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.

What’s going on with my kid?!

Photo from www.defyingthespectrum.com

Photo from www.defyingthespectrum.com

When young children struggle in school, many parents experience a great deal of anxiety. This is perfectly normal and understandable. Beyond the obvious reasons for concern, one of the underlying sources of anxiety is the often-ambiguous nature of the difficulties children display. Parents struggle to “figure out” what is happening for their children. This causes anxiety because, as we all know, children are complex little creatures who are not always aware of or able to effectively articulate what is happening for them.

Unfortunately the overwhelming volume of “diagnostic” information that can be gathered with a quick Google search often exacerbates this anxiety. Parents (and I am perfectly guilty of this) often start reading online and the information available is vast, hard to comprehend, and often inconclusive. People and professionals have many opinions, there is an increasingly complex world of jargon and terminology, and, as we noted earlier, kids (and adults) are complicated beings.

Over the years I have worked with and counseled hundreds of families whose children struggle at times during their elementary years. These challenges span the developmental continuum and include reading, writing, math, organization skills, social skills, motor skills, communication skills, etc.  In most situations these struggles are perfectly normal and with a little support they pass. These experiences ultimately serve as great learning opportunities for students (and parents). The situations in which we experienced the greatest success were those that began with communication between the home and school as opposed to the home and Google.

When a parent has a concern about their child/children, my first piece of advice is to take a deep breath and remember that there is a high probability that this difficulty is normal and will resolve itself with time or a little extra support from home and school. My second piece of advice is to get in touch with the classroom teacher immediately. Teachers are trained diagnosticians who understand development and learning and, most importantly, know the child. They are great sources of information and guidance and in most instances can support parents in developing plans to coach their children through tough spots.

Teachers also know the limits of their knowledge and expertise. Fortunately when they reach that boundary they have a team of professionals and specialists that they can access for guidance, diagnostic support, and advice. At Ben-Hem, we call these professionals and specialists the Child Study Team (CST). This is an amazing resource for families that, unfortunately, many do not know about.

The CST is a comprehensive team of professionals who operate as a support network for students, teachers, and families. The team includes building administrators, classroom teachers, special education teachers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, school psychologists, reading specialists, and behavioral analysts. The primary role of the CST is to look diagnostically at the difficulties students display, develop a clear picture of what is causing the student to struggle, and to craft recommendations and accommodations that will support the teacher and family in coaching the child through the tough spot.

If your child is experiencing any kind of difficulty in school, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your child’s teacher. If you are interested in finding out more about child study, please feel free to get in touch with me at 508.647.6580 or by email at ikelly@natickps.org.


617 Bobcats!

That’s right. As of yesterday we have  617 Bobcats at Ben-Hem. Every day, hundreds of excited, energized learners pour in and out of our doors. The excitement, curiosity, and innocent humor of 617 Bobcats are the reason that I get up and come to Ben-Hem with a smile on my face. They are an amazing bunch of kids and their education is my first priority. When I think about their learning, safety and security is my first consideration.

Maze025x025Length05SpectrumNarrowPathThere are thousands of details, processes, procedures, and policies that go into creating a safe and secure environment that is conducive to learning at the high levels we expect. While it is neither prudent or feasible to elaborate on every detail, I want to share a few thoughts about dismissal time. As a parent I know that ushering 2 or 3 kids out the door can be a challenge. As a principal, the logistical complexities of getting 617 children out of the building safely and on the proper route home are daunting.

Over the years we have developed and refined a system that makes sure our students know where they are going and get there safely every day. While there is a great deal that goes on inside of the building to ensure this outcome, parents and families play an important role as well. The first and most important part that Ben-Hem families play is providing us with dismissal plans for their children. This is critical as the accurate information you provide allows us to build the many different dismissal routines that we have in place.

Parents and families play an important role in the dismissal process. Making sure we know the dismissal plans of children, coming to school on time, being at the bust stop to name a few. The place where families most often complicate the dismissal process is when dismissal plans are changed. There are two basic types of dismissal change, advanced notice and last minute. The difficulty and problems come with last minute dismissal changes. When families call the office after 2:15, we consider this a last minute dismissal change. The problem this creates is one of student safety.

blue-bird-school-bus-02When 2:15 hits, teachers are busy getting kids packed up and ready to go home. The office is busy fielding phone calls, directing visitors, and managing central operations. All other staff are moving to their positions for the dismissal. The bottom line is that after 2:15 the school is a machine in motion, all systems are preparing to move 617 Bobcats from their classrooms to their homes safely and without error. When we receive a call after 2:15 to change an existing dismissal plan, the energy it takes to execute that request draws attention and energy from our primary objective. Once change poses minimal safety issues, the real problem is that we often receive over 20 calls requesting changes in dismissal after 2:15. This creates a major safety issue that places undue stress on faculty, staff, and students.

Often when I discuss this matter with families they remind me that it is just one change. While I completely understand the rationale, I also remind families that many, many families think the exact same thing and, therefore, the requests for last minute changes of dismissal pile up fast. I certainly understand that life happens. Kids get sick, cars break down, and plans don’t always work out the way we expected. The world is not a black and white place, it’s full of gray and gray complicates the best laid plans and intentions. I am not asking you to make superhuman efforts to avoid last minute changes of dismissal. I am merely asking that you consider alternatives before making the request at the last minute.

Advanced Notice (Prior to 2:15 on the day of change)

  • Notify your child’s teacher in writing of the change of dismissal. Be specific. To whom is your child to be dismissed and on what days/dates. 

Last Minute (After 2:15 on the day of change)

  • If it is unavoidable, contact the main office directly and provide specific details.
  • The office will take your information and develop a dismissal plan that ensures the safety of your child.
  • If you are sending another adult to pick up your child, please let them know that they will need to provide photo identification to the office.

Taming the Bus

photo 2Each and every year school starts and hundreds of kids are excited to get back to school, reconnect with friends, and enjoy another year of learning and growth at Ben-Hem. Many of these excited students take the bus to school and, for the first time in their lives, they are placed in an unsupervised setting with many of their peers. This presents a unique opportunity for kids to be independent and try out all kinds of independent behaviors. For parents and school faculty this can be both exciting and anxiety producing.

As children wander into and explore the world of the bus rider, they try on new behaviors and watch their peers try on new behaviors. These behaviors are not always exactly what we would like to see. Thus we are presented with many, many opportunities to provide feedback and support the development of context specific appropriate behaviors. As I discussed in my post on School Wide Positive Behavior Supports, we take a proactive approach in supporting students in acquiring these skills. This is a multifaceted endeavor but I wanted to take a moment to hi-light one of the key components of this process, bus assemblies.

You heard it, bus assemblies. Twice a year Mr. Gatto arranges a mock bus ride in the cafeteria. Students are called to the cafeteria by bus number and there they spend time with Mr. Gatto taking part in a rule setting, role playing, informative adventure. Students sit in chairs that are arranged to resemble the layout of the actual bus. Mr. Gatto starts the ride by reviewing basic rules and expectations. Afterwards students identify common problems on the bus. Kids getting out of their seats, kids not sharing seats, and kids yelling are all common responses. Once identified, Mr. Gatto engages the bus riders in problem solving role plays. Students get to act out the problems while other riders offer creative solutions to these common problems. The kids have a great time and the learning is meaningful.

We have conducted these assemblies for a few years now and we find them to be very successful in taming our buses. Beyond the assemblies we rely heavily on parent feedback on bus rides. When kids hop off the bus one of the first things families ask is, “How was your day?” The bus ride is the nearest experience to the question and conversations, if there was a problem on the bus, reliably start there. If your child relays a problem to you, please let us know. The sooner we can address issues the more likely it is they will easily cease.

Friday October 26th, 2012

It has been a great week at Ben-Hem! This week Mr. Gatto held assemblies with our 2nd and 3rd grade students. During these assemblies Mr. Gatto worked with our Bobcats to discuss and learn more about our core values in action. They talked about how to be a CAREing community and what that looks like at Ben-Hem. The students did an awesome job sharing ideas, drawing pictures, and writing all about what it takes to be a successful Bobcat!

This week we received notification from the governor’s office that Ben-Hem has received a commendation  from the state for high growth and performance on last spring’s MCAS assessments. This is the third year in a row we have received this recognition and we are very, very proud.


Morning Arrival Plan

As of Tuesday September 4th, morning arrival will move to our normal operating procedure. Students will arrive via bus, the drop off line, or foot and proceed directly to their grade level wings. We will have plenty of staff on hand to make sure everyone knows where to go!

If you plan on using the drop off line, please review the map to the right for driving directions and check the Arrival/Dismissal page on our website for more detailed information on using the live drop off line.

Changing Dismissal Plans

Safety is priority #1 at Ben-Hem. Dismissal is a busy time on any given day but it is particularly busy over the first few weeks of school. Students, families, and teachers are all settling into new routines and plans for the school year. As we work to make sure everyone gets home safely, there are two things that parents and families can do to help us out.

  1. Dismissal Plans: Complete and return the dismissal plan that came home in back packs this week. This will allow us to cross reference your plans with our records and ensure that they are correct.
  2. Change of Dismissal: In the event that you need to change your child/children’s normal dismissal plan, you must provide advanced, written notice to the main office. There are a number of ways parents/guardians can do this. Sending a note to the classroom teacher is a good way as is emailing the teacher. If you do email the teacher please be sure to copy the message to dokelly@natickps.org. This will ensure that the front office receives the email communication as well. Written notice of dismissal changes is a safety measure plain and simple. We cannot release students without your consent.  Obviously there are unforeseen circumstances that come up during the day that make advance, written notice possible. In the event of an emergency, please call the front office directly at 508.647.6580.