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).

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(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