Return to the Roots:
5 ways to improve your child’s executive functioning skills
Written by: Lauren Williams, MS, CCC-SLP
What is executive functioning? When working with children in speech therapy, I have to remember the foundations of language and learning. Language skills do not exist in a vacuum. They are a piece of the whole child.
In the article, Executive Function Skills in School-Age Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Association With Language Abilities, Weismer (et al.) compared executive functioning skills in children diagnosed with Autism and those typically developing. They looked at the core executive function skills – inhibition, task shifting and working memory. These skills are critical for executive function.
Inhibition is the ability to suppress attention. We may often get distracted by a shiny object and our ability to inhibit our attention to that shiny object is critical to our attention to the more important task. Task shifting is the ability to switch between mental tasks and states. This skill helps children to talk to their parent while stacking blocks. The ability to maintain two activities at once is due to task shifting. Working memory and updating working memory is the ability to integrate new information into our current working memory. We are able to add to our existing grocery list, once we learn snacks are needed for soccer on Saturday.
These skills combine to support higher-level executive function skills like planning, problem-solving, organization, reasoning.
Weismer’s research revealed the children with an Autism diagnosis (ASD) showed lower scores on both updated working memory tasks and task-shifting tasks. When social communication differences were controlled, there were no significant differences in performance between the typically developing group and ASD groups, possibly indicating that autism symptoms are related to these executive functioning components.
So, what is the impact and relationship of social skills on executive functioning skills? It is so interesting that these appear to go hand in hand.
My takeaways: Children’s language abilities do not exist in isolation. When setting up treatment tasks, take the child’s executive functioning skills into account. Add in working memory activities and encourage each child to task shift. Change treatment up mid-stream to encourage the children to adapt and problem solve. This may be a challenging, but we can do hard things. Provide supports, such as removing distractions, when teaching a new skill or assessing abilities to increase the child’s interest and attention.
If something grabs a child’s attention, they may need additional sensory input and support as well. When targeting higher-level EF skills such as problem-solving or 2-step directions, remember to return to the smaller EF skills, such as task-shifting. The child may need to build upon those simpler skills first.
What to do at home: Does your child appear to struggle with executive functioning tasks such as inhibition, task shifting and working memory? Does your child appear to have difficulty taking turns, remembering information or attending to task? This is something to think about, that maybe the child is not performing the task well because of EF skills rather than because of the actual language skill being targeted. Also, when it comes to behavior management, maybe the child has difficulty transitioning to a new task because of a deficit in inhibition or shifting.
5 ways to increase executive functioning at home:
- Grocery Challenge – When in the grocery store, give your child the list and have them mark off once items are collected. Another challenge – When on a specific aisle, in a particular section, like crackers, ask your child to find what’s on your list, like “find the fishy crackers you like.” This will encourage inhibition and task shifting.
- Play Memory – Memory is a great game for children to work on the base level executive functioning skills. Can you remember where the matching pictures are to win?
- Color coding – When playing with all the toys in the house, encourage your child to sort and put away toys once finished. Color coding buckets will encourage your child to categorize and sort items to put all the animals, puzzles and art supplies away.
- Visual Schedule – A visual schedule can help support our kiddos as they work to plan through the day. It is helpful to anticipate what is next and prepare their mind and emotions for the next activity. Use simple pictures to walk through the day, including meal times, dress times, school, park, bathtime, etc.
- Following directions – It is so important to encourage independence in our children and one way to do that is by increasing responsibility by following directions. “Go get your shoes and put your lunch in your bag.” With this direction children are working to stay attentive, focused, process 3 pieces of information and complete the task. This is hard for kiddos, but works to increase their executive functioning!
What other questions do you have? Call our office at 864-244-3474 and schedule to meet with one of our speech therapy experts.
Read the full article:
Weismer, S. E., Kaushanskaya, M., Larson, C., Mathée, J., & Bolt, D. (2018, November 8). Executive Function Skills in School-Age Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Association With Language Abilities. Retrieved from https://pubs.asha.org/doi/10.1044/2018_JSLHR-L-RSAUT-18-0026#