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Executive Functioning

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Executive functioning for your kids on the autism spectrum is incredibly important regardless of their level. Executive functioning is how you decide what to do and what you use to make decisions. If your students don’t have it, it will severely affect their ability to be independent. As special education teachers it’s our job to help them develop this highly important cognitive skill. 

Often we consider executive functioning to be an occupational therapy problem. At least that’s what I’ve been told in multiple meetings, but if our students on the spectrum are going to master executive functioning, everyone on their team has to work towards this important goal. 

When I first learned about executive functioning it was about a speech pathologist, and she was talking about how to teach a student to make lemonade and how to progress those skills to get them to pack their own backpack.

Perhaps because I heard about it from a speech pathologist, is why it always sounds silly to me when I’m told executive functioning isn’t a “SEIT problem” whatever that means.

“Everyone on their team has to work towards this important goal.”

My infinite Wisdom

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Imagine there is a little CEO in your brain, controlling what you do. He is the one in charge of making logical decisions for you and helping you control your behavior. 

That was an explanation I was told to give children but never did because it’s creepy. 

A more professional explanation is that it’s a cognitive process that allows you to control your behavior. Your brain sees stimuli and decides how to respond to that stimuli using executive functioning. 

For example, let’s say you’re writing an essay and you have forgotten details from a book. You need that detail to prove your point. 

Your executive functioning skills help you decide how best to handle that situation. Someone with strong executive functioning skills might choose to look in the book for the details. Another person with weaker executive functioning skills might do something else, like make something up, or choose to push the whole essay away because it’s “stupid.” 

It also helps you remember steps to complete activities, and come up with the logical order of how to do new activities.

As with all my advice, I always say start small so your kid can be successful and pick something motivating. 

When I teach executive functioning we go straight to cooking usually. There’s a natural reward at the end, so who doesn’t love making cookies or lemonade or whatever else your student is allowed to eat that is awesome! 

The first thing I like to do is get pictures of the steps and put them in order. If you can have photos of someone they love doing it or even a video, that also helps a lot. I use a child’s siblings if they’re available.

However don’t let not having the perfect step cards stop you, clip art or photos of you doing the steps works just as well.

Pro Tip: Laminate the cards to make them last. If you need a laminator this isn’t the exact model I use, but it probably works better than my older one. (That is an affiliate link.)

Have your student put them in the correct order. Then have them do the activity. Try to keep the cards out in the right order for reference and have your student dictate the steps. Give them choices if they get stuck. 

Do this a few times, until they don’t need the cards anymore and move on to another activity. 

Slowly as your student exercises their executive functioning skills more, they’ll get more accurate with picking out the next steps.

Often it’s recommended that you give students with executive functioning challenges checklists or mind maps in the classroom to help them remember what to do.

This is okay.

They don’t learn executive functioning skills if they always have a checklist with them. 

However, if it’s preventing them from improving other skills like reading, writing, or math. I give them the checklist as a supplement. 

If your students need checklists for five-paragraph essays check out my mind maps and checklists, which are available for purchase. 

You should never just give students a checklist though. Always plan on giving them interventions in this area as well.

There are several games you can play that help with executive functioning. The big one is chess. There are great websites out there to help kids learn chess.

However, if that’s too advanced any strategy game will do. Checkers is great, as is Clue, Clue Jr, Rush Hour, Headbandz, and more. (Those are affiliate links)

If your student is at the very beginning and first needs to practice learning and improving their working memory before they can learn executive functioning, consider getting them a matching game! 

Teaching executive functioning is arguably the most important thing you can do for your students with special needs. Without it, they’ll need help doing everything from packing a backpack, writing an essay, or deciding on what clothes to wear. 

Make sure to take it slow and be kind and consistent to yourself and your students as you both learn.

It’s also important that your students have a good master of their impulse controls. Check out this blog post on how to teach your students impulse control.

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