Executive Functioning – Part 1

Anyone who has done therapy with me (as a client or co-worker) knows that I have a HUGE passion for the area of executive functioning (EF). I never really knew anything about it until I ended up in an amazing talk at #ASHA10 by Sarah Ward. Now, don’t get me wrong. I had heard about EF, but I had never really understood the who, what and whys of it as it related to my students. Since that #ASHA10 talk, I have consumed everything EF related I can find and have pushed it into every session with my students. And the results have been fantastic! Recently a lot of parents and professionals have wanted more information on my lessons and techniques, as well as a deeper understanding of what exactly EF is – so here we go!

What Is It?

Executive Functioning Skills are theorized to be based in the frontal lobe, acting as part of the executive system. It is a higher order process that involves connecting past experiences to present novel experiences to control and regulate one’s abilities and behaviors. This allows one to anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing situations in order to manage oneself and one’s resources to complete a task and/or achieve a goal.

What Skills Are Considered A Part of “Executive Functioning”?

A few areas (with brief description) that are impacted by difficulties in the area of EF:

  • Inhibition – ability to control impulsivity and stop one’s inappropriate behaviors (Actions and thoughts) at the appropriate time
  • Shift the ability to switch focus between tasks fluidly
  • Emotional Control: controlling emotional reactions based on the reality of a situation
  • Initiation the ability to begin actions in regards to activities or tasks
  • Working memory retaining information while doing something with it. For example: remembering details to complete a task
  • Planning/Organization the ability to plan and organize tasks related to projects (current and future)
  • Organization of Materials: the ability to “see and create” order related to the individual’s areas of domain. Examples: desk, room, backpack
  • Self-Monitoring – the ability to evaluate and monitore one’s own manage time and attention


Who Does It Impact?

Anyone, and at times it feels like everyone! I have had many parents listen to me explain the “what we did and why” of a lesson, only to say “wow, I could have used this lesson too!” Often students with poor EF skills (but strong capabilities for their development!) are intellectually gifted. This means they are often labeled as “lazy” or “lacking motivation”. These terms can be VERY frustrating to parents, who know their child is fully capable, but they just can’t demonstrate their IQ because of their poor EF skills. Poor EF skills also translate into a client’s social behaviors, sometimes resulting in “poor social skills” and/or difficulty using social skills/concepts that have been taught to them. EF difficulties are often observed in clients labeled with Asperger’s, High Functioning Autism, ADHD, ADD and OCD, but are in no way limited to these diagnosis.

What does it look like?

  • This is the student who is unprepared when they get to class – they can’t find their homework papers, a pencil or quite literally ANYTHING inside their backpack.
  • This is the student who cannot control his impulses to touch other’s thing, throw something randomly, speak out of turn, or even lash our verbally and/or physically at perceived injustices.
  • This student has extreme difficulty getting started on a task – whether working independently or in a group setting. Once started they MAY be able to continue and finish, but not always.
  • They begin a project without all of the materials needed and lack the understanding of how their own unpreparedness has created their predicament (often blaming adults or others for the situation).
  • They cannot follow a series of instructions to complete a task. They may forget important steps, become convinced they are incapable of completing the task, or both.
  • They cannot predict how much time it will take to complete a task, cannot monitor the amount of time it is taking them currently, or change their speed to complete a task relative to the speed of those around him.
  • This student may become stuck on one-way to perceive an idea or task, making problem solving and shifting between ideas very difficult for them without significant help and scaffolding.

Over the next few months I will begin posting explainations of what I have learned from the gurus of EF and how I have adapted their geniuses to become an entricle part of my daily therapy sessions.

What would you MOST like to learn about EF over the next few months?

–          Tara Roehl, Speechy Keen SLP

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  1. Are you Functioning Executively? | SLPChat

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