21 Apr 2015

Five Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function

Five Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function

Author: AAPC Publishing  /  Categories: Author Blogs , Autism Research, Teaching   /  Rate this article:

What Is Executive Function?

Do you work with a student or have a child who is disorganized, inflexible, impulsive, and who struggles with planning and problem solving?  Your student or child may find it difficult to achieve in school, follow through with responsibilities at home, and interact appropriately in vocational and community settings – not because of a lack of effort or desire to do well but due to a lack of executive function (EF) skills.

One easy way to remember some of the major components of executive function is to think of the acronym FLIPP: Flexibility, Leveled emotionality, Impulse control, Planning/organizing, and Problem solving (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015):

  • Flexibility:  The ability to change your mind and make changes to your plans as needed
  • Leveled Emotionality:  The ability to emotionally self-regulate and avoid extensive mood swings
  • Impulse Control:  The ability to control your impulses, such as waiting to speak when called upon
  • Planning/Organizing:  The ability to make plans and keep track of time and materials so that work is finished on time
  • Problem Solving:  The ability to know when there is a problem that needs to be solved, generate solutions, select one, and evaluate the outcome

Executive function deficits can negatively impact success at school, home, the community, and work.  Although many educators associate deficits in EF skills with students on the autism spectrum, the reality is that many young people struggle with executive functioning. In fact, it is accurate to say that all young people are learning EF as these skills are not fully developed until people are well into their twenties. In addition, several clinical conditions, such as attention deficit disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, intellectual disability, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social communication disorder, specific learning disability, Tourette syndrome, and traumatic brain injury are often understood to include a component of EF deficits. Furthermore, individuals with diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia may also exhibit deficits in the area of executive function.

What Can Be Done?

The good news is that there are a variety of evidence-based practices that can be effectively and efficiently implemented in a range of settings with students of all grade levels to improve EF skills. In addition, parents can use the strategies in the home environment. Further, many of the strategies can be taught to individuals with EF deficits who are transitioning to the world of work or entering institutions of higher education. Teaching students to implement these strategies independently can lead to improved behavioral outcomes and increases in self-regulation.

Strategies to “FLIPP the switch” from challenging behavior to competent EF include:

Flexibility:  Visual Scales

For individuals who have concrete thought processes and difficulty being flexible, a visual scale can be used as a self-management tool and a visual support to demonstrate that there are often various levels of a behavior or concept (e.g., vocal volume, anxiety level, and physical proximity or personal space can be visually represented indicating a high level versus a low level; too close or too far apart) and to communicate a desired change of behavior.

The Picture Communication Symbols ©1981-­2005 by Mayer-Johnson LLC. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Used with permission.

Leveled Emotionality:  Choice Card

For individuals who struggle with leveled emotionality, providing opportunities to make choices can minimize angry outbursts by allowing them some control.  Choice-making is often more effective when a concrete cue, such as a choice card that indicates choices in writing or in a pictorial representation, is provided as a visual support.  The choice card provides a choice between alternatives that are acceptable to adults as well as the child.  A choice card can be used in school, home, as well as community and work environments to choose between two activities (e.g., create a Prezi presentation or make a poster about the book), two items (e.g., the lined paper or the unlined paper), two places (e.g., at your desk in your bedroom or the kitchen table), or two behaviors (e.g., calm yourself by sitting upright in your chair or by taking a short walk).


The Picture Communication Symbols ©1981­-2005 by Mayer-Johnson LLC. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Used with permission.

Impulse Control
: Cognitive Scripts 

A cognitive script works by providing specific guidelines for how to behave in certain situations (Ganz, 2007). A cognitive script can be a visual cue, prompting the individual regarding expected behaviors in a specific situation. One example of a cognitive script that can be used at home is one that outlines expected behaviors on social media sites. As the rules for social media are relatively ambiguous, having a visual cue that reminds an individual about general expectations while on-line may be helpful.

The following cognitive script for social media outlines high-level expectations for being kind, respectful, and safe while on Facebook.



                                       Be Kind

Be Respectful

Be Safe

On Facebook

Think about how others might feel.

Only post things that are kind to others.

Only post things you would want your ________ (mom, dad, grandma, boss, teacher, etc.) to read.

Keep your personal information private.

Report to an adult anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.



Planning/Organizing: Project Mapping

Many students with EF deficits struggle when having to plan and prioritize for a long-term project. For example, some students may not understand that steps have to be taken (in a timely manner) in order to complete the project on time. Project mapping is a strategy that uses task analysis, a calendar, and sticky notes to organize and plan the steps needed to complete a complex, multi-step project. This process begins by identifying what the finished project will be (will it be a PowerPoint presentation, a science fair project, a multi-page report, etc.?) and writing it on a medium-sized sticky note with the due date at the bottom. The steps needed to finish the project are then brainstormed, and each task is written on a separate small sticky note. These notes are then laid out in the order in which they need to be completed, and a calendar is used to assign completion dates, which are written on the bottom of each note. Finally, a sheet with columns delineating “Not Begun, In Progress, and Completed” tasks is used to organize the notes. As the project proceeds, notes are moved from column to column, with the goal of all tasks having moved to the “Completed” column by the date written on the bottom of the respective sticky notes. For group tasks, different-colored sticky notes can be assigned to the various members of the group to easily show the task(s) they are responsible for.

Problem Solving
: Metacognitive Problem SolvingMany individuals with EF deficits need support from others to learn how to effectively solve problems. This includes knowing when there is a problem to be solved, identifying possible solutions to the problem, acknowledging all possible outcomes of the identified solutions (and how those outcomes may affect others), and choosing the best possible solutions. Mataya and Owens (2013) have developed a simple, yet effective, model for teaching how to problem-solve. The process invites the individual to identify the problem, then work through several alternatives for solving it, including, “talk it out and compromise, let it go and move on, seek help from an adult, and let it bother you.”  To work through the strategies, a visual map (see below) may be used that can be individualized to meet the needs of a specific individual.


Next Steps

These environmental supports and meta-cognitive strategies allow individuals with EF deficits to increase their flexibility, remain emotionally level, control their impulses, effectively plan, and problem-solve in a variety of settings. Although EF deficits can greatly impact behavior, leading to stress and anxiety in both students and adults, EF skills can be mediated through the use of evidence-based practices. Furthermore, individuals with EF deficits can be taught to use the strategies independently, leading to self-regulation and sustainable improvements. 


For an in-depth look at executive function, check out FLIPP the Switch:Strengthen Executive Function Skills (2015). This practical book is written for parents and educators by parents and educators. The target audience is  anyone who works with young people aged 3-22 who are disorganized,  inflexible, impulsive, and who struggle with planning or problem solving. Readers will learn about EF and how EF skills contribute to success in school, at home, and in work environments. Most important, readers will receive  specific instructions, templates, and how-to scenarios for 25 strategies  matched to EF need.  This book is indispensable for anyone who wants to help students and children – including those who do not have a diagnosed disability but struggle with executive function skills – develop the ability to link behavior to its effects, self-regulate, and manage emotions in a healthy  way.



Sheri Wilkins, Ph.D., has worked in the field of education for over 30 years at the preschool, elementary, high school, and university levels. She has dedicated her professional career to serving students with disabilities and building the capacity of educators to better serve this unique population. After her son Dominic sustained a mild traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 2010, Sheri gained first-hand experience in the power of environmental modifications and metacognitive strategies to support people who struggle with executive functions. It was this personal experience that led to her work with parents of children with disabilities, specifically children who are inflexible, emotional, impulsive, and poor at planning and problem solving. Wilkins is the co-author, with Carol Burmeister, of FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills.

Carol Burmeister, M.A., has supported individuals with disabilities and their families as a paraeducator, general and special education teacher, program specialist, university instructor, and consultant.  She has provided leadership in the coordination and presentation of numerous professional development activities in autism and related disorders as well as worked as part of the University of California, Riverside, committee that developed an autism spectrum disorder certificate program for educators.  She participated as a reviewer in the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders’ 2014 update on evidence-based practices and enthusiastically shares these interventions with others.  Carol Burmeister is the co-author, with Sheri Wilkins, of FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills.




Ganz, J. B. (2007). Using visual script interventions to address communication skills. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), 54.

Mataya, K., & Owens, P. (2013). Successful problem solving for high-functioning students with autism spectrum disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Wilkins, S. A., & Burmeister, C. (2015). FLIPP the switch: Strengthen executive function skills. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.




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3 comments on article "Five Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function"


6/29/2016 12:21 PM

Good morning. My 16 year old son is nearing 1 year post-oppritive right frontal lobectomy. His general life progression is severely hampered by his complete lack of executive function skills. Can you recommend your book specifically for his situation? Or do you have another source that may be a better fit? Thank you so very much.


6/29/2016 12:21 PM

Good morning. My 16 year old son is nearing 1 year post-oppritive right frontal lobectomy. His general life progression is severely hampered by his complete lack of executive function skills. Can you recommend your book specifically for his situation? Or do you have another source that may be a better fit? Thank you so very much.


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