The Connection Between Executive Function and Social Communication Skills
By Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP
Much has been written and discussed in recent years about Executive Function (EF) challenges faced by students diagnosed with a language-based learning disability (LBLD). Also in the forefront are conversations amongst educators, speech/language pathologists (SLPs), and neuropsychologists about interventions for students with social communication disorders (SCD). I have been privy to many of these discussions, and have read countless articles on these topics. But my “real education” comes from my over 25 years of working with children and adolescents with both EF deficits and SCD. Current research supports the notion that social communication skills can be impacted by EF deficits.
Cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift one’s thinking, is a component of EF. Consider the fast-paced nature of a social interaction that is filled with both verbal and non-verbal information. If a person has difficulty with cognitive flexibility, then social interactions may be compromised.
John (not his real name) is a student who teachers often refer to as “bright and readily shares his insights with his classmates”. However, teachers also describe him as “rigid and inflexible”. He performs best with structure and predictable routines. John has been diagnosed with a LBLD, EF deficits, and a SCD. There are certain topics that John can provide a wealth of information about. He may come across as a “know it all” and does not recognize when others are disinterested. When a teacher or a peer provides an alternate view to his own, John may become argumentative. He often perseverates on his line of thinking and cannot shift gears. A student like John often perceives situations as black and white; he does not see the “gray.”
This is an overly simplified example of a quite complex dynamic. Ultimately, we need to provide support with both executive function skills and social communication skills. Rather than reacting in frustration to a “difficult” exchange, I encourage educators and parents to take a proactive approach. STRATEGIES (be sure to use specific language and provide clear expectations):
- Teach cognitive flexibility and problem solving
“I understand that you didn’t edit your essay because I had asked you to make corrections in red and you didn’t have a red pen. What is one thing you could have done to get your homework done?” Help the student generate some possible solutions (e.g., borrow a red pen, use a different color pen and email the teacher about it, etc.). Use opportunities like these to teach/model problem solving. (Identify Problem->Generate 2-3 Possible Solutions->Consider Consequences->Make a Choice->Create a Plan)
- Acknowledge, then redirect; avoid getting into a debate
“I know you want to keep talking about _____, but we have to move on.” “I know you are trying to be helpful, but Tim didn’t ask for your help.” “I know it bothers you that Jane is out of dress code, but you don’t need to comment on it. The adults will handle it.”
- Tell the student how his words or actions make you/classmates feel
“I’m feeling frustrated because you’re not following my instructions?” “Jane felt embarrassed when you said she was out of dress code in front of everyone.”
- Alert the student when there are going to be changes in the routine
“Tomorrow Mrs. Gross will be teaching this class so that I can attend a conference. She will collect your homework and help you edit your composition drafts.” “Friday’s class is going to be shortened due to an extended recess so we won’t be doing our usual warm-up activity.”
- Identify and discuss the “gray”; not everything is “black and white” “I know that it’s officially springtime according to the calendar, but it is 30 degrees outside, so we need to wear our winter coats.”
To learn more about Linda Gross's work, check out the following links:
- Social Communication Skills booklet
- Advance Healthcare Network for Speech & Hearing - "Language Therapy in Schools"
- Landmark School Outreach - "Scripting Difficult Conversations"
Linda Gross, M.A., CCC-SLP – Landmark High School Speech-Language Pathologist/Consultant and Landmark Outreach Program Adjunct Faculty