Executive Functions and Speech-Language Therapy – Part 3

By Rachel Betzen, M.A., CCC/SLP

Note: This is the third part of a 4 part series. Start at Executive Function – Part 1

R head shotAs children enter the higher elementary grades and middle school, there is a shift that happens as they begin to take more responsibility for their education. Students in third through grade are expected to have learned to read, as they are required more and more to read to learn. At Dallas Reading and Language Services, our junior high and high school students are expected to analyze and explain concepts with a much larger emphasis on essay answers and written composition.

Children who have language delays or disorders are more at risk for experiencing learning challenges. We can help our students understand that they are smart, even though their weaknesses may make learning harder now. Our children benefit from figuring out how they best learn through the therapy process. Becoming independent learners is all about building the foundation of skills our students need, and helping them structure their learning in a way that makes sense for their strengths and learning modality.

Language is the basic foundation for individual growth and academic success, particularly written language. Children who are below grade level with decoding skills will have a much harder time learning independently. Reading is a precursor of academic success; we need to make it a priority to help these kids become independent decoders.

As we look at skills which are supported across all main executive functions, we need to help children build a strong foundation for each area. Our therapists explain to our students and their parents what areas we plan to target and how we think this will make learning easier for them. After introducing a skill area we plan to target, we help the children identify how we will help them practice needed skills during therapy.

Executive functions are the beginning of meeting one’s full potential, because these skills help people to accomplish difficult and complex tasks with the determination not to give up, even when faced with many challenges.

The Executive Functions

  1. Response Inhibition
  2. Organization
  3. Task Initiation
  4. Working Memory
  5. Emotional Control
  6. Flexibility
  7. Sustained Attention
  8. Time Management
  9. Planning/Prioritization
  10. Goal-Directed Persistence
  11. Metacognition

Response Inhibition:  The ability to think before one acts and to delay or stop impulsive responses.

Children who exhibit impairments with this executive function tend to be very active and impulsive, and the goal is to have them inhibit responses that get them in trouble or interfere with learning. At Dallas Reading and Language Services we have had some success with helping students monitor their sustained attention, and then praise them for bringing their attention back to task. This area also applies for pragmatic skills as we want children to respond, rather than react to, social situations. Teaching them to pause and reconnect with breath has been helpful for our student’s behaviors, so they can inhibit a negative response that may get them into trouble.

When there are behavior issues or a lot of impulsivity, our therapists teach the child a skill that needs to be replaced, and help the child practice in multiple contexts. Increased supervision may be needed, and cues for controlling impulses are helpful. Immediate reinforcement of new skills is really important.

Organization Ability to design and maintain a system for keeping track of information, and creating and using templates that make learning easier and more concrete.

Students struggling with this executive function need more than an organized backpack or homework folder. When kids struggle with learning, we need to help them understand how to structure information. Our students benefit from sentence structure organization for understanding important details through asking “wh” questions (who, what, when, where, why) and use of the structure words. They better understand the main idea with the structure given for who? Did what? And what happened?

Each week we will look at one or two areas of executive functions and how to help children become independent learners by teaching needed skills and giving them tools to improve each area.

Note: Proceed to the “Executive Function – Part 4