How to Help Your Child Gain Social Success Via Executive Functioning Skills

Tired of working on social skills and feeling like it’s not clicking? Stuck in a rut? Maybe it’s time to consider what else might be impacting you or your child’s ability to take his/her hard-earned skills and use them (successfully!) in everyday life. I frequently hear frustration with regard to the rate of progress or difficulty applying a new strategy.

How to Help Your Child Gain Social Success Via Executive Functioning Skills

“My child has been working really hard on conversational skills, but when he meets new people outside of the house, he still only talks about _____ (preferred special interest).” Or, “I want to have friends, but nothing is working…”

You and your child are working so hard, so what’s the barrier to success? More often than not, once someone understands a skill and can apply it in a structured setting, it’s not purely a skill deficit that’s halting the ability to demonstrate the skill. As you know, your child is complex, and other variables are at play…anxiety, sensory overload, and/or executive functioning. Building executive functioning skills can help bridge the gap between a therapy session and everyday life, as well as reduce anxiety and help your child prepare for sensory overload.

 Executive functioning encompasses the skills necessary to plan, organize, and carry out a goal, such as a reciprocal conversation with a classmate. When a strategy (or social skill) turns into a goal, executive functioning skills are what promote (or prevent) it from happening. Here are some tips to improve your executive functioning skills to better prepare for social success:

Figure out what’s important, and go get it

Don’t waste time working on things that your child doesn’t care about. If you are struggling to convey to your child why a goal is important, help connect it to his/her priorities. For example, the thought, “I’m lonely…” and the skills goal, “Thinking about other people in conversation.” ARE RELATED. Writing down experiences/feelings and goals can help demonstrate this connection.

Strong conversation skills reflect executive functioning skills

Your child’s ability to carry on a conversation is more than just asking questions. Strong social communication requires synchronization of several skills, including reading body language, timing, attending to the topic, considering other’s perspectives, and managing impulses (the list goes on!). In order to do this effectively, you have to be able to carry out a plan and think about your goals within a Most conversational skills are best taught when utilizing your child’s natural strengths (curiosity? attention to detail? etc.) and gradually moving from direct support/small setting (practice with a parent at home) into a more independent setting/more people (talking about how you can practice a new skill when a friend comes over for a play date). Encourage independence, but prepare for the nuances!

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Use concrete strategies to define gray areas

Using 1-5 scales, social behavior maps, and thought bubbles are a few tools to help coach executive functioning and social regulation in conversation. A conversation straying from, “Do you have any homework?” to “Let me describe to you in detail what I’m doing in Minecraft right now” feels blatantly off-topic to the listener.

You may encourage your child to rate how relevant the inclusion of Minecraft was using a scale (1 = irrelevant, 5 = highly relevant), or encourage him/her to take perspective (“What do you think I thought when I asked you about homework, and you started talking about Minecraft?”), or use it as an opportunity to problem solve (“I wonder what would be a more expected response to that question?”).

Create a (realistic) practice plan

Ask for help. Sit down with your child, and generate a plan (and then hold your child accountable!). Post it somewhere visible, like your bathroom mirror. Set reminders on your child’s phone. The more refined your child’s executive functioning skills become, the more independent we want that system to be. Make practice part of your routine, and commit to working on it regularly.

For example, if your child is working on morning greetings, you might try to post it in 2-3 locations, set a reminder to go off with his/her alarm, and/or pair an incentive with remembering the skill without a verbal parent reminder. This process will require consistent practice and LOTS of repetition (with increasingly less support). It takes time for new skills, like a spontaneous morning greeting, to feel comfortable to your child and require less effort.

Celebrate your victories! Learn from your mistakes

Our social world is a tricky one. When you notice your child is actively trying a new skill, praise his/her courage! Provide encouragement be making providing observations about how your child’s actions are positively impacting those around him/her. Mistakes are part of the experience (sometimes there is nothing harder than watching your child struggle!).

A failed social interaction is an opportunity to learn a new hidden rule – encourage your child to be curious. People who are able to stop and flexibly consider what led to the breakdown can rebound and better approach that opportunity in the future. When an emotional response rules the moment, an opportunity is gone, and the mistake is more likely to repeat itself.

Find your team

It’s nice to know people who are working on similar goals. I decided to run a marathon; I joined a running group; I had a kid, I joined a parenting group. If your child is working on social goals, find a support group (or skills group). Shared experiences can be a great opportunity to pick up more tips, and if your child is lucky, to build some friendships. Scheduled meet-ups with people who are aware of our goals help hold us accountable.

 Developing executive functioning skills is essential for being able to carry out the skills your child worked so hard on during therapy. As parents, it’s important to focus on strategies related to the big picture, not just addressing isolated skills. It’s time to consider what roadblocks might be preventing your child from reaching his/her goals, and what steps might help overcome them. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” It’s time to help your child make his/her goals happen!

This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism


Mallory Griffith

Mallory Griffith is a speech-language pathologist living and working in Fort Collins, CO. In her office, she primarily works with people on the spectrum, coaching social communications skills. Mallory has co-authored two books with her colleague and friend, Rachel Bédard, PhD, including Raising a Child on the Autism Spectrum: Insights from Parents to Parents, and, You’ve Got This!: The Journey from Middle School to College, as told by Students on the Autism Spectrum and Their Parents. For more information visit my website.

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