What affects what? – executive functions & social skills

spark* News

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).

(1) Hungerford, S., Call-Morin, K., Bassendowski, N., & Whitford, S. (2009). Do executive skills or language skills best predict social competence? American Speech Language Hearing Association Convention. New Orleans, LA. https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/ee33e97c-e608-4812-989c-57b4f4b6c33e/2310_Hungerford_Suzanne.pdf

(2) Freeman, L., Locke, J. , Rotheram-Fuller, E. & Mandell, David. (2017). Brief Report: Examining Executive and Social Functioning in Elementary-Aged Children with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 47. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/314232611_Brief_Report_Examining_Executive_and_Social_Functioning_in_Elementary-Aged_Children_with_Autism

(3) Leung, R. C., Vogan, V. M., Powell, T. L., Anagnostou, E., & Taylor, M. J. (2015). The role of executive functions in social impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child Neuropsychology, 22(3), 336–344. https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/1f69800b-348e-46ac-8702-c5eed92ee605/Leungetal.2015ChildNeuropsychology.pdf

(4) MacKenzie, E.H. (2014). Enhancing Self-regulation in Children with Autism. In SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS. Felice Corona (Ed). Rome: Aracne.https://gallery.mailchimp.com/752dae020cbd8f611e4590a94/files/3f6f78ce-0fb0-4bcb-9d29-c77097aac649/Chapter_self_regulation_in_children_with_autism.pdf

How is spark* different from Social Thinking®?

spark* News

When therapists are asked how they address self-regulation and executive functions in their intervention, the answer is often that they’re using the Social Thinking® (ST) Program, in particular Zones of Regulation®.

Although these are good resources, there are crucial differences between the ST programs and spark*.

Most importantly, spark* focuses on building children’s foundation skills – body, cognitive and emotional self-regulation.

Many teachers and therapists want to leap in to deal immediately with the most obvious social and emotional issues in their students. That’s understandable. But the children don’t have the body and cognitive self-regulation skills to be fully successful.

Children need to have control of their bodies, learn to self-calm, take in information systematically, decide what’s most important, construct and express meaning, etc. before heading into complex social problem-solving. For example, if children don’t know what’s most important to look at or how to put pieces of information together, they’re less likely to benefit from instruction in social or emotional self-regulation.

Work on body self-regulation first, then cognitive self-regulation and finally emotional self-regulation before social skills training.

ST has some great handouts or materials but they assume that children have already mastered body and cognitive self-regulation as well as strong language and thinking skills.

It’s little wonder that outcomes of social skills training programs have been less than we’d hope. Children who’ve had social skills training typically use them only sporadically in everyday life++ It’s like there’s a disconnect between the social rules and behaviors and their application in daily life.


++ Bellini, S., Peters, J. K., Benner, L., & Hopf, a. (2007). A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Social Skills Interventions for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 28(3), 153–162. https://doi.org/10.1177/07419325070280030401

++ Rao, P. A., Beidel, D. C., & Murray, M. J. (2008). Social skills interventions for children with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism: A review and recommendations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(2), 353–361. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-007-0402-4

++ White, S. W., Koenig, K., & Scahill, L. (2010). Group Social Skills Instruction for Adolescents With High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(4), 209–219. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088357610380595

Social Self-Regulation, Sensory Regulation, Self-Regulation – what’s the difference?

spark* News

Increasingly we’re seeing the words ‘regulation’ and ‘self-regulation’ used in different places with very different meanings. So what are people talking about?

First, let’s talk about what regulation means. It is the ability to adjust or balance something. It’s not just controlling or hiding something. It’s adjusting or changing so it works better for you.

Self-Regulation in the spark* sense is conscious (deliberate) control of your executive functions (see spark* News from December 2017 for more information on this). That is, you learn about inhibitory control, working memory, planning and organization, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility (your executive functions) and how and when you need to adjust them. This way the child becomes the master of his/her own frontal lobes – recall that the executive functions are housed in the part of the brain just behind the forehead, in the frontal lobes.

Social Self-Regulation. The term “social self-regulation” is popping up more and more. It’s defined as the ability to regulate your body, thinking and emotions in social situations while reading social cues and responding appropriately. This is hugely complicated!  Most of us can think of adult friends or co-workers who struggle to self-regulate their body, thinking or emotions and end up misreading or responding unexpectedly or awkwardly in social situations. Proponents of social self-regulation seem to assume you already have conscious control of your body, thinking and emotions so you can dive directly into social skills. Clearly, they’re skipping critical underpinnings. See How is spark* different from Social Thinking? below.    

Sensory Regulation. Sensory regulation is the ability to regulate the sensory information in your body. Sensory regulation therapy focuses on having children feel sensations in their bodies and then move in specific ways until they appear regulated. The focus of sensory regulation is sensations and actions to modulate those sensations (for example, jump on a trampoline, carry something heavy, sway in a swing).  This approach assumes that, by working on these things, you are addressing children’s feelings and emotions as well as behavior. Again, there is no focus on executive functions critical to higher level skills.   

Regulation. The term ‘regulation’ is used to refer to many skills. It’s often unclear who is regulating whom – the child or the adult. Adult guidance and prompting are usually pretty central. Many people believe they’re helping the child develop self-regulation when the child can identify how high or low his/her ‘engine’ is running and then calm him/herself. This is NOT self-regulation – it focuses on the child’s energy level and involves self-control rather than all executive functions.