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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.
(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:
(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.
(4) MacKenzie, E.H. (2014). Enhancing Self-regulation in Children with Autism. In SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS. Felice Corona (Ed). Rome: Aracne.

In spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life, we start everything by making sure each child is aware s/he has the ability to do what we’re asking. We want them to show themselves (and us) that they can do it.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the years: NEVER ASSUME. Never assume a child knows what you’re talking about and never assume he/she can do something until you’ve tried it out. I remember talking to a young child about using ‘gentle’ hands. He sat there and watched me demonstrate it with my hands and then with his. Then I asked him to show his hand how to do it – he looked surprised that he could do it on his own. He looked like he was saying, “Wow, you mean my hands can actually do that when I want them to?”

There was an interesting study (1) reported recently that looked at motor learning in children with autism. Children were taught to throw beanbags toward a target. Some children were taught to focus on the target (external focus) and some were taught to focus on how their arm and hand moved (internal focus). The children who were taught using internal focus remembered the skills longer and generalized them to other situations.
This study suggested that, if we just focused on prompting children to use ‘gentle hands’ or pointing at objects of interest without working on how it feels, our children will likely be less able to remember to use these skills.

By first focusing on awareness of ability (“I can do it”), our children can learn the motor patterns more easily and can take pride in their abilities.

(1) Tse, A. (2017). Effects of attentional focus on motor learning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Dec 1:1362361317738393.

Executive functions and self-regulation typically develop and mature over a fairly long period of time. We see the infant sucking his fingers and thumb to regulate and soothe himself and that’s just the beginning.

Developing and refining self-regulation takes place over at least the first two decades of life. Each of the five key executive functions develops at different paces; some maturing earlier, some later.

Check out the diagram below. It shows that self-regulation starts developing from birth and doesn’t reach a mature level until at least the mid-twenties. That’s a long time but there are a lot of things going on.

Preschoolers show an enormous surge in their abilities to control their bodies. Regulating their emotions also matures quite a bit. Attention skills become less scattered and children can pay attention to things for longer periods of time. In the later preschool years, cognitive self-regulation improves. Children are better able to plan and organize themselves and things they want to do. Their working memory improves and they’re checking how they do. Their improved cognitive flexibility means that they can change plans and approaches to things more easier. One really important change in the later preschool years is the emergence of metacognitive awareness. That is, children become aware of their thinking, things that help them remember, and things that make it harder to learn.

All three areas of self-regulation (behavioral, cognitive and emotional) continuing improving during the school years. There’s a small dip during the teen years – ask any parent of a teenager what that’s about –  but it’s followed by continuing refinement.

After the mid-30s, self-regulation starts a decline. Those readers who are seniors will appreciate the changes in working memory and attention – “I’m in the kitchen, what was it I was going to do?”

Self-regulation develops over at least the first two decades of life. This long period of development means two main things: (1) we have a wide window of time to help our children develop and improve their self-regulation, and (2) we shouldn’t expect self-regulation to appear overnight.

Our brains are plastic in the sense that they can change and mold to new experiences. New nerve pathways are developed when we learn and practice new things. Keep in mind that learning to self-regulate takes time and daily practice. This is especially true for children who need to un-learn old ways of doing things and develop new approaches.

We’d love to hear about your experiences with spark*, spark*EL and Self-Regulation in Everyday Life.
The first SIX people will get their very own spark* t-shirt.


Send your comments to spark* News

When therapists are asked how they’re addressing 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 many 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. The 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 the child doesn’t know what’s most important to look at or how to put pieces of information together, s/he is less likely to benefit from instruction in social or emotional self-regulation. 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.

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

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.

++ 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.

++ 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.

Often adults end up playing too big a role in children’s self-regulation. They act as the children’s frontal lobes and unknowingly regulate him by prompting and staying close to him. One study found that education assistants spend 86% of each day within three feet of their assigned students (1) – hardly helpful for developing self-regulation in children.

The ‘self’ part of self-regulation happens after children become aware that they can control their bodies, thinking and emotions, learns skills and strategies for doing that, and have opportunities to practice them. This means teaching children step by step and removing yourself so they can make their own decisions. That’s definitively easier said than done. It comes after careful teaching and practicing.

We believe strongly that you don’t ‘just throw children into water and hope they can swim’. We need to work on helping each child through four main steps:

  1. Ability – “I Can Do It” – children learn they’re able to use the strategies
  2. Need – “I Need To Do It Here and Here” – children are helped to figure out when and where they should use the strategies
  3. Resilience – “I Can Do It Even When …” – we need to help build their resilience so they can cope in challenging situations and still use their strategies
  4. Self-advocacy – “I Can Help Myself By …” –  we need to teach children to advocate for themselves so, if something becomes too challenging, they have ways help themselves (other than melting down).

By working on executive functions, we help bring each child’s knowledge and intentions into action. The child becomes a master of his own frontal lobes and executive functions.

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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 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.

    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.


Walter Mischel, an American psychologist, did some very important early work in the area of self-regulation. He focused on self-control (impulse control) in young children, seeing which children could wait for a treat.

This was important work which gave us many insights into how impulse control figures into the children’s future development but, as you read in the previous blog post on executive functions and self-regulation, self-control is not the only important executive function.

Walter Mischel tested children’s self-control by telling them they could have one marshmallow right away but, if they waited, they could have two. He then looked at the differences between the children who waited and those that didn’t.
Watch these children trying to wait for their marshmallows. You’ll see in this video that some children wait more easily than others and some use strategies (like self-distracting) to help themselves.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions are brain processes that are mainly contained in your frontal lobes (just behind your forehead). They make it possible to turn your ideas and goals into actions. Those can be things you do or things you say.
Have a listen to Dr. Adele Diamond, Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Diamond has studied executive functions for over 30 years and is the leading expert in developmental cognitive neurosciences.


So how do executive functions work?

Have a look at the maze below. If I want to complete it, what do I need to do?
I have to get myself organized – what do I need? – a pencil and, thinking ahead, an eraser would likely be a good idea.
I need to control my impulses that make me want to add a sun to the sky and some bigger flowers.
I make a plan to start by drawing with my finger first, moving to the right to see where it leads me. I have to keep my plan and my goal in my working memory as I move along.
Oops, I keep running into dead ends. Self-monitoring made me realize I need to stop and adjust my plan. I need to be flexible enough to stop what I’m doing and try a new approach.

Those acts used five key executive functions:

  1. Flexibility (cognitive flexibility) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out
  2. Inhibitory control – keeping myself from doing the same old thing over and over again or from leaping at the first thing I notice or give up if I run into problems
  3. Memory (working memory) – keeping my plans and ideas in my memory while I work away
  4. Monitoring (self-monitoring) – checking to make sure I’m following my plan and that it’s working out okay
  5. Planning (planning and organization) – being able to change what I’m doing if things aren’t working out

That’s F.I.M.M.P. for acronym lovers.

Connecting self-regulation & executive functions

Self-regulation is the ability to consciously control your executive functions. That is, I remind myself to develop a plan and organize what I’m doing before starting. I tell myself to stay on task, keeping important things in my memory bank, and not get distracted. I also keep checking to see how I’m doing and change my plan if things aren’t working out.
Self-regulation is taking control of your executive functions and making them work for you – not just leaving things to chance.

By developing self-regulation skills:

  • your behavior, thoughts and emotions don’t rule you
  • you become more self-directed, planful, adaptable – not having to have another person hanging over you all the time
  • you understand the relationship between effort & achievement; that is, what it takes for you to gain what you want or reach important goals