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Executive Function Skills & Their Secret Developing Tool

Now that you’ve had the chance to “meet” Laura Koerner, LCPC, we’re very excited to introduce her new blog series with Autism Home Support Services. Each month, she’s going to share her expertise on topics relevant to YOU. We’re so proud to have her on board as an integral part of AHSS with her Family & Individual Counseling Services treating those with anxiety, ADHD, ASD, depression and more – but also as a valuable resource for the autism community and beyond.

 8.10.17 exec function image - pencils.jpgYou may be hearing a lot of talk nowadays about a set of mental skills called “executive function.” These are the skills that facilitate organization, focus, attention, initiating tasks, sustaining tasks, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring. These are the skills that help your kiddos put down their phone to do their homework and help us get out of bed to go to work in the morning.

I wanted to take some time to describe three of these skills, but first I’ll share a secret tool I learned from a mentor about how to develop them from as early an age as possible (ideally 2-3 years old). The secret tool? ASKING QUESTIONS – meaning instead of telling your child to “Hang up your backpack!” seven times (which annoys the both of you), ask “Where does your backpack go?” Instead of saying “Sit up at the table!” ask “How do we sit at the table?”  This is a less confrontational way of cueing our kids that seems less like nagging and more like letting them know you have the confidence that they know the answer and will follow through. 

Now this is a very brief overview of Executive Function skills, but they’re so important in the cognitive development of our kids. There are simple ways you can help develop these skills at home, and it is never too late to start! 

1) Response Inhibition (self-control, inhibitory control)
What it means: Helping kids to delay gratification by using (and following through on) words such as “No”, “Not right now”, “Maybe later”, “In a few minutes,” etc. This can include getting a snack for them, letting them see something, and using an electronic device.
How it helps: Any time you are delaying their gratification for what they want you are doing them a service, even if it is just waiting for a short period. Have you ever read about The Marshmallow Experiment out of Stanford from the 1960s? I highly recommend checking out a version of it on YouTube here:  and reading about the study here:
2) Cognitive Flexibility (flexible thinking)  
What it means: I often see kids who think that there is only one solution to a problem. When that happens I challenge them to think of at least three, even if they are stuck on never following through with any other solution.  
How it helps: The point is to help them understand that there are other options even if they don’t seem viable to them. After all, they do have their own free will to make their own choices, albeit sometimes with negative consequences. When we help our kids see other possibilities, we’re teaching them to become better able to perform academic tasks, be open in social situations, and to handle problems and conflicts in various ways.  
3) Working Memory
teacher highfiving little girl.jpgWhat it means: This is the skill that allows us to hold information in our mind and use it (such as remembering that phone number left on your voicemail so you can call it back in 30 seconds). For your child, it’s also very useful at school when reading a passage and answering the questions below it or learning how to solve a math equation on the board and applying it to the worksheet.
How it helps: Repeating back directions, saying it in their head, and even writing it on a sticky note are all ways to facilitate growth in this area. I often hear parents say their kids can only do one direction at a time – and even that follow-through can be quite frustrating to achieve! Until your child has mastered following one direction at a time (remember, you can use verbal or written), overwhelming them with three and expecting that they will just “get it” simply isn’t going to work.  


 The most important thing to remember is that we need to meet the child where he or she is in these skills – not where a book, a teacher, or a professional says they need to be based off their age. So if a child can only wait two minutes for a snack, we start practicing at two minutes and 15 seconds, not five minutes “like the other kids.” And if he or she can only remember one direction at a time, then we only give them one direction and cue them with the second to build the skill until it is mastered. Mastered means doing it consistently and independently – until that happens they need our help!

In my therapy office, I use a collaborative approach with parents to teach you about these skills and how to develop them. I work with your child/adolescent to learn the skills and the importance of them through multimedia, role-plays, games, art, and hands-on activities. I also work with your child’s school to access appropriate accommodations taking any deficits or challenges into consideration. 

Laura Koerner 2017.pngThrough learning to meet the child where he or she is in these skills – and not where his/her age “says” they should be – progress and growth will follow. Each skill develops differently for each child and many of them build off the others. With education about the skills, practice in building them, and patience and praise for your child’s growth, we can collaboratively develop these important executive functions! 

 Laura M. Koerner, LCPC

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The problem is the problem, not the child. And we can help.


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