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Executive Functioning: Beyond the Basics for School-based SLPs

Executive Functioning: Beyond the Basics for School-based SLPs
Victoria Bondurant, MS, CCC-SLP, Joseph Walsh, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP
April 23, 2024

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Editor's Note: This text is a transcript of the course Executive Functioning: Beyond the Basics for School-based SLPs presented by Victoria Bondurant, MS, CCC-SLP and Joseph Walsh, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Identify 2-3 ways that emerging executive function skills impact the social and academic worlds of students.
  • List at least three key behaviors that indicate the need for EF intervention.
  • Describe how to apply advanced principles and strategies to scaffold EF development.

Who We Are

John and I are SLPs at The Howard School, an independent K-12 institution in Atlanta that serves about 300 children with language-based learning differences and disabilities, such as dyslexia. Executive Function (EF) has emerged as a school-wide priority due to its potential to comprehensively support our student population across various intervention areas. We dedicate significant time to working with and discussing EF with our students.


This course will address four key points, which might seem minimal, but they're substantial. First, we will look at what executive functioning entails and why it's significant to us. While we presented a course a couple of years ago that extensively covered the background and theory of executive functioning (Course 10193), this course focuses primarily on interventions. We'll explore strategies for collaborating with students to achieve both social and academic objectives.

If you want a deeper understanding of the theoretical aspects, our previous course provides ample information. Therefore, some of the information included at the start of this course is primarily for reference purposes. 

Executive Functioning (EF)

What It Is

Executive functioning is defined in various ways by different researchers, often in lengthy and technical terms that can be difficult to remember. However, we simplify it for our students, teachers, and parents at our school. Executive functioning essentially refers to the mental processes your brain engages in to complete tasks. It's "what your brain is doing when you're getting stuff done." Whether it's preparing a presentation, studying for exams, working on articulation goals, or even mundane activities like holiday shopping or house cleaning, your brain undergoes a series of cognitive processes to accomplish these tasks. All these mental activities fall within the realm of executive functioning.

What It Is Not

Executive functioning is NOT the cause of learning disabilities. It is not a conscious choice about whether or not to use those skills. It is not the same thing as intelligence, and it is not a fad. In education and speech pathology, there are occasional fads where certain topics receive temporary attention before fading away, only to resurface years later.  We strongly believe that discussions on executive functioning will significantly influence the future of our field. By engaging in these conversations now, we can maintain a focus on the specific needs of our students and clients.

George McCloskey, among the researchers we value, has contributed substantially to our knowledge base and professional practices. His quote, "Disuse through non-conscious choice," underscores the point that our students aren't intentionally disengaging. They're not waking up and deciding not to be flexible that day. Understanding this is crucial, especially when patience wears thin at the end of the year or semester. Recognizing that these challenges are not voluntary choices can guide us in providing the necessary support, just as we would with any other aspect of education. This approach aligns with how we address difficulties in the classroom at our school, a perspective that is widely acknowledged.

Learning Versus Producing

Again, referencing George McCloskey, our Venn diagram (See Handout, page 10) illustrates a crucial concept: the intersection of learning and production difficulties. This overlap typically indicates a learning disability, where a student struggles both academically and in producing work. These challenges often manifest as missing assignments, failing grades, and behavioral issues in the classroom, serving as clear signals for educators to explore potential learning and production disabilities through testing.

On the periphery, however, are learning difficulties that may not be immediately identified as learning disabilities. Many of us have encountered stories where individuals, perhaps in their 40s, are surprised when their children are diagnosed with conditions like dyslexia, prompting them to reflect, "I think I had dyslexia too." These individuals may have had sufficient executive functioning skills to compensate for their challenges, allowing them to overcome difficulties in the classroom without their condition being flagged or recognized as a formal learning disability. While it's possible for these challenges to be identified as learning disabilities, it's not always the case.

On the flip side, there are students who have production difficulties, which are often mistakenly attributed to a lack of motivation or character. They might be labeled as lazy or disinterested because, academically, they appear competent in completing tasks in the classroom. However, their executive functioning skills may not be fully developed, leading to challenges despite their academic abilities.

At our school, we primarily serve students in the middle of this spectrum, easily identifiable as having a learning disability. Consequently, a significant amount of our time is dedicated to addressing executive functioning. However, it's essential to remember that executive functioning is often impacted by language components. As SLPs, we all work with language, so part of our role involves not only developing students' executive functioning skills but also enhancing their language skills simultaneously. This dual focus is fundamental to our profession.

A Model for the Executive Functions

The Howard's School EF Model

We have adapted an executive functioning model (See Handout, page 12) from Dawson and Miller, which our school uses. It encompasses 10 domains.

Various models of executive functioning exist, including George McCloskey's, which comprises over 30 domains—a vast scope that can be daunting to navigate, even on a good day. However, the model we employ feels highly functional for our purposes. It's designed to be developmental, recognizing that different executive functioning domains emerge at various points in a neurotypical child's development. We understand that this development isn't linear; for instance, response inhibition and emotional control are among the earlier domains to develop, while flexibility, attention, and task initiation follow suit. As students progress into high school and toward the end of adolescence, metacognition and goal-directed persistence begin to emerge. Nevertheless, it's essential to acknowledge that challenges in executive functioning can persist at any stage. For example, even high schoolers may struggle with emotional control. Therefore, we may observe fluctuations or variations in executive functioning abilities along the developmental path.

One unique aspect of our model is that, unlike some other models, we consider working memory and processing speed as moderators for executive functioning. We view these cognitive components as factors that can influence both the effectiveness of executive functioning and the interventions we implement. We'll delve deeper into this topic later.

In the upcoming slides, we'll address two main points. Firstly, we'll discuss how we categorize the 10 domains of executive functioning. Then, we'll provide a comprehensive overview of each domain, offering definitions and examples of what they might entail in both classroom and therapy settings. While I won't cover each individual domain in detail due to time constraints, I'll guide you through the categories we use. You're encouraged to refer back to the handout for more detailed information on each specific domain.

Two Groups of EF Domains

We categorize our 10 executive functioning domains into two groups: self-regulation and execution. Self-regulation involves the ability to pause, reflect, and make decisions that influence or manage behavior. We view this as crucial for adhering to social norms and fulfilling expectations. Breakdowns in self-regulation can hinder the initiation of tasks.

On the other hand, execution pertains to the planning, completion, and reflection on tasks, directly affecting their completion. This aspect enables us to do what's required of us, and breakdowns can occur at any stage of task completion. Our students may experience challenges in both of these domains, but distinguishing between a self-regulation problem versus an execution problem helps us determine the most appropriate interventions.

Self-Regulation. Within the self-regulation category, we focus on four key domains: response inhibition, emotional control, flexibility, and attention. However, we want to issue a word of caution regarding attention. We believe that many types of executive functioning deficits can present themselves as attention issues. When attention difficulties are suspected, it's crucial to delve deeper into the underlying factors.

For instance, there's a model by a researcher (the name escapes me at the moment) that outlines initiating, sustaining, inhibiting, and shifting attention. So, when considering attention, it's essential to ask questions like: Are they initiating attention? Sustaining it? Inhibiting it? Shifting it? We see these as additional domains of executive functioning. 

Therefore, if a child struggles to shift attention to a specific task, is it truly an attention issue, or does it stem from challenges in flexibility and shifting? The same applies to initiation. We perceive these domains as interconnected. 

When we receive feedback from teachers about attention-related issues, it prompts us to investigate further and pinpoint the exact area of breakdown. While there certainly are cases of pure attention challenges, we often find that other executive functioning domains are also at play. Thus, it's critical to identify where the breakdown occurs to tailor interventions effectively.

Execution.  Our next category encompasses the six domains of execution - task initiation, planning, prioritizing, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition. When you consider how these domains are grouped, it really does make sense. While the self-regulation domains focus on regulating behavior and mental state, the execution domains center on how tasks and assignments are approached and tackled.

As mentioned earlier, working memory and processing speed play significant roles in executive functioning. Working memory refers to the brain's capacity to retain and use information in real-time, while processing speed relates to how swiftly or slowly the brain absorbs, processes, and interprets information. Deficiencies in these areas can profoundly impact an individual's ability to effectively use executive functioning skills. Therefore, it's critical to understand the cognitive profiles of our students and make appropriate accommodations when developing executive functioning skills.

For example, if a student struggles with working memory and needs to remember a plan for entering the classroom, it's essential to provide written instructions or reminders that are easily accessible. This way, when they arrive in the classroom, their attention isn't divided between remembering where to sit and recalling the plan. Having the information readily available on their computer or desk can help them quickly establish a routine and strategy, compensating for their specific challenge. We'll discuss interventions in greater detail later.

Here's an example of how working memory and processing speed can manifest in the classroom: Let's say I'm the teacher delivering a lesson on World War II. I begin with, "World War II, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries, including all the great powers, fought as part of two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis." This is a substantial amount of information to process at once.

Students with slower processing speeds might only comprehend the beginning portion of the sentence before losing track or missing the remainder entirely. On the other hand, students with working memory challenges may struggle to retain the details except for the last phrase, "the Allies and the Axis." In any classroom or therapy session, there's a spectrum of processing abilities, with students grasping different portions of the information based on their individual cognitive profiles.

Anxiety connection. At our school, we've been actively discussing the connection between anxiety and executive functioning, as well as working memory and processing speed. A growing body of research looks closely at this relationship, highlighting how underlying anxiety can exacerbate EF deficits.

It's well-established that there's often a comorbidity between learning differences and psychological concerns, particularly anxiety and depression. Therefore, it's logical to assume a connection between anxiety and executive functioning challenges. When the brain perceives a threat, whether real or imagined, the amygdala releases hormones that trigger a "4 F" response: fight, flight, freeze, or fib. This instinctive reaction can lead to impulsive responses or a complete shutdown of cognitive and executive functioning processes. Sometimes, students may not even remember their actions during moments of extreme stress or anxiety.

Consider this scenario: If I read a sentence to you and then release a pack of bees into the room, your focus and memory retention will likely plummet due to heightened anxiety and threat perception. Similarly, many of our students experience significant stress and anxiety upon entering our therapy rooms or classrooms. School can feel overwhelmingly challenging for them, often resembling a genuine threat. This highlights the complex interplay between students' cognitive profiles and their emotional needs, emphasizing the importance of addressing both aspects in our educational approach.

Anxiety connection & COVID In recent years, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a notable increase in research studies examining the prevalence of anxiety in children and adolescents. I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in February, where this topic was a focal point. Meta-analyses of post-pandemic research indicate a rise in anxiety levels among young individuals compared to previous times.

So, what implications does this have for us as educators, teachers, and SLPs? It means that we are encountering students who present with heightened levels of anxiety and potential trauma, which can jeopardize all aspects of their cognitive processes, including executive functioning. For students with language-based learning differences, there's a question of whether they are at an even higher risk. While our personal experiences may suggest this to be the case, only time and further research will provide conclusive answers.

EF in the Social and Academic Realms

I'll discuss executive functioning (EF) in both social and academic contexts, which may be a new perspective for some of you. This discussion is largely based on the work of Tera Sumpter, an SLP from Ohio, who presents three key principles:

  1. EF is essential for speech and language development: As SLPs, this principle should resonate with us intuitively. After all, EF skills play a crucial role in various aspects of language acquisition and communication.

  2. Generalization or carryover of skills requires good EF: This principle addresses a common challenge in speech-language pathology—why some children may excel in therapy sessions but struggle to apply those skills in real-world situations, especially academically.

  3. Pragmatic development is more dependent on EF than linguistic structures: In the social realm, EF plays a critical role in pragmatic language skills.

“1. EF is necessary for speech & language development”

The first principle states that EF is necessary for speech and language development, spanning both social and academic contexts. In social settings, EF is important for developing social pragmatics. Consider three examples: emotional control, response inhibition, and flexibility, drawn from our EF model.

Within social interactions, emotional control enables individuals to manage their reactions appropriately, aligning with societal norms. For instance, maintaining composure rather than reacting impulsively is often expected in school environments, underscoring the importance of sound emotional control. That is an EF that is necessary for pragmatic development. 

Another example is response inhibition. Not every thought needs to be verbalized, which is important for social success. In social settings, there's often a need to go with the flow, even if you don't fully agree with everything your friends say or do. This flexibility is critical for maintaining relationships. These examples highlight self-regulation executive functions, forming a constellation of EF skills essential for social development.

Academic development is another important aspect and depends on the mastery of executive functions. Consider the following examples: as students progress through schooling, they must balance multiple academic demands alongside extracurricular activities. This requires proper planning and prioritizing skills. Moreover, students set goals and work towards achieving them, demonstrating goal-directed persistence. Additionally, they adapt their approaches to suit different assignments or situations and learn from past mistakes, applying metacognitive skills. These examples underscore how speech and language skills emerge through the development of executive functioning.

“2. Generalization or carryover of skills requires EF.”

Why do children struggle to generalize what they've learned in a therapy room? This challenge is evident in both academic and social settings. Students may ask themselves, "How do I know when to apply a specific skill?" "How do I know what skill to apply in a given context?" "How do I know what behavior is expected of me?" A very significant EF demand is to know what's expected among a group of peers and what will make them stand out negatively, especially in adolescence. 

“3. Pragmatic development depends more on EF than on linguistic structures.”

This holds true not only in the social realm but also in academics. It's important to remember that pragmatics is part of language, encompassing more than just semantics and syntax. It involves how we interact and create expectations of our actions.

Students demonstrate greater success when they can infer and interpret non-literal language, a clear metacognitive demand. Students are also more successful when they can understand what is implied but left unsaid. That's flexibility, and it can be frustrating for us to wait for it to emerge.

Moreover, students excel when they understand the underlying communication beyond literal words, which is another metacognitive skill. Additionally, students are successful when they can relate current discussions to their broader world knowledge and contexts and recognize connections to previous learning experiences from other classes, home, or online sources.

Be Sure About What You Assume

When planning an intervention targeting executive functioning skills with a student, it's critical to recognize two potential pathways. You must make a selection between them. Your intervention can either be developmental or compensatory. So, a developmental intervention operates on the assumption that through time and deliberate practice, the skill can be strengthened. This approach enables the student to internalize their approach to the skill, grasp the intervention, and eventually apply it independently without our assistance. On the other hand, a compensatory intervention acknowledges the need for a permanent workaround for the student to adapt. This involves employing external mediation, where the student utilizes a workaround along with accompanying strategies to compensate for the deficiency. Thus, the distinction lies between developmental and compensatory interventions. These will be described in further detail when we address interventions. 

EF Development in the Social Realm

In the realm of social development, executive functioning (EF) plays a more significant role in our students' pragmatic growth than previously assumed. EF and language are intricately linked through pragmatics. To further discuss EF development in the social sphere, let's consider three perspectives. 

First, social interaction and the development of pragmatics require effective self-regulation of EFs. We've already touched upon some aspects of this, but there are additional considerations to note. For instance, the ability to maintain focus and sustained attention on others is a critical self-regulation EF contributing to social success. Inhibiting certain impulses during conversation, such as refraining from verbalizing every thought, is another vital aspect. Additionally, emotional control fosters predictability, which is highly valued, especially among younger children seeking friendships. Acting predictably improves the likelihood of forming and maintaining social connections and friendships.

This, again, is related to self-regulation EFs. Children with some EF deficits may make poor decisions when choosing friends.  It's a familiar scenario where certain children seem drawn to peers who may not be the best influence on them. Often, these kids are not well-regulated, and their attraction to similarly unregulated peers can lead to disastrous outcomes. This pattern is particularly seen among younger children who may find those with EF deficits, such as high impulsivity, fun to be with but ultimately detrimental to their social well-being.

Children facing EF challenges often gravitate towards younger peers when choosing friends. They become the "older" friend within the dynamic. This trend is observable among students in our school, where seniors with specific EF needs frequently form close bonds with freshmen or eighth graders. This pattern has been consistently noted over the years and is a common occurrence in our school.

There are also students who naturally gravitate towards adults rather than their peers, especially those who may struggle to connect easily with others their own age but exhibit social maturity beyond their years. This represents another aspect of social dynamics.

Victoria discussed how processing speed, working memory, and anxiety are called modifying variables in social interactions. While we don't categorize these as executive functions per se, they do impact the ability to engage in banter and maintain the rapid back-and-forth exchanges typical of social interactions.  For instance, a small group of students engrossed in discussing a TV show may swiftly exchange trivia and insights from the latest episode, making connections with past episodes and related topics. However, students with challenges in processing speed, working memory, or anxiety may struggle to keep pace with such conversations, leading to feelings of exclusion.

Social Skills and EF Deficits

Here are a couple more examples to illustrate the connection between executive functions and social interactions. Response inhibition, a self-regulation executive function, plays a significant role in recognizing when a joke has reached its conclusion. We've all encountered individuals who continue to tell a joke long after it's lost its humor, which demonstrates a lack of response inhibition. This ability is essential in social settings where understanding social cues is so important.

Additionally, consider the aspect of treating others' belongings with respect. While occasionally borrowing a friend's belongings might be acceptable, it's important to know when that's appropriate. Similarly, exercising emotional control is essential, particularly when being teased by friends or acquaintances. Being able to handle such situations without becoming overly upset shows emotional maturity and an ability to maintain social connections. For example, you want to play a video game much longer than your friend wants to.  You have the flexibility to stop playing and attend to your friend's needs. 

Furthermore, attentional abilities play a huge role in social interactions. This includes focusing on conversational interaction, resisting the urge to change topics too abruptly, and shifting attention to accommodate new friends or activities.

The execution EFs are also significant in understanding social interactions. There is no clear-cut distinction between self-regulation for social matters and execution for academic pursuits. Your metacognitive abilities may determine whether you learn from mistakes in social situations, such as misunderstandings with friends. Similarly, your goal-directed persistence (GDP) plays an important role in making wise choices in friendships. Additionally, the organization of your thoughts, especially in language, can impact your ability to recount events in a linear order, which is essential in resolving social conflicts.

Consider a scenario where you find yourself in trouble, and the principal requests a detailed account of what happened. If you have difficulty sequencing events, that's a significant social issue. 

Example of a Major Social-Skills EF Constellation

As adults, there's a skill essential for interactions that I refer to as "reading the room." When you enter a room, you have to quickly assess who to talk to and what topics to discuss, all while ensuring you don't stand out inappropriately. Some individuals, both kids and adults, struggle with understanding what's expected of them in different contexts. Here, metacognition, goal-directed persistence, shifting in flexibility, and response inhibition all come into play.

You need to quickly gauge past experiences to understand what behaviors have been appropriate and what's expected in the current situation. This requires strong metacognitive skills. Additionally, you may have a particular intention of what you want from the interaction. That demonstrates goal-directed persistence. If a joke falls flat, you must be able to adjust your approach— that's shifting in flexibility. Initiating conversations and choosing appropriate remarks, especially regarding sensitive topics like politics, require quick decision-making and response inhibition.

Social Pragmatics in the Academic Realm

Let's discuss the academic domain a bit more. While it may seem more obvious, the understanding of the academic impacts of EF deficits isn't necessarily better. Throughout this course, we've seen how EF deficits affect academic performance. However, what's often overlooked are the social effects within the academic realm. 

Consider the frustration teachers face when trying to coordinate group projects where students must collaborate to achieve a specific goal. Science fairs are classic examples of this. As adults, we know that the professional world frequently demands these collaborative skills for success. So, why not teach them with students?

Particular social roles emerge in group assignments. You have the failed leader, the individual who laments, "I had to do everything, and no one else did anything." Every group project seems to have such a person. Then there's the grumpy outsider who claims, "No one would let me do anything."

There's also the whirlwind, sometimes labeled as an active learner who believes in diving right in without planning, which can be fatal to many group projects. Another character is the dissenter, who pleads, "Please don't make me work with that group. Can I work on my own in the hallway?"

There's the tech junkie who spends most of their time formatting the presentation without necessarily contributing in other ways. And then there's the outsider who just wants to be left alone.

Addressing failures in assignments like these may be the most needed intervention for job readiness. All of these scenarios involve skills like flexibility, response inhibition, planning and prioritizing, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition, among others.

When Is It an Executive Functioning Deficit?

While it's commonly assumed that self-regulation difficulties affect social success and execution difficulties hinder academic success, the reality is far more complex. These issues are highly multifactorial and don't fit neatly into such dichotomies. However, there are numerous factors to consider regarding the impact of EF deficits on these aspects, which are not always fully recognized.

What Does It Look Like When EF Is Not Working?

When executive functioning isn't working as it should, and you're trying to discern the root cause of a student's lack of success, there are three key indicators to consider. These include inconsistency in performance, developmental variability, or strain in both social and academic domains. 

Effective metacognition, when fully developed, can signify academic mastery, as it is used to maintain consistent performance. Inconsistency, on the other hand, poses numerous challenges, not only in forming friendships but also in collaborating on projects. Therefore, be attentive to signs of inconsistency, as they may indicate an executive functioning deficit.

Another indicator to consider is developmental variability. Children's development is a mosaic of skills rather than a linear progression where one skill is mastered before moving on to the next. It's not as straightforward as saying, "First, you develop emotional control, and then you develop response inhibition." Kids constantly find themselves at different stages with various skills. Some skills may be proficient and well-established, while others are still emerging or haven't developed at all. This variability applies across all EF domains. 

In the adult world, individuals with EF deficits face significant challenges because there's an expectation to have all ten domains of executive functioning fully functional and effective all the time, despite the reality being quite different for most of us. For instance, using a planning tool or a calendar app on your phone acknowledges that your planning and prioritizing skills need some support. 

Additionally, production deficits, such as lapsed or nonexistent friendships, conspicuous self-regulation concerns, and standing apart from peers, are all manifestations of social strain. These issues can also intertwine with academic challenges.

Principles of Interventions

Before moving on to interventions, it's important to acknowledge that there's no definitive playbook for linking specific executive functions to particular interventions. As we navigate this territory, we find ourselves charting new territory and relying heavily on intuition and experience as SLPs to guide our intervention development and selection. While evidence-based practices are desirable, they may not always be readily available.

In developing interventions, we believe there are overarching principles, guidelines, or rules that can assist in their creation, regardless of the setting. Specifically, we have identified five key principles that we find particularly helpful.

  1. EF should be directly instructed (and cannot be imposed). You don't get to say, "Well, you're a high school junior. You should have learned to control yourself by now." Direct instruction rather than a blunt expectation is an important consideration.
  2. Direct instruction of EF can be based on any content. You can push these things into any classroom.
  3. EF skills emerge in social contexts, and I believe we have made a case for that already.  
  4. Effective EF requires and fosters higher self-awareness. Good, solid metacognition is a result of effective EF.
  5. EF development requires students to process experiences in language. It's the classic "use-your-words" scenario.

EF Should Be Directly Instructed (and Cannot Be Imposed)

Let's look at each principle in more detail, starting with the first one. Essentially, the notion of expecting high school students to possess certain skills already, like keeping a schedule, organizing materials, or paying better attention without direct instruction, is flawed. It's particularly frustrating when educators adopt this mindset, especially regarding getting started on time. For a student who hasn't mastered these skills well into high school, direct instruction is imperative; you can't simply impose expectations. 

We can't rely on the assumption that students have absorbed these skills through osmosis. Instead, we must teach them directly and systematically, gradually relinquishing control as they demonstrate mastery of strategies and skills. We directly instruct EF skills.

Direct Instruction of EF Can Be Based On Any Content

In our work environment, Victoria and I are continuously exploring how to integrate academic content with EF skill development. We emphasize instruction and scaffolding rather than imposing demands and expectations, as mentioned in the previous principle. We firmly believe that any curriculum encountered by students in the classroom is more effective than using decontextualized treatment materials. Providing context is essential for promoting skill development in naturalistic settings, which is one of our primary objectives. Consequently, we design assignments with specific EF targets in mind.

At our school, collaboration with teachers is key. We sit down together to discuss their content goals and how we can integrate EF goals into the curriculum. Sometimes, we start with EF goals and then tailor the content accordingly.

EF Skills Emerge in Social Contexts

Facilitating EF development requires situational awareness, similar to reading the room and adapting to the social environment. It's about fulfilling the expectations within a given context, which leads to better social connectedness. Finding, creating, and keeping social relationships requires EF practice and competence, especially with metacognition. 

Effective EF Requires (and Fosters) Higher Self-Awareness

The ultimate reward for mastering EF skills is self-awareness, which involves constant reflection. At our school, we integrate a reflection component into nearly every assignment to help develop students' metacognitive skills. This allows for the use of language to mediate between skills and situations. Self-talk is a tool for self-regulation. 

Our approach emphasizes the creation and utilization of resources rather than relying solely on authority figures. We want students to internalize the locus of control, particularly during developmental stages. When done effectively, self-awareness continues to develop by building those EF skills.  It's a self-reinforcing cycle.

EF Development Requires Students to Process Experiences in Language

This is an important goal for development. You are expected to use your words (i.e., language), not emotions, to process experiences. Self-talk is an intervention strategy that interprets experience and guides responses to it. (We will discuss self-talk as an intervention in further detail later.) Another strategy implemented at our school is to have a common language that is used across school ages for naming and analyzing similar things. We'll provide some examples of that shortly.

What Can We Do?

Academic Interventions

Here is a list of academic interventions for EF as a point of reference:

  • Direct EF Instruction
  • Self-Assessment (with Goals Bank)
  • “Use Your Words” (verbal reasoning)
  • Workspace Routines
  • Brain Breaks (e.g., SPARK)
  • Common School Language
  • Common Templates and Rubrics
  • Provide Sentence Starters
  • Reflective Questioning
  • Checklists, rubrics
  • Work with teachers to develop classroom routines
  • Developing Self-Talk scripts
  • Assistive Technology
  • Develop Common Language around routines
  • Common templates for graphic organizers and the like
  • Goal-setting (esp. SMART goals)
  • Plan backward, execute forwards
  • Reflections on learning processes
    • Including instruction in the language of Metacognitive reflection

We'll now look at some of the key strategies we implement at our school. The remainder of our discussion will focus on exploring these selected approaches in more detail.

Social Interventions

The list of social interventions is comparatively shorter. As mentioned earlier, the recognition of the connection between EF and social development is a relatively recent realization that we are still actively exploring. Therefore, the number of social interventions is more limited in scope at this time.

  • Social autopsy
  • Reflective thinking and questioning
  • “Size of the problem”
  • Self-talk strategies
  • Prospective visualization
  • Lunch bunches
  • Goals banks

It's important to acknowledge that all the interventions we'll discuss are most effective in children with intact working memory, processing speed, and some ability to reflect. Many of these interventions rely on language mediation, which poses challenges for students with language learning differences, such as those we work with at our school. Consequently, these students are at a distinct disadvantage. 

There is a significant need to address the EF difficulties and social-emotional development of executive functions in students with language learning differences. This area needs to be explored because there is currently limited published evidence-based research available. Sharing and collaborating within your professional networks can help you navigate and address these challenges effectively.

Things to Remember

As adults, we often have solutions to problems, but these solutions can be hidden and obscure to children. The challenge lies in making these solutions visible and transparent to them. How do we demystify our reasoning processes for children? How do we cultivate a shared culture of understanding? This involves grounding our approaches in direct instruction and encouraging student self-assessment. Additionally, using assistive technology as a partner can be instrumental in supporting students' learning.

Repetition is key. It's impossible to predict how long it will take for a student to internalize a skill, so persistence is crucial. Giving up too soon on reinforcing routines is a common mistake that we must avoid.

 Academic Interventions

Because students are with us for a limited time—perhaps a year or two, or even across the four years of high school, which, admittedly, is a fortunate and lengthy period in education—we may not always witness the full benefits and outcomes of the interventions and efforts we implement. As Joe mentioned, some aspects of development take time to fully manifest. We see growth but not the end results. 

And that can be hard, right? We want to see their progress and celebrate successes with our students. However, with executive functioning in particular, improvement may extend beyond our time with them. But, hold onto the understanding that these students will eventually experience success, even if we're not there to witness it firsthand. Ultimately, their achievements are what truly matter.

Visible Thinking: Routines

Routines play a significant role in executive functioning, as they help to make our thought processes "visible" — this is our ultimate goal. When there are working memory impairments, particularly in the context of language disorders, routines become invaluable. Again, when mental energy is limited, routines allow individuals to conserve energy for other tasks. So, the purpose of implementing routines is to build awareness and expectations.

This involves integrating routines into daily and weekly schedules, as well as creating and reinforcing routines for approaching assignments and initiating tasks. These routines are similar to "thinking routines," a concept often associated with Project Zero, which I believe uses that language.

This poster (See Handout, page 65) hangs from the math teacher's door at our school. He was at his wit's end, trying to start class every day. As soon as the students entered the room and the door closed, it seemed like everything fell apart: someone needed to use the bathroom, another didn't have a calculator, one had a dead laptop, someone else forgot a pencil, and others were missing paper. To solve this chaos, we collaborated to create a simple routine, which a talented colleague visualized in an attractive poster that he kept on his desk.

Some days, he displayed the poster prominently at the front of the classroom; other times, it was distributed among the students' desks or posted around the room for those who needed a quick reminder. This strategy significantly improved the beginning of class for him. While it wasn't perfect, it brought much-needed consistency, helping him achieve a smoother start to the day.

Additionally, this approach reduced the likelihood of misbehavior. The time between classes can be a breeding ground for disruptive activities, as students often struggle with what to do. This routine helped minimize those issues, creating a more orderly transition and reducing the chances of trouble.

Visible Thinking: Checklists, Rubrics and Organizers

We rely heavily on checklists, rubrics, and organizers. The goal is to help students understand the steps needed to complete their assignments effectively. By providing these tools, we can demonstrate what a finished product should look like and break down the assignment process. Our message to the students is, "This is how you can achieve success with this task." By using these aids, we make our thought process "visible" to them.

For example, with essay or paragraph organizers, we offer clear, consistent guidelines and provide prompts, sentence starters, and vocabulary that are familiar to the students. This structure helps them build skills to follow multi-step processes and complex instructions. We require the use of paragraph organizers for every writing assignment, ensuring a standardized approach. I'll share a sample of one of these organizers shortly.

We use a standardized rubric across all classes, ensuring consistency for every assignment. This approach helps students because they're not encountering a new grading system each time. When they receive the rubric, they immediately understand how to read it, where to find feedback, and what each component means. Many rubrics can be overly complicated, which confuses students and hinders their ability to extract valuable information. By using a common rubric for every assignment, we provide clarity, allowing students to focus on what matters most: their progress and areas for improvement.

Additionally, with a unified rubric, we can add reflective activities to help students understand their successes and how to replicate them in the future. We'll discuss these scaffolding techniques later on. We also find checklists useful for breaking down tasks into simple, manageable steps, whether it's step one, step two, step three, or a comprehensive list of required items. This structured approach makes it easier for students to navigate their work and stay organized.

Here's an example of a paragraph organizer we commonly use (See Handout, pg 67). This is a basic, single-paragraph structure that incorporates the familiar language of "main idea," "details," and "conclusion." For every writing assignment, we distribute a paragraph organizer to guide students through the process. Additionally, we offer sentence starters and prompting questions tailored to each student's needs. This flexible support allows students to focus on their ideas while having a reliable framework to work from.

We also scaffold these tools based on grade level and proficiency. By the time our students are seniors, we expect them to take more initiative in completing their paragraph organizers. This means they have learned to craft their own sentences and can expand on their thoughts without as much guidance from the sentence starters. This gradual reduction in scaffolding helps them build independence and prepare for the challenges they'll face beyond our classrooms.

At our school, teachers use the same paragraph organizer to build complete essays, which has proven to be a valuable resource. One of my most memorable moments as a teacher was during a parent-teacher conference, where a student mentioned, "Oh yeah, I use this paragraph organizer in every class." I was overwhelmed with pride because the consistency had made a tangible impact on the student's writing success. The student now had a visual guide that not only helped them organize their paragraphs but also understand the underlying structure. This clarity opened the door for more meaningful discussions about the purpose behind each part of a paragraph, which is the essence of effective writing.

Here's an example of another paragraph organizer (See Handout, pg 68)—an approach I introduced to fifth graders—that has become standard practice throughout middle school and into high school. This common language has significantly improved students' writing skills over the years.

Over the years, we've been able to introduce these organizational strategies to younger grades, ensuring that students develop consistency early on. This is a highly scaffolded paragraph organizer we're using with students to help them assess their own executive functioning and then write about it. For our seniors, this was a straightforward task—they could fill out paragraphs with minimal guidance. However, our freshmen needed more support, so their organizers were closer to "fill-in-the-blank" exercises. This approach allowed us to model how to reflect on an idea and then write about it in a structured way.

A colleague at our school refers to these scaffolded tools as providing students with a "running start." It's like the starting block in a race, giving them the initial push they need to get going instead of starting from scratch. This metaphor resonates with our approach to teaching: by giving students a running start, we help them build confidence and momentum, making it easier for them to engage in the learning process. This way, they can focus on expressing their ideas and understanding the concepts without being overwhelmed by the process itself.

Self-Talk Strategies

Self-talk strategies are a core practice at our school. Essentially, this involves putting into words a routine or a set of steps to follow to achieve better outcomes, especially in challenging situations. Self-talk strategies are a core practice at our school. Essentially, this involves articulating a routine or a set of steps to follow to achieve better outcomes, especially in challenging situations. For example, we often use self-talk with students who experience anxiety in specific contexts. Part of my role involves working with fifth graders, so I have observed that many of them feel anxious when they are given math problems they can't immediately solve. Teaching these children how to talk themselves through anxiety helps them navigate the stress and reach a better mental state. In some cases, this involves providing them with a simple script they can use when they need reassurance.

Self-talk is a way to use language to guide oneself through a challenging situation. It is based on the concept of building on past successes and encouraging students to replicate those experiences when faced with stress or uncertainty. Over time, children learn to apply these strategies independently as you gradually reduce your support. This process is closely tied to metacognitive reflection, allowing students to evaluate their thoughts and emotions and determine the best way to respond to them. Teaching self-talk can be incredibly beneficial for our students.

Shared Culture: Common Language

We've talked about common language, which is using the same words and terms across classes, grades, schools, etc in order to build consistency and reinforcement. 

  • Same language for the same routines, processes, and expectations across the school
  • No need to re-learn each class or each year
  • Consistent reinforcement across the board
  • Reinforces self-talk
  • Ultimately, builds automaticity

Assistive Technology

Assistive technology might not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it can play a critical role in helping students manage their responsibilities and improve their performance. Tools like agendas, homework apps, and calendar applications on your tablet, phone, or computer can be invaluable for keeping organized. I rely heavily on my Notes app for various lists—laundry, groceries, shopping, gifts, you name it. It helps me stay on track and manage my day-to-day tasks.

A more innovative use of assistive technology is text-to-speech, which has been particularly helpful for our more impulsive students. Impulsivity doesn't just manifest as disruptive behavior in the classroom—it can also impact test-taking. I once worked with a student who I knew had the knowledge to do well on a test, but he scored in the 60s. Afterward, I asked his teacher if I could re-administer the test with him, focusing on slowing down the process. I read the questions and answers, preventing him from rushing to respond. Despite his initial eagerness to jump to a quick answer, by pacing him and allowing him time to think, he scored in the 80s. 

This technique—using a human reader or assistive technology with text-to-speech—can slow down impulsive students, giving them the time they need to think critically. It also provides them with an opportunity to work independently, which fosters a sense of control over their learning. This strategy is worth exploring, considering how technology is integrated into students' lives. By harnessing these tools, we can support their skill-building and encourage better habits.


Let's talk about reflections, a critical component of our approach to education. Reflections involve examining what worked, what didn't, and what we can do differently next time. This approach shifts the focus from the final product to the learning process. Reflections can occur after an event or as part of a continuous self-assessment routine. We ask students to complete written or video reflections for every assignment they submit, and we include metacognitive sections in our assessments.

One of our teachers incorporates reflections into his final exams. Students submit artifacts and discuss various study methods they used to prepare for their math test. After taking the test, they must reflect on the effectiveness of those methods, and 15% of the final grade is based on the reflection. This approach is an excellent way to encourage deeper thinking and assess learning strategies.

Rubrics can also lead to reflections by providing specific feedback that students can analyze and discuss. This process allows them to identify areas for improvement and understand the rationale behind their grades. Additionally, we conduct student-led conferences and maintain learning portfolios throughout the year.

Social Autopsy

Social autopsy is a fascinating tool that I enjoy using with students. It's about dissecting a social incident by working backward from the outcome and retracing the steps that led to it. I usually draw this process out on the board to make it visually clear. For example, let's say two students are arguing at lunch, and one suddenly slaps the other. To them, it feels like it went from point A to point B with no other options in between.

By walking backward through each step, we can uncover what led to the incident. What happened just before the slap? What events or words triggered the escalation? Once we identify those steps, we can start to reimagine the situation with different choices at each point. Maybe they could have walked away, called a teacher, or used other de-escalation techniques. By the end of the process, we rewrite the story with a new, more positive ending that includes these better choices.

This exercise helps students understand where they have autonomy and how slowing down can make a difference in their reactions. It's incredibly rewarding to see students recognize that they have more control over situations than they initially thought. If you'd like more examples, feel free to email me—I have plenty of stories to share.

Size of the Problem

The concept of "size of the problem" helps children gauge the severity of a situation and recognize when their reactions are disproportionate to the actual issue. It encourages them to use self-talk scripts and reflect on what went wrong, considering how they could have handled the situation differently. This technique promotes emotional regulation by reminding kids that not every problem requires a big reaction.

It's important to clarify that we're not psychologists or counselors, and we don't intend to cross into that professional territory. However, we are fortunate to work closely with our counseling team to develop language scripts tailored to the age and language proficiency of our students. These scripts guide students on how to respond appropriately to various situations and support the work being done by our counseling professionals.

"EF Quick Strategy List" 

This year, we developed a quick reference guide for executive function (EF) strategies (See Handout, pg 82-84) to help teachers at our school. We believe this resource is useful in various settings, whether you're working in a therapy room or providing in-class support. If you have strong collaborative relationships with your teaching colleagues, integrating some of these strategies could be beneficial.

The guide is designed to be straightforward and accessible. It divides strategies into two main categories: self-regulation and execution. It's just a simple one-to-three-page document listing a variety of effective strategies that educators can implement to support students' executive function skills.

Questions and Answers

Which intervention is most appropriate for social success? There seems to be some overlap.

Yeah, there's a lot of overlap. First, you need to determine where the breakdown is. Social autopsy is really good for figuring that out. You also need to be able to assign that breakdown to a category, right? What domain of executive functioning might be compromised that leads to that particular breakdown? So, it's not a simple mapping. It's not a one-on-one sort of thing. It's going to be a combination of approaches, clinical intuition, and applying principles. That's why we spent so much time on them to figure out what sorts of approaches you can come up with independently. There's no playbook.

Can you address how executive function overlaps with autism?

There's a whole range of severities and types, but students with autism most often present with executive functioning deficits. The ones that we recognize most readily are those that affect the social realm. I would say that metacognition is one area that's going to be most impaired in many individuals with autism because it involves perspective-taking and a theory of mind that may not be fully developed.  Flexibility is another one that we think about and associate with autism.

References - See handout for a complete list of references.


Bondurant, V. & Walsh, J. (2024). Executive functioning: beyond the basics for school-based SLPs. SpeechPathology.com. Article 20661. Available at www.speechpathology.com


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victoria bondurant

Victoria Bondurant, MS, CCC-SLP

Victoria Bondurant (MS CCC-SLP) is a Speech-Language Pathologist at The Howard School in Atlanta, Georgia. This is her 8th year working in the high school serving students with language-based learning disabilities. She holds a M.S. in Communications Sciences & Disorders from Georgia State University and a BSEd in Communications Sciences & Disorders from the University of Georgia.

joseph walsh

Joseph Walsh, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP

Joseph Walsh, MS, MEd, CCC-SLP is returning from a sabbatical year working with people with cognitive disabilities through the L'Arche Cork Community in the Republic of Ireland. He has served for over a dozen years as a speech-language pathologist at The Howard School in Atlanta, following time in the public schools and a decade as a biology and philosophy teacher in an independent high school.

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This course builds on course 10193, “Executive Functioning: Intervention Principles and Strategies for School-Based SLPs,” and extends participants' knowledge base to encompass more advanced concepts and approaches for scaffolding executive function (EF). Specifically, behaviors that signal a need for intervention and strategies that target social and academic impacts of EF difficulties are described.

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