How does Executive Functioning Play a Role During Social Interaction?

Organization-for-SchoolExecutive functioning might be a new word to many of us focusing on social interaction with a child with special needs. However, the understanding of this word could mean the difference between successful social moments and the utter dread of interactions in the future for many students.

Executive functioning includes the abilities to focus attention,organize, plan, mediate emotion, use working memory, manage time, resist distraction, and monitor actions. Its name really says it all, it is what an “executive” of any successful business does. When a child has executive “dysfunction”, everyday tasks like sharing, taking turns, picking up on subtle social cues and staying attentive in class can be very difficult. And when children and teens falter in these basic social interactions, it can hurt them socially–isolating them from peers and making it difficult for them to make and keep friends.

To better understand how various executive functions play out in a child’s daily life, below are examples from Thomas Brown Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and associate director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, of common childhood tasks and situations. The tables below list some of the executive functions required in specific situations* – and what difficulties result when the necessary executive functions are dysfunctional.

Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction
Self-regulation She has a hard time waiting her turn and working cooperatively.
Managing frustration When frustrated with her peers, she may act out before trying to understand and manage the perceived conflict internally and/or through calm communication.
Playing a game with a group of her peers


Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction
Organizing She can’t determine the steps for the project (or their sequence). She has trouble collecting resources and often misplaces what she does find. She struggles to put the pieces of the project together in an orderly or logical way.
Managing time She doesn’t set realistic task milestones to work through the project from start to finish.
Self-regulation She fails to monitor her progress.
Long-term projects


Executive function used Signs of executive dysfunction
Shifting attention She can’t “let go” of a task to attend to another project when instructed to. She gets “stuck” on a task or favorite pastime and can’t move her focus elsewhere when required.
Managing frustration She becomes angry or frustrated when she feels forced to switch gears.
Shifting between tasks

Other daily actions of children and teens whose executive skills are underdeveloped:

  • More likely than their peers to behave in socially unacceptable ways (like saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, running into things and people, talking rapidly and excessively or continuing to roughhouse after peers have stopped).
  • Less able to solve interpersonal problems.
  • Less likely to consider the consequences of their behavior.
  • Less likely to understand nonverbal communication, such as facial expression and tone of voice, or to interpret what others say.
  • Less adaptable to new social situations.
  • Less able to tolerate frustration and failure.


If these examples look and sound familiar, consider Social Skill Builder’s video modeling software & apps. These learning tools were designed with these important skills in mind and incorporates them into every stage of learning. From Preschool to Middle/High mycommunitySchool, executive functions are targeted to help children and teens refine these critical skills and implement them in the real-life video situations they are presented.

Organizational Tools, Tricks and Apps for Children with Special Needs

It’s normal for a child to hate doing homework, but for children with special needs, this hatred can quickly develop into tantrums and meltdowns and make a necessary task difficult for everyone involved. If the right amount of structure and routine is built into the task however, the daily experience of doing homework can build a stronger relationship between the parent and child.

It is important to find the right place for your child to do homework, and that place may not necessarily be a desk. The kitchen table, where you can monitor progress, or even on the floor if it’s too distracting to sit for long periods of time, will work. Its important to remain flexible and adapt to whatever will continue to work for the child, allowing for flexibility when an approach stops working.

Keeping your child’s work organized so that what needs to be accomplished can be easily found and tracked is essential. Our Social Skill Builder Software, School Rules can help your child organize their materials and offers a way to track their progress with easy to navigate prompts. Additionally, there are apps available that can help children of any age accomplish their tasks in an efficient manner. For example, Plan It, Do It, Check It Off by I Get It, LLC can help pre-readers make lists they can understand by using pictures that can be checked off when the task pictured is completed. In this same vein, Photomind, allows for a multi-sensory approach to a calendar or a to-do list, attaching a specific photo to a reminder or a task.

Time management is an abstract skill to teach and is essential in the life of a productive adult. Effective time management can be learned from childhood, and using an app like Binary Hammer can help your child get started on the road toward effective routine time management. This app will also allow you to set up a list of tasks and assign a length of time in which to complete them. Because the app is very visual, it makes it easy for child with learning disabilities to see when they are working efficiently towards their break time, or whether they need to work faster.

For high-school aged children, the app iStudiez can help your child organize their schedule, summarize their course load, track their grades, and keep up-to-date with pending tasks and upcoming classes. All of these skills are difficult to teach on their own, and useful throughout an entire lifetime, so it is a long-term investment in your child’s future.