about the famous marshmallow experiment where 4-year-olds were put in a room, given a marshmallow and told they could eat it, but if they waited until the tester returned to the room, they would receive a second marshmallow. 

One child was eating his before the tester left the room — another waited 20 minutes until the tester came back. Studies showed the children who waited tended to have better life outcomes — that self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of success and character as is intelligence, Walsh explained.

He told about a time he watched a man shopping at Target with his young son. The child wanted a candy bar. The father said “no,” but the child put up a fuss until the father gave in.

Then the child wanted a second bar and persisted until the father gave in, once more. For the third candy bar, the child upped the ante to the point where everyone in the store could hear him, and the father gave in again. Walsh said that child learned that “no” doesn’t mean “no,” but means “escalate” to get your way.

Walsh said he has talked to many teachers who believe the ability to handle delayed gratification has declined in recent years. Previously, parents would work together and support each other to say “no.” That’s harder to do now.

Why is that? Walsh investigated and found the levels of stress many children and teens experience nowadays is higher, sometimes due to neglect, homelessness, drugs, a death in the family or domestic violence.

“While our brains are very good about managing a little stress,” he explained, “when the brain is subject to a lot of stress over an extended period of time, it causes damage to the part of the brain that controls delayed gratification as well as honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, generosity and citizenship ... and the risk of misbehavior, and even suicide, goes up.”

Walsh said in the last 30 to 35 years, with the advent of MRI machines and CT scans and other technology, much has been learned about the brain, including the effects of stress and sleep deprivation on it. Sleep clears out the brain, but the average teen sleeps two and a half fewer hours than they should. Things are not trending in the right direction.

“Walsh was really an excellent speaker to captivate the audience for 50 minutes, without so much as one index card to keep the structure of his talk,” said Optimist Club member Zola Burns. “That’s passion, practice, professionalism and commitment all rolled together and shared with us. I think the audience really enjoyed his presentation.”

Member Loren Swanson added, “Walsh has a unique way of explaining the philosophy, psychology and the rationale in understanding how children learn and develop, and what motivates them to do the things they do.”

The Roseville Area Optimist Club meets from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on the second Friday of each month at the Roseville Radisson Hotel at 2540 Cleveland Ave. Lunch is served for $20. The meetings are open to the public but reservations are required. For more information contact Burns at 651-604-3145 or

– Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or 651-748-7818.

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