Executive Function and Socialization

by Ian Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather Smith, M.Ed.

In our last post we gave a basic description of executive function and the ways in which families can generally support its development at home and in life. Children who experience challenges with executive functioning skills often have difficulties that cross all parts of their lives. In this post we will dive into the social/interpersonal implications of executive function deficits and discuss how families can support their children in these specific situations.



There are two primary areas of executive function that impact socialization and interpersonal skills, self-regulation and cognitive flexibility. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotion, behavior, and desire in an effort to achieve a goal. Cognitive flexibility supports people in thinking about two or more concepts or tasks simultaneously as well as a person’s ability to go back and forth between tasks easily. In the realm of social interactions and relationships there are many goals that rely on these skills. Self-regulation and cognitive flexibility both take time and energy to develop. Making friends, participating as a member of a team, playing games, solving problems, compromising, etc. These are all great examples of learned skill sets that have a lasting impact on successful socialization. The trick is understanding that the ability to make friends actually relies on a broad range of skills that are all governed by executive function.

Let’s take a quick look at the basic (not exhaustive) set of skills that one needs to make friends and how self-regulation and cognitive flexibility can impact them.


Impact of Self-Regulation and Cognitive Flexibility

Engage in conversation

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Sounds, objects, and other environmental stimuli grab my attention and I can’t focus on and sustain conversations effectively.

Remember important details about people

Distractability (Self-Regulation): Moving too quickly and missing details means that I don’t remember things about people.

Reading and interpreting non-verbal cues

Distractability (Self-Regulation): I miss important clues about how people are feeling (facial expressions, body language) because I often get distracted by noises or other things around me.


Finding a Middle Ground (Cognitive Flexibility): Finding a middle ground with a friend can be hard because I have a hard time letting go of my expectations.

Problem Solving

Empathy (Cognitive Flexibility): Understanding the perspective of others can be challenging because it is hard to go back and forth between my perspective and their perspective.


Sticking with it (Self-Regulation): When I encounter a problem with a friend, I have a hard time working it out because I want to move on to the next thing.

This table represents just a few of the many skills that go into establishing and maintaining peer relationships. The development of effective executive functioning skills is critical in ensuring the long term social well being of children. The question that we hear from many families is, “What can we do to support our kids in developing these skills?” The simple answer is, “Lots.”

The most effective strategies that we recommend are well articulated by Bonnie Goldsmith who wrote a piece for The National Center for Learning Disabilities titled Social Skills Tips: Help with Executive Dysfunction. In this piece Goldsmith lays out a simple problem solving process to support children in developing the executive skills they will need to be successful.

  1. Get to the root of the problem.

    • Watch the child carefully in many different social situations. This will help you to get a sense of what kinds of struggles exist, in what situations they exist, and how complicated they are.
  2. Develop a good sense of strengths and struggles.

    • When observing, note both. Where are the child’s strengths and where are their struggles. It is important that caregivers be able to refer to and leverage each child’s strengths as they work to improve areas that are challenging.
  3. Engage the child in a conversation.

    • Don’t do the heavy lifting for them. Engage them in a conversation about the problematic behaviors. Ask questions that will guide them in developing strategies and possible solutions.
  4. Partner with the child to develop alternatives.

    • Work together to develop alternative strategies and plans for using those strategies in real social situations.
  5. Practice alternative behaviors with the child.

    • Take time to provide safe, structured opportunities to practice the alternative skills or strategies. Set up role plays and scenarios to work through before expecting the child to apply the skill independently.
  6. Follow up with the child.

    • After the child has an opportunity to practice the alternative skill or strategy on their own, debrief with them. Ask them how it went? What worked? What didn’t work? How can we adjust for next time? How can you support them?

Beyond problem solving, Goldsmith emphasizes the importance of refraining from judgement and being there for your child. Kids look to their caretakers for guidance and support. Judgement can be detrimental especially when a child is struggling with a specific skill or set of skills. Doing our best to refrain from the inclination to value or evaluate a child’s behavior is challenging. We have been taught to say things like, “Good job”, “Way to go”, or “That was not right.” The problem with these statements is that they are value judgements that are vague and often leave the child wondering what they could have done differently and that perhaps there is something wrong with them. Engaging them in a positive, problem solving conversation will help them develop important social skills while fostering a caring and supportive relationship with parents and caregivers.

In our next post we will focus on the topic of feedback before returning to executive function and their place in academic skill development and performance.

Executive Function. What on Earth are these Educators Talking About?

by Ian Kelly and Heather Smith

Executive function is getting a lot of attention in the education community lately. As this terminology and the science behind it seeps into the vernacular of teachers and educational professionals families may feel left out of the party. While we always strive to keep the edu-babble (professional jargon) out of our conversations and communications with families, we sometimes can’t help ourselves. In this post, we define executive function and provide the foundation for a series of posts on this topic. Our hope is to provide adults with a working knowledge of the concept and strategies that will enable them to best support the child’s development of critical executive and metacognitive skills at home and in life.

Although there is debate amongst psychologists, neuroscientists and educators about how executive function should be defined exactly, there is consensus that executive function refers to a person’s ability to plan, execute, and monitor goal-oriented behavior.  Lynn Meltzer (2007) defines it as: “goal setting, planning, organizing, prioritizing, memorizing, initiating, shifting, and self-monitoring” (p.xi) while Moran & Gardner (2007) define it as an intrapersonal combination of “hill, skill, and will” arguing that it is a combination of “metacognition, inhibiting habitual responses, delay of gratification, adjusting to changing rules, and making decisions under uncertain conditions” (p.19). There we go again, edubabble. So what does all of this mean?

Both you and your child engage in executive planning all day, every day. As an adult, you are not always aware of the fact that you are planning and there are times when you are acutely aware of the fact that you are not planning effectively (like when you forgot to pick up milk at the store). For most adults, these executive processes become so ingrained that they are second nature, almost reflexive. If you drive the same route to and from work everyday you may have had the experience of being on “autopilot.” Your cognitive system is so tuned to the route and the routine that you sometimes forget parts of the drive or you take that route even when you don’t mean to. This simple example illustrates the highly tuned and powerful executive skills of adults.


Photo: www.ectutoring.com

Unfortunately for kids, their autoplioting days are a long way off. Fortunately, they can all get there with your support. So, let’s get back to clarifying all of that edubabble we laid out earlier. Simply put, executive function is a network of cognitive skills and strategies that allows us to sustain goal oriented behavior. The process of sustaining that goal oriented behavior requires planning, doing, and assessing. Simple right? Wrong. It’s incredibly complex and it’s the place where most children spend the bulk of their physical, emotional and cognitive resources in learning.

The challenge for the adults trying to support children in developing executive skills lies in trying to remember the challenges of their own learning experiences. The automaticity of mature executive function skills make it easy to forget just how complex the world can be and how long it took to learn and become experts with certain skills. The first step in supporting kids in their development of executive skills is to appreciate the complexity and challenge that children face in learning things that, to us, seem routine (in edubabble this is called cognitive empathy).

The second step that adults can take to support the development of effective executive skills is to embrace, to the extent your sanity or their safety will bear, those questions as opportunities to support the acquisition of these skills. Children ask a million different questions about a million different topics. These questions can become frustrating as, over time, they can begin to feel mundane or unbelievably repetitive. Just try to breathe and remember that they are asking you these questions for a real reason that is meaningful to them.


Photo: www.vccoaching.com

And herein lies the third thing adults can do to support the general development of executive skills in the home and life setting. Barring any immediate safety concern (or that this question might put you over the edge for the day), answer their question with a question. Do this as often as possible. By answering their questions with questions, you force them to think, plan, act, and reflect. Too often we default to providing the answer. The real learning (and acquisition of executive skills) is in the process leading up to the answer. Take the following example of a typical interaction over homework and a modified interaction over homework.

Typical Adult Response:

Child: Mom, I don’t know what to do for my homework. What should I do?

Adult: Well, get out your homework packet and let’s go over it together.

Child: OK. Here it is.

Adult: (Reads over the packet) OK. The packet says that you need to read for 20 minutes. Why don’t you start there.

Modified Adult Response:

Child: Mom, I don’t know what to do for my homework. What should I do?

Adult: Hmmm. That’s a good question. Let’s think about that. What do you think we should do about this?

Child: I don’t know. What am I supposed to do?

Adult: Well, I am not sure either. Where should we start to begin solving this problem?

Child: My homework is in my backpack.

Adult: OK. I am glad to know that it is in your backpack. How will that information help us solve this problem?

While the modified scenario could go on and on, it is meaty enough to substantiate an important difference in the two conversations. In the first conversation the adult provided the answer. They did all of the thinking and all of the planning. In this first scenario, the child was a passive participant in the problem solving process. The second conversation treats the child as an active agent in resolving the day to day challenges they face. Asking the child to consider what they might do to solve the problem forces them to reflect on the problem, process the challenge, and develop potential courses of action to overcome the barrier. Every child can put forward a hypothesis to solve the homework problem. Their approximation of a solution may be way off base and it is our job, through guiding questions, to help them come to a solution that works. In doing so adults are well on their way to developing the executive skills that, as adults, these children will rely on to find success in life, relationships, and careers.

Our next post will focus on the social and interpersonal dimensions of executive function. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.

Failure: An Old Adage for Success

Post by Ian Kelly & Heather L. Brennan Smith (Principal at Lilja School)

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” – J. K. Rowling

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm” – Winston Churchill

Chances are that when you grew up, someone in your life encouraged you to find your own success.  It is also very likely that someone encouraged you to persist.  Think back to your childhood and ponder for a moment the very first time when someone told you, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”  Yet, somewhere along the way, we form our own beliefs about success and failure.  In theory, many of us believe that failure is a fundamental driver in the process of learning and growth so why is it so hard to accept, especially when it comes to our children?

Our well-intentioned friends and family give us mixed messages when it comes to failure.  Avoid failure. Focus on success.  We avoid it at all costs.

Even more unfortunate than our personal associations with failure are those we draw for our children. Beyond teaching them that failure is to be avoided, we do all that we can to protect them from it. These tendencies are perfectly natural and they go far beyond the realm of parenting. In Seth Godin’s (2010) piece Redefining Failure he captures our current concept of and stance towards failure, “We think that failure is the opposite of success, and we optimize our organizations to avoid it. We install layers and layers of management to eliminate risk and prevent catastrophes.”


Photo courtesy of www.agencypost.com

 In spite of our altruistic tendencies to protect our children from failure, we deprive them of critical “learning” experiences when we don’t accept the missteps that children take along the way.  Children need opportunities to fail. Their growth and development rely on these rich contexts for learning. Our job, as parents and as educators, is to provide structured, developmentally appropriate opportunities to fail or, in other words, to learn. When we consider this notion, there are two important questions: what do children learn when we allow them to fail and how do we structure opportunities that are appropriate and productive?

Before we consider these questions though, let’s re-imagine our own paradigms for failure. This is a critical first step because consciously and unconsciously we communicate important and influential messages to children that form their perceptions of failure.

First, consider failure first as a positive thing. Failure is great! Without it we would be perfect and there would be nothing to learn. Secondarily, think of  failure not as a shortcoming but as an opportunity, a guidepost on the path towards learning. Failure bothe presents us with and leads is toward opportunities for  for success. If we are patient and learn to embrace failure as a positive and integral part of the learning process, then we are well on our way to supporting our children.

 What do children learn from failure?

Angela Lee Duckworth calls it “grit.” Grit is what children learn from failure. They learn to persevere and persist in the face of challenge and novel tasks that force them to apply known information to solve new problems. Children come to understand the limits of their current knowledge and ability and how to grow and stretch to tackle the next challenge they face. They learn to identify their strengths and their weaknesses. Students come to understand how to leverage strengths and improve weaknesses. Most importantly, they learn that challenge is to be expected in life and that it is their effort and their hard work that determine the outcome of that challenge. Carol Dweck at Stanford University calls this mentality the “growth mindset.”

How do we structure appropriate and productive opportunities for failure?

Providing children with opportunities to fail, struggle, and learn cannot happen in a vacuum. We can’t just toss them to the wolves and expect them to figure things out. We must remember that children develop perseverance and persistence over time. If we put them into situations in which they are unable to find success we hinder their development. So, what is the context in which kids can really benefit from failure? When do we let them struggle? When do we intervene? These questions rely heavily upon a social context for learning, an understanding of our children and an evolving understanding of ourselves.

A child’s social context for learning, or failure, is critical.  Young children are keen observers, especially of adults.  They watch and listen, taking cues from us as they attempt to make sense of their world.  If a child is supported in an environment where adults behave and speak in way that communicates positive messages about failure and embrace it as a learning opportunity then we are well on our way to creating a context that is ripe for learning.

The second part of this  context is our ability as parents and educators to take a step back from the situation and make  rational, balanced decisions about when to intervene and when to let them figure it out. This can be challenging because it is in our nature to protect and support.

 A few years back Mr. Kelly was spending time with a good friend and they were playing with their young children. As always they liked (and continue to like) to do, they were analyzing the play of their children and the situations that arose as they interacted.  Sawyer (Mr. Kelly’s son) was about two years old at the time and was moving backwards without looking where he was going. There was a block on the carpet that he would obviously trip on and fall. As is usually the case, there were a few seconds available to consider options and make a decision about how to manage the situation.

The first analysis was safety. Is he going to really hurt himself if he is allowed to fall. At the time, he was on the carpet so he had a soft spot to land and there were no other objects  around that he would hit on the way down and hurt himself. Safety, wasn’t an issue. The second analysis was the potential for learning and the importance of the lesson. In that split second Ian decided that this was an important lesson. Walking backward without checking your surrounding is inherently dangerous. This is a concept that a two year old could begin to grasp. So as it turns out, Sawyer tripped on the block and landed on his bum. He looked confused and then  fussed for a minute. When asked what happened and he said, “Fell.” When asked why  he replied, “Block.”  After a little clarification and a simple, “Walking backwards is dangerous.” He moved on and was right back to playing with his pals. We are not suggesting for a second that this incident ended the walking backward phenomenon but we will suggest that it is the accumulation of these experiences that eventually teaches him (and therefore ceases the behavior) that walking backwards is dangerous.

Learning to watch where you are going and, in all possible circumstances, walk forward is a product of cumulative experience. It is not a function of  the words we use in warning of or response to the “failures” that children encounter. If we don’t take the time to step back, analyze the situation, and ensure that we provide those structured opportunities for failure, our children will only have our words. Unfortunately that’s not enough. Experience is the true teacher.

Acknowledging our own anxieties about failure is not easy.  What’s more is that we sometimes hold our children to a different standard than we do ourselves.  After all, they represent our hopes, our dreams.  We don’t want them to make the same mistakes that we did and we sometimes doubt their ability to see how their actions just might affect their future.  But success is about risk-taking and risk-taking is. . . risky!  Conventional wisdom in the world of business tells us that the the greater the risk, the greater the reward.  In the United States, the biggest risk-takers are also some of our greatest entrepreneurs.    But children aren’t going to succeed with every risk they take, nor do we.  When we take a risk, the threat of failure becomes palpable.  What’s important is that we capitalize on these opportunities by carving out time for personal reflection and self-monitoring.  When we make mistakes, we ask:  What is it that I was trying to achieve?  What stood in the way of achieving my goals?  What could I have done differently to achieve a different outcome and what action steps must I take in order to achieve my goal?  Once we can answer these questions, we begin the process of building a brighter vision for ourselves, of self-acceptance, and even more importantly, self-reliance.  After all, in the words of Sumner Redstone,  “Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes its built on catastrophe”