How Executive Functioning affects Social Skills

Executive functioning skills are the skills that help us get things done. ´╗┐They are goal-directed behaviors and are critical for success in school.

When we think of someone who has solid executive functioning skills, we think of someone who is great at planning and organizing themselves and their work. 

What educators often don't realize is how important they are to social success as well.

In order to develop healthy and rewarding social connections, kids need to be able to regulate their behavior and emotions, take others' perspectives, and solve social problems. These are all behaviors directly affected by how strong their executive functioning skills are.

There are a myriad of executive functioning skills but it's easiest to think of them in terms of 3 broad umbrella terms.

3 Umbrella Terms for Executive Functioning Skills

1. Cognitive Flexibility

When students who have cognitive flexibility, they are able to approach problems from different angles and to generate creative solutions. They are more adaptable to change and build up resilience when things don't always go their way. 

This is a key area to focus on if you have students who are apprehensive to any type of change or lack of control over what they do or have. I'm talking about that student who NEEDS to sit only in the blue chair or that kiddo who has to play the same game the same way every time. 

Games like Labyrinth, Rush Hour, and Bop It are excellent games for developing the habit of adapting to change quickly. Although Simon is a fast paced game and Labrynth is more methodical, each of these games requires the player to be flexible and open minded with their responses. 

2. Inhibitory Control

 When a child lacks inhibitory control, they are at the mercy of their whims and strongest emotions at that time. Behaviors that indicate a dysregulated state such as interrupting, throwing things, or  having an frustrated emotional outburst can really damage a potential friendship.

Games that require kids to be careful and mindful of their actions but are not that long in duration, are perfect for repeated practice. I really like Jenga, Don't Break the Ice and Topple. These are easy, quick, games that allow for multiple opportunities to practice inhibitory control.

Outside games like Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says and Freeze Dance are all excellent for inhibitory control as well as emotional regulation.

3. Working Memory

Working memory is what is used for storing and manipulating information. In the social realm, it helps us remembering important social cues and applying them to different situations. It allows us to maintain a conversation and remember key details about what the other person has said, keep it in our head and then respond with a relevant comment or question.

But for some, holding on to the information from another can be quite challenging. The child has to wait to talk, the pace may be fast, or they may not be completely interested in what the other person is saying. 

Games like Go Fish, Blink, Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza and Story Cubes all are fun table top activities that your students will enjoy. All of these games, naturally incentivize players to pay attention to the moves of others and act on the knowledge they gain from that focus. It builds a positive association between this focus, retention and subsequent output.

The key to help kids develop and strengthen their executive functioning skills is to create a noncompetitive atmosphere for the kids. When we do this and actively practice through games, we are setting our students up to be able to be better at problem-solving, decision-making, and adapting to new situations throughout their lives.

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Categories: board games, executive functioning, social skills

 I'm a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and former Special Education Teacher dedicated to teaching kids the 21st Century Social Skills they need to live happier, healthier lives

Diana Cortese
Founder, Teach Social Skills