A: We actually do work on attention while we focus on the different executive functions.
First let’s look at a few different kinds of attention:
Selective attention – this is where attention is paid only to the most important information available. We choose what to focus on – sights, sounds, smells, taste or feel – whatever is most important. This means paying less attention to or ignoring other things.
Sustained attention – this is where we sustain or continue paying attention.
Shifting attention – this is where we move our attention from one thing to another. It’s really important when we have to keep a few things in mind at the same time. We have to move our focus from one thing to another.
When we work on executive functions, we’re working on all types of attention.
Take inhibitory control for example, children have to focus on just the most important things. At the same time, they have to ignore things that aren’t important. This takes selective attention, sustained attention, and sometimes, shifting attention.
When planning and organizing, children have to pay attention to just the most important things, keep their focus while making their plan, and shift their attention from one item to the next.
As you can see, attention is an important focus to our approach. But it’s integrated into the total program rather than being worked on separately.
Cooking and following recipes is a great way to work on self-regulation. There’s need to use all executive functions – planning and organization involved, inhibitory control, working memory, self-monitoring and cognitive flexibility. It’s also fun to eat what you make.
Here are some FREE internet resources that can help making cooking successful:
Your Special Chef – beautifully organized showing the foods and tools you’ll need to make the food. This is followed by photos with short step-by-step instructions. Some reading is required but the photos are fairly self-explanatory.
Visual recipes – this site presents recipes in a fairly traditional recipe format but with photos to support the written text. Reading is required. There are a lot of interesting and delicious-looking recipes.
There were a few other books that had good ratings but they didn’t show sample recipes. That made it really difficult to determine how useful the books might be.
Keep your eyes open for kids’ recipe books on sale tables. There are often some good bargains there. Look for books that are well-organized, show photos of ingredients and of step-by-step instructions, and use not too many printed words.
Should we just dive into teaching social skills without considering self-regulation? That doesn’t make logical or practical sense but let’s look at the evidence.
First, let’s remind ourselves about the executive functions that underlie self-regulation. Executive functions include the ability to:
initiate actions when appropriate and inhibit impulses and emotions when necessary
plan and organize your actions and activities
hold information in memory and change it as things proceed
monitor your progress
be flexible enough to change plans and approaches if need be
Remember, executive functions turn intentions and ideas into actions. Now, let’s look at the research.
In a study of children with delayed language (1), executive functions were found to predict social skills; interestingly, language skills didn’t figure importantly into social skills. The researchers looked at results from tests of executive functions, language, and social skills to see what predicted what. They found if executive functions were strong, social skills were more advanced but not vice versa. Behavior regulation (like inhibitory control) in particular figured importantly in the predictions – this makes complete sense: if you can self-regulate your behavior, you’re more likely to be tuned in to social cues and to control your body.
The relationship between executive functions and social skills was looked at by another group of researchers (2). They found that children with autism who had poorer executive functioning were more likely to play alone and have less engagement with other children. Working memory and planning and organization skills were especially important to the children’s social functioning. Children with poorer executive functioning skills struggled with planning and organizing their approaches to social situations. They had problems anticipating and planning the steps involved in play and in conversations with others. They struggled to plan steps needed to interact socially which then lead to less engagement with others. Working memory is critically important to social interactions: children had to keep multiple pieces of information in mind and change and update that information at a second’s notice as things moved along. The swift pace of social interactions puts huge demands on working memory.
Working memory, planning and organization and self-monitoring were found to predict social functioning in children with autism in another study (3). When combined with behavioral self-regulation (principally inhibitory control), these weaknesses clearly predicted social problems in the children with autism. That is, children with less developed executive functions had more social problems.
A study of spark* (4) showed that, after just ten sessions focusing on behavioral-regulation, the children with autism showed significantly improved tolerance for change, better inhibitory control, and increased ability to recognize different emotional expressions. The improvement in affect recognition wasn’t expected since the sessions focused only on Behavioral Self-regulation. When a child is helped to focus his attention, increase his inhibitory control and improve his planning and organization and working memory, his ability to detect important information in the world around him develops.
All of these studies point to how important a solid foundation of self-regulation is to learning and using social skills. Also, work on executive functions transfers learning to many different and seemingly dissimilar skills and areas (more on that in upcoming issues of spark* News).
Walter Mischel, an American psychologist, did some very important early work in the area of self-regulation. He focused on self-control (impulse control) in young children, seeing which children could wait for a treat. This was important work which gave us many insights into how impulse control figures into the children’s future development but, as you read in the previous blog post on executive functions and self-regulation, self-control is not the only important executive function.
Mischel tested children’s self-control by telling them they could have one marshmallow right away but, if they waited, they could have two. He then looked at the differences between the children who waited and those that didn’t.
Watch these children trying to wait for their marshmallows. You’ll see in this video that some children wait more easily than others and some use strategies (like self-distracting) to help themselves.