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What are Executive Functioning Skills and How does it Impact Communication?

Executive functioning skills are the steps that enable us to successfully plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and take on multiple tasks. Executive functioning skills facilitate the behaviors that are needed to plan and achieve goals. These skills are key to a child’s growth and learning ability and have a direct effect on a child's language skills. In order to use and understand language, we rely on executive functioning skills to help us in these significant areas:

  • Adaptable Thinking - The ability to be flexible regarding other points of view when playing or collaborating, and understand implied meaning when reading or listening to someone.

  • Planning and Organization - These help us communicate in a clear and concise way. A child’s ability to think about the future, create a plan of action, and prioritize the different working parts is a strong sign of cognitive development.

  • Time Management - concerns a child's ability to use time efficiently to complete tasks.

  • Working Memory - Working memory involves a child’s ability to retain and store learned information and then later put it to use. This skill is crucial to a child’s success in the classroom, as it is responsible for short-term memory and execution. This allows us to hold information in our minds while communicating, reading, or interacting. For example, when having a conversation we use it to follow what the conversation partner is saying and remember what we want to say while we wait for our turn to speak.

  • Self Control - The ability to control our behavior in order to respect personal space and avoid behaviors like interrupting. Self-control addresses a child’s ability to restrain from physical or emotional outbursts. Impulse control keeps a child from reacting or acting without thinking, while emotional control helps a child to maintain emotions within the boundaries of social expectations and resist the urge to overreact or withdraw due to criticism or obstacles.

  • Self-Monitoring - The ability to pay attention to our behavior and modify it when necessary.

  • Problem Solving - This goes hand in hand with self control and self monitoring. Problem solving skills involve the ability to identify and describe a problem and generate solutions to fix it.

Executive functioning skills such as self-monitoring, emotional regulation, and impulse control help a child adjust their behavior depending on the situation (e.g., playing with friends).

Let’s take a look at how executive functioning skills and language skills work together.

Receptive Language

Receptive language refers to what a child understands. In order to understand what is heard or read, a child needs to remain attentive even while distractors are present and use their working memory to retain important details and information. Flexible thinking helps a child make predictions and inferences, as well as use context clues such as synonyms, antonyms, and examples to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words. Self-monitoring allows a child to stay on track and ensure he understands what he’s listening to or reading.

Difficulties with these executive functioning skills, may result in difficulties with tasks like following directions, reading comprehension, and following or participating in a conversation.

Expressive Language

Expressive language refers to what a child can communicate. Tasks such as retelling a story or completing a writing assignment or project rely on executive functioning skills. A child needs to use planning, organizing, and working memory to communicate the information in a cohesive way. Self-monitoring helps a child to attend to an activity and modify a message if it is not being communicated effectively.

Children who struggle with executive functioning skills may have trouble sequencing/retelling events or completing a series of steps in a sequential and clear manner.

Pragmatic Language

Pragmatic language refers to how a child uses their language socially. Self-monitoring, emotional regulation and impulse control help a child adjust behavior depending on the situation (active during outside recess, calm inside the classroom, and matching a reaction to the size of a problem), identify when his actions are bothering others, and engage in cooperative play. Flexible thinking allows a child to see things from another’s perspective and feel open to other points of view. Working memory affects the ability to participate in conversations and activities. Problem solving skills allow children to identify where a communication breakdown has taken place and identify possible solutions.

Children who struggle with executive functioning skills may appear to have difficulty initiating and maintaining a conversation. These children may also have difficulty recognizing and understanding nonverbal cues, be emotionally reactive, and make inappropriate comments.

Understanding a child’s executive functioning abilities helps parents, teachers, and other professionals develop effective strategies to help a child succeed to the best of their ability in all environments.

If you think your child may have executive functioning difficulties and you think they may benefit from seeing one of our speech-language pathologists, please feel free to contact us.

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