Teaching Executive Function Skills in Speech

Executive Function Skills in Speech

Executive functioning sounds like the ability to put on business attire, adopt a serious expression and bustle about productively. What it really means is the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks.  The three ability areas generally grouped together—working memory, flexible thinking and self-control/regulation—are what are responsible for staying organized, paying attention, regulating emotions and self-monitoring (Understood.org). Addressing executive functioning skills in the speech room happens when we work on social thinking skills, processing speed and the ability to explain their ideas and thoughts.

Sequencing Skills

It seems like all of my little people with language goals are working on sequencing.  Often this means sequencing a story like those boxes of 3-6 step story cards address.  Sometimes it means talking about procedures—how to do something.

Activities you can use in the therapy room to work on sequences are:

  • Acting out a story with puppets, toys or pictured characters.
  • Pretending to be a news anchor and “reporting” on a story. Use the iPad to record and playback!
  • “Reading” a wordless storybook.

Procedure sequences tend to help with temporal concepts like first, second, last, etc. a little more, as well as addressing before and after concepts.

Mastering the skill of sequencing a process demonstrates the ability to organize and order—important concepts for school success and a critical branch of executive function.

Activities that you can use in the therapy room to work on procedures are:

  • Cooking/recipes
  • Schedules and daily routines
  • Science projects—especially chemistry or engineering
  • Art projects

Problem Solving Skills

My little ones also need help with problem solving skills. They look at a task and have trouble initiating or sticking with it until completion. These are also the guys who look at a project or situation and are unable to infer the steps that must have occurred to end at that outcome. They often lack the ability to break the whole down into components, understand the perspective of another person (the creator) or to regulate themselves well enough to duplicate the project.

Combining Sequencing and Problem Solving Skills

I often bring in a simple, completed art project and ask my kiddos to brainstorm the materials we need to complete it and the steps we’ll need to take to replicate the outcome.

As they list the items, I’ll bring them out of a bag.  This allows me to cue with “hmmm,…there’s still a couple of things left in my bag. What else do we need?”  I might also cue with,”so we have the paper for the background, the marker to color this part and the shapes, but how will those shapes stay on the paper?” (glue stick)

Art projects often have an order you need to work in too.  So we’ll list the steps we’re going to take, “cut out the shapes, glue them on, decorate between the shapes.” Engineering/building type projects can also be used this way.

Art has the added bonus of creative license—just the thing for my (less) flexible learners.  Despite what they think, substituting a different color paper or paint or googly eyes for drawn ones, makes for a comparable project.  Cooking allows for some flexibility, engineering sometimes does, chemistry less so.

After the project is over, I can follow up with a written (or dictated) assignment.  This may be listing the steps again to share with a caregiver or might be creating a story with the project providing inspiration.

My students will be creating projects from my Simple Crafts for Problem Solving and Sequencing this fall.  I made sequencing cards and step by step photo directions for each too.  I even planned ahead with lesson suggestions that include books to tie-in, discussion questions, vocab to target and how to set the stage for the lesson.  This kind of blueprint makes life so much more relaxing! And because they’re seasonal, I know I’ll have projects to tie in to the classroom themes.  Click here if you want me to do the heavy lifting for you. Pin the image below if you want to save the ideas.



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The views expressed in this blog are my own and are intended to inspire other speech-language pathologists in their own practice. If you are a parent, teacher or other educator, these ideas are not intended to take the place of treatment by a certified clinician. Read full disclaimer here.