Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation
Utilizing a sensory processing frame of reference to support speech-related goals
Amanda Simmons M.S., OTR/L
This is the second post in the two part executive functioning series. To read part one which outlines what the various executive functions are, how difficulties may present themselves at home or at school, and some tools to support and strengthen your child’s executive functioning skills, click here.
Executive functioning is one of the highest level skill-sets children develop in the pre-school and early elementary years. It requires immense task endurance (ability to sustain attention and participation to a task), adequate self-regulation skills, and organization of thought. The best way to support your child’s executive functioning goals is to be proactive by preparing their bodies and brains for complicated work. Children may demonstrate behaviors during work time such as eloping, crying, general avoidance, shut-down, and silliness/over talking, but the antecedent may not be clearly apparent.
Sensory processing is the body and mind’s ability to absorb outside stimuli through our senses and produce a functional and adaptive motor or behavioral output. Some children respond to this type of stimuli outside the range of what we would consider “within normal limits”. For example, adequate seated postural control at the table takes collaboration of your joints and body-in-space awareness, as well as sustained endurance and strength. Breath control relies on adequate postural endurance. The ability to write functionally hinges on adequate bilateral upper extremity strength and stability, as proximal (close to the body) stability promotes distal (further from the body) mobility. The ability to perform the executive functions, which are arguably the most difficult cognitive tasks, will require adequate filtering, modulation, and processing of sensory input.
Below are some ways Occupational Therapists target executive functioning skills. These are activities you can practice in your home, and preparatory activities you can use prior to a speech session or a work session:
- Preparatory Activities:
- Bubble Mountain: Oral input is soothing and calming. Set a mixing bowl, filled ⅓ of the way with water and two drops of dish soap. Blow bubbles into the water until the bowl begins to overflow.
- Chewing gum: Chewing gum is oral input, but it is also stabilizing for the head, neck, and shoulders (try chewing gum while putting on mascara!)
- Body Based Work: Body socks, yoga, wall push-ups, animal walks, and wrapping your child tightly in a weighted blanket will prepare the body for sustained upright sitting and likely produce a calming response when limits are clear.
- Breath Work: Rainbow breaths, 4-7-8 breathing, and star breaths are all good ways to start regulating the nervous system.
- Calming Music: Meditation music with a consistent, deep bass can promote higher-level processing. The child should acclimate to the sound, so be mindful of a “just-right” volume.
- Games and Activities:
- Multi-Sensory Simon: Set up 4 dots in a triangle that are different colors. Give multi-step directions (Blue > green > yellow), and have the child complete a 2 foot hop in that sequence. This promotes functional mobility, balance, and multi-step direction following.
- Scattergories: This is a fun game that can be used for children to generate new ideas (called ideation). Drop down the demand to 4-5 categories, and discuss them together to reduce pressure.
- Multi-step sensory activities: Making slime requires many steps, and many kids are motivated to complete them. Give them a visual of what they may need in order, and have them complete the task independently (if age-appropriate). Simple recipes can be found online.
- Pit: The game Pit is one of the few games that targets shifting. Children need to gather all of the same “crop” by trading with other players blindly. Each time they get a new card, they are required to “shift” their target crop. This can be purchased on Amazon.
- Twister: Twister works on right/left awareness, but can be added to use sequenced directions. You could give multiple directions at once to build working memory skills, until your child can handle more than one direction at once.
- Silly Steps: Does it feel like your child tunes out when you give directions? They may. Make sure to incorporate one “silly” direction. The novelty will help them attend, and then you can ask them to repeat the directions to you. For example: “please bring your toy up to your room and shut the light, then tap your head while sticking out your tongue at me”.