Executive Functioning Skills for Lifelong Success


Demarco Gets it Together

It was February of his Freshman year in high school that Demarco finally decided that he had to get his act together if he was going to graduate. Demarco had always just gotten by at school. In elementary school, teachers let him wander around more, work at work stations, do projects, and although they emphasized planning and organization, it wasn't like he was the only student in elementary school who forgot things, didn't turn in homework on time, and whose desk was disorganized. But, when he started middle school, everything seemed to change. First, there were a lot of transitions to make, going from one class to the next, sitting in classes listening to lectures and doing seat work, and being expected to do and turn in a lot of homework!

For most of middle school, Demarco was able to keep up and overcome these issues just because of his smarts. But, he became more anxious about transitioning from one class to the next, lost too many points because he turned in homework late, and had a harder time keeping up with coursework.

When he transitioned to high school, everything seemed to get just that much worse. He was excited about being in high school and he loved that he had more autonomy and could choose courses he wanted to take. Plus, he was an avid sports fan and reveled in the high school sport scene. He had some difficulty making friends, but he knew enough other students from elementary school and middle school that he did have a social group he

could hang with. He mostly enjoyed hanging with other students who liked computers and gaming.

But, throughout middle school his grades had declined and after his first semester in high school, his grades were the worst he had earned. He'd taken a challenging set of classes, but the memorization demands and the planning and organizational requirements were just more than he seemed to be able to meet. Soon after the beginning of his second semester, his special education support teacher sat him down to talk about his grades. Her suggestion was that he should work on some planning, organization, goal-setting, and scheduling skills. Demarco agreed that those were what was holding him back from succeeding. Together, he and his teacher designed a plan of study to enable him to learn some organizational and planning skills, to better self-manage the process of keeping to his class schedule and making transitions, and to learn some time management skills to help him structure his homework and study time.

A lot of young people like Demarco have the capacity to be successful in school, but lack skills like organization, planning, time management, and memorization. These are referred to as executive functioning skills and are the focus of this chapter.

Executive Functioning

In the previous chapter, we discussed strategies and interventions to promote self-determination and autonomous motivation. A closely related topic relates to promoting executive functioning. Executive functioning skills are those skills related to "organization, planning, and control of action" that provide "the cognitive and behavioral skills critical for goal-oriented behavior" (Dai & Eigsti, 2018, p. 68). Dai and Eigsti identified several overarching processes involved in executive functioning: inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, fluency, and planning (p. 68).

A focus on executive functioning skills is important in the education of learners with ASD because such skills are frequently identified as areas of impairment or instructional need. A recent meta-analysis of studies of executive functioning skills of children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder established relative impairments (when compared to children and adolescents without autism) in working memory (verbal and spatial), flexibility, planning, and inhibition (Lai et al., 2017). Executive functioning skills involve higher-order cognitive processes typically situated in the frontal lobes of the brain, and impairments in these areas lead many researchers and scientists to situate the cause of autism as stemming from such impairments (Bishop, 1993; South, Ozonoff, & McMahon, 2007). Be that as it may, in this text we're interested in how teachers can intervene to reduce the impact of such limitations through efforts to promote skills like executive functioning skills. To better understand how some of these executive functioning impairments impact learning for students with autism spectrum disorder, we briefly discuss each of the processes identified by Dai and Eigsti (2018).

Inhibition, or behavioral inhibition, refers to "the process of suppressing behavior which is premature, undesirable, or . . . leads to negative consequences" (Hlavata, Kasparek, Linhartova, Oslejskova, & Bares, 2018, p. 44). The lack of behavioral inhibition is one factor associated with impulsivity and is a common issue described for young people with autism. A lack of inhibition and impulse control contributes to perceptions of problem behavior; lashing out when a young person is angry, running toward a busy street, or constantly interrupting others all may be more a function of a lack of inhibition and impulse control than of any real intent to misbehave.

Working memory refers to "the ability to temporarily store and manipulate information" (Dai & Eigsti, 2018, p. 68). We use working memory for a great many common, day-to-day tasks, from briefly remembering a phone number to call to keeping a partial sum in mind as part of adding up costs for a few items at a convenience store. Working memory is important for executive functions, particularly for "making sense of a continually changing environment" (Dai & Eigsti, 2018, pp. 68-69). Again, as noted, Lai and colleagues (2017) found that children and adolescents with autism had impairments in verbal working memory (the temporary storage and manipulation of verbal information) and spatial (or visual/non-verbal) working memory (temporary storage and manipulation of images or spatial information).

Cognitive flexibility involves the ability to "selectively switch between mental processes to generate appropriate behavioral responses" (Dajani & Uddin, 2015, p. 571). One element of cognitive flexibility is task switching (sometimes called set shifting), defined as "the ability to update a planned action in response to external cues" (Dai & Eigsti, 2018, p. 69). We've all had experiences where we start off to do one task or activity, and have to shift gears in the middle of that task to do another task that will, in turn, help us complete the first task. Being able to shift or switch from one task to another is a form of cognitive flexibility. In addition, being able to take another's perspective is another form of cognitive flexibility; one switches from thinking about a problem or issue from one's own perspective to that of another. Fluency, identified by Dai and Eigsti as a component of executive functioning, is usually thought of as another component of cognitive flexibility and is related to one's ability to generate multiple options, identify multiple features, or identify additional or multiple strategies to solve problems and complete tasks. This is often also referred to as creativity.

Finally, planning is an important element of executive functioning. Planning involves "the orchestration of diverse and interdependent cognitive and motivational processes that are influenced by context and that are brought together in the service of reaching a goal" (Friedman & Scholnick, 1997, p. 3). An important element of planning is that it involves action toward a goal. Planning involves future-oriented thinking, using past experiences to guide future action, and identifying steps needed to reach a pre-determined goal.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when considering how to improve the executive functioning skills of young people with ASD. First, although impairments in all of these elements (inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, fluency, and planning) have been identified as experienced by young people with ASD, that does not mean every young person will have difficulty in all of these areas. Like all young people, each adolescent with ASD will have a unique set of strengths and limitations that co-occur. Second, all of these elements are teachable; that is, you can improve all aspects of executive functioning by the instruction you provide and how you organize the context. So, let's look now at how to improve executive functioning skills.

Promoting Executive Functioning Skills

If you return to the definition of executive functioning we cited previously, you'll have figured out that the key to promoting executive functioning skills is to teach students the "cognitive and behavioral skills critical for goal-oriented behavior" (Dai & Eigsti, 2018, p. 68). What are some of those skills? We talked about some of them when we discussed promoting self-determination; these include decision-making, problem-solving, goalsetting and attainment, planning and organizing, self-regulation, and selfmanagement skills. In the following sections, we discuss instructional strategies to promote each of these and improve executive functioning.

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

When describing the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction in Chapter 3, we identified it as a model of teaching derived from theory in self-determination, the process of self-regulated problem solving, and research on student-directed learning. Each instructional phase of the SDLMI poses a problem the student solves (What is my goal? What is my plan? What have I learned?), and the Student Questions in each phase represent identical steps in the problem-solving sequence: (1) identify the problem, (2) identify potential solutions to the problem, (3) identify barriers to solving the problem, and (4) identify consequences of each solution.

Let's go back just a step to define what we mean by a problem. Solving a problem means that you are faced with a situation or circumstance that presents a dilemma (the problem) for which there are solutions of which you are not aware and need to determine. The most widely adopted model for instruction to promote problem solving was introduced by D'Zurilla and Goldfried (1979) and included five steps that have been refined slightly over the years:

  • 1. Problem orientation: A student's beliefs and orientation toward the problem-solving task.
  • 2. Problem definition and formulation: Precisely defining the problem and gathering information about the problem.
  • 3. Ceneration of alternative solutions: Using information from the previous step, coming up with possible solutions to the problem.
  • 4. Decision making: Identifying the best possible solution from those generated.
  • 5. Solution implementation and evaluation: Trying the selected solution and evaluating its effectiveness or revising the solution as needed (D'Zurilla, Nezu, & Maydeu-Olivares, 2004, pp. 14-15).

Children develop positive problem orientations as they try and succeed at solving problems, so it is important that instruction to teach problem-solving begins with a problem a student can solve! Generally, problem-solving skills develop in the late elementary and early secondary years (Shogren & Wehmeyer, 2017) and in high school the focus shifts to infusing choice-making and problem-solving into the decision-making process (which we'll discuss next). But, if adolescents with autism have not had the opportunity to learn how to solve problems, educators will need to provide instruction to support those activities. Research has shown, for example, that adolescents with autism are less autonomous than adolescents with other disabilities (learning disability, intellectual disability) (Chou, Wehmeyer, Palmer, & Lee, 2017). And because one way that a young person learns to solve problems is by encountering the myriad of small and large problems that are associated with being out in the community, navigating environments and so forth, the lack of such opportunities for many young people with ASD may impact and limit the development of problem-solving skills.

To teach the remaining steps in the problem-solving sequence, Benjamin (1996) proposed instructional steps that teach students how to think about problems they encounter in school. These are:

  • 1. Understand: Using role playing and simulated problem activities. Students learn to gather information about the problem, to analyze the situation, and to discretely define the problem to be solved.
  • 2. Plan and Solve: Students are taught to think about options to solve the problem, either by solutions they generate or by seeking out information that will enable them to generate solutions.
  • 3. Check: Implement the solution that best fits the problem and implement that solution, checking to see if the problem is resolved.
  • 4. Review: Work with students to identify other situations in which the same or similar solutions could be applicable.

Younger children and adolescents with limited problem-solving experiences tend to be more global in their attribution of the problem. That is, they tend to ascribe the problem to broader, perhaps emotionally laden meanings or definitions. For example, a young adolescent whose parents prohibit the student from going to a movie alone late at night may attribute the problem to the fact that his parents are mean or unfair. Whether true or not, such a global attribution of the problem doesn't provide much utility for problem resolution. The problem is that the young person wants to see the movie, but his parents have said no to him going alone. The problem to focus on is not parental dispositions or characteristics, but how to see the movie. Perhaps the parents would allow the student to go with a friend or an older sibling. Perhaps the student could go alone at another theater or at another showing time. So, teachers need to support students to refine the problem they identify to actual, solvable problems.

Second, meaningfulness matters in teaching problem-solving skills (Wehmeyer & Zhao, in press). That is, keeping in mind what we talked about in Chapter 3, students will be more motivated to solve problems that are relevant to them. There are plenty of real-world problems that are important to young people that they will care about solving and, thus, care about learning the steps. And keep in mind that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process is replete with problems to solve, and actively involving students in addressing those problems will have the mutual benefit of not only teaching problem-solving skills, but promoting student involvement and self-determination.

Many of the problems young people encounter are in the form of social problems. Social problem-solving involves problems that occur as a result of interactions with other people. Such problems are frequent and may pose particular difficulty for young people with autism, who may have difficulty picking up on the social and emotional cues that are involved in social interactions (Bacon, Fein, Morris, Waterhouse, & Allen, 1998; Travis, Sigman, & Ruskin, 2001). As such, it is important when teaching problem-solving skills to include instruction on interpersonal problemsolving skills that include social skills to enable young people to solve social problems. Bernard-Opitz, Sriram, and Nakhoda-Sapuan (2001) showed that such efforts can be effective to teach social problem-solving skills to young people with ASD. They developed a computer program that presented videos of people experiencing social conflicts, and then used those videos to guide students with ASD to generate alternative solutions to the problem. After students generated solutions, a video of the actors resolving the problem was presented and students discussed how that fit with the alternatives they had generated.

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