Executive Function and It’s Relationship to DLD

December 25, 2023by jineantheslp0

“Why won’t my kid listen to what I say?” and “Why does everything end up turning into a battle with my kids?” are questions many parents ask themselves as they navigate parenting. I’m a speech-language pathologist, but more importantly, a mama of four kids aged 4, 7, 9, and 12. I can relate to those evenings when you finally get the kids to sleep and then cry into your pillow with frustration or regret. “Why did I lose my temper? How did I become so impatient? I love my kids so much, so why did I react that way? I feel like I desperately need a break!” Guilt, shame, regret, and the desire to escape are becoming more and more common in today’s parents. We are expected to do all the things while still paying the bills, being the chauffeur, feeding the right foods, having screen time limits, and prioritizing time to talk about all the dangers of this day and age (like the recent increase in sextortion)… I could go on forever. As a parent, sometimes it feels like there are just too many responsibilities on us, and they are all super important. 


What if there was a small change you could make in your parenting that has the potential for huge benefit in all aspects of your child’s life? I’m thrilled to let you know that there is! The golden ticket here has two parts. First off, read on to learn about executive function skills. Your second step is to read part two of this blog called Reflexive Questioning and put what you have learned into practice! When you have a good understanding of what executive function skills are and how you can use reflexive questioning to help develop them in your child, I truly believe your whole parenting experience will be transformed!

I am so excited to share this information with you because I have seen how it has drastically improved not only the lives of the students I work with who have communication difficulties but also all of my own children. I recently shared this information with a friend who is high-flyer in the business world and she responded with enthusiasm that this information needs to get out to all parents everywhere… As the world becomes less and less safe and kids spend more and more time indoors and on screens, executive function skills that often developed more naturally in the past are often not developing as we would hope for our kiddos.


But first things first, what are executive function skills?


Part One: Executive Functions and Their Role

An easy way to think about executive function skills is to imagine the brain having a CEO. The CEO doesn’t have to do all the small tasks, but it brings everything together, guiding actions, thoughts, and emotions, keeping things on track. We could also think of executive functions as being a set of cognitive processes that act as the brain’s command center, orchestrating and regulating various mental activities to achieve goal-directed behavior. Let’s say you have all the underlying skills to do a task but just can’t bring yourself to get started…that is an executive function issue (lack of initiative). Perhaps you start a task and then get distracted or discouraged and just give up… that is another executive function challenge (lack of emotional regulation, persistence). Many adults could benefit from strengthening their executive function skills but of course, our children need our support to grow these mental muscles. Helping them in this area is probably easier than you think! We are going to start with some important background information, and then I’ll share some nuggets with you on simple ways you can shift your parenting approach that have the potential to majorly impact your child’s executive function skill development.



Let’s go a bit deeper into some key executive functions. Keep your child in mind and reflect on how they are doing in the following areas:

Working Memory:

    • Definition: Working memory involves the temporary storage and manipulation of information needed for cognitive tasks.
    • Example: When solving a math problem, a child with strong working memory skills can hold and manipulate numbers mentally, performing calculations without having to repeatedly reference the original problem. When a child’s working memory skills are not as strong, they may not be able to effectively store and manipulate information (e.g. remember instructions, the name of a character in a book, a person’s phone number, or what question the teacher just asked them).


Cognitive Flexibility:

    • Definition: Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to adapt and shift thinking or attention between different tasks or perspectives.
    • Example: A child with strong cognitive flexibility can smoothly transition from a structured academic task, like math, to a creative task, such as drawing or writing a story, showing they can adapt to new situations. When a child struggles with cognitive flexibility, they may find it very challenging to shift their thinking, like accepting that there can be more than one good way to build a blanket fort when a friend doesn’t want to do it their way. They may also struggle to get back to work after a fire alarm, or re-focus their attention if they see something interesting out the window but are supposed to be doing their homework.


Inhibitory Control:

    • Definition: Inhibitory control involves stopping oneself from saying or doing something impulsive and maintaining focus on relevant information.
    • Example: In a classroom setting, inhibitory control enables a child to resist the impulse to shout out answers and instead raise their hand, demonstrating self-regulation and adherence to social norms. When a child struggles with inhibitory control, they may find it very hard to stop tapping their pencil when asked, stop themselves from snatching someone else’s toy, or not blurt out the punchline when a peer is telling a joke, thus wrecking the fun for others.


Planning and Organization:

    • Definition: Planning and organization involve creating a systematic approach to accomplish tasks, set goals, and manage time effectively.
    • Example: Planning and organization are evident when a child breaks down a larger homework assignment into smaller, manageable tasks, creating a schedule to complete each part over several days. When a child struggles with planning and organizing, they may frequently show up to swimming lessons without their goggles and/or towel, dawdle in the changeroom and be late to arrive on the pool deck when you got them there with time to spare, leave their homework to the last minute, lose their mittens at school all the time, and rely on parents or other adults to provide them with the structure and materials they need to complete a task.


Initiation and Persistence:

    • Definition: Initiation is the ability to independently begin tasks, while persistence involves staying engaged and completing tasks despite challenges.
    • Example: A child with strong initiation and persistence may start a challenging puzzle without being prompted and continue working on it, even when faced with difficulties. A child who struggles with initiation and persistence may really want to bake cookies, but doesn’t seem to be able to get started in finding the recipe and gathering the necessary ingredients. Then, once helped by an adult, may simply give up and wander off when they can’t find the spoon they want or are having trouble blending the butter and sugar.


Emotional Regulation:

    • Definition: Emotional regulation involves managing and modulating one’s emotional responses in various situations.
    • Example: When faced with frustration or disappointment, a child with effective emotional regulation skills can take deep breaths, express their feelings verbally, or seek assistance instead of reacting impulsively or becoming overwhelmed. When a child does not have strong emotional regulation skills, we often encounter meltdowns, harsh words, extended periods of crying or yelling, and sometimes throwing or breaking items. When the child is emotionally dysregulated, they are definitely not in a mindset to be able to learn or complete tasks at home effectively.



    • Definition: In simple terms, metacognition means thinking about one’s own thinking. It involves awareness and understanding of one’s own cognitive processes, including planning, monitoring, and evaluating one’s own performance.
    • Example: A student with strong metacognitive skills can reflect on their learning process, identify effective study strategies, and adjust their approach based on their understanding of how they learn best. A child who has weaker metacognitive skills may struggle to identify which part of a task they find challenging, feel lost when asked to pick a strategy that would help them, or identify how well they are performing on a given task.


When we understand more about these executive functions and how they apply to real life, we gain insight into the behind-the-scenes cognitive processes affecting a child’s behavior, learning, and social interactions. In order to help our kids become effective decision-makers, problem-solvers, and flexible-thinkers, we want to focus on improving their underlying executive function skills. 


DLD and Executive Function

We know from research that when a child has Developmental Language Disorder, they have significant difficulties in the development of language skills, impacting both expressive and receptive language abilities. There are often challenges with learning and using new words, producing clear, grammatically correct sentences, and understanding what is heard/read. 


Research indicates there is a complex relationship between executive function deficits and developmental language disorder. Children with DLD may experience challenges in working memory, affecting their ability to hold and manipulate words in their mind when communicating with others. Impaired cognitive flexibility can make it harder for them to adapt to different communication contexts. If the child struggles with inhibitory control, they may react impulsively and struggle to regulate the words they say or their ability to calm down to listen to what is being said to them. When we understand where our children struggle with these underlying brain skills, we can determine the best ways to help them that target strengthening both their executive function deficits and language difficulties at the same time. 


Social Communication Challenges 

Executive function deficits can make communication challenges in children with DLD even more challenging. Starting and sustaining conversations may be particularly challenging for our kids with DLD due to difficulties in organizing thoughts coherently. Social interactions can become overwhelming or confusing, as the child may struggle to interpret social cues and respond appropriately. Parents can support their child by creating a calm, relaxed communication environment, encouraging expressive language, and providing additional time for processing and responding. I have a whole module in my course Communicate with Confidence devoted to the impact of DLD and EF deficits on social communication so check it out for further advice! 


Academic Implications

When a child struggles with both EF deficits and has DLD, academics can be hugely impacted. Reading comprehension may be affected not only by vocabulary and grammar challenges, but also by working memory limitations, making it challenging to retain and understand complex textual information. In the same way written expression may suffer not only due to language deficits, but also due to difficulties in planning and organizing thoughts for coherent written communication. It is so important for parents, educators, and speech-language therapists to collaborate and work together as a team to determine the most effective accommodations, modifications, and interventions to help children with DLD and EF deficits at school. For example, if your child has difficulty with planning, ask to have him or her work with a specialist to break plans down into detailed but manageable steps. Model this at home as well in activities that are meaningful for your child, like packing for a week away at camp. The goal should be to help the child learn the steps needed to eventually be able to create their own plan totally independently. 



Intervention Strategies

When figuring out the best course of action to help your child succeed, a team approach is best! Effective intervention strategies involve a multidisciplinary approach. Your child’s team may include their SLP/speech therapist, teacher, special educator, educational psychologist, occupational therapist, counselor, and maybe even others. Speech-language therapy is foundational for addressing language difficulties associated with DLD. Some speech language pathologists also specialize in cognitive training programs that can target specific executive function deficits. Other times, the occupational therapist or psychologist may lead the way with executive function skill training. Collaborating with your child’s teacher(s) is super important. This can help ensure that the accommodations your child will benefit from (as discussed with the whole team) will be implemented in the classroom. Examples of accommodations include extended time for assignments, modified assessments, preferential seating etc. 

At home, you can focus on providing a structured and supportive environment, incorporating routines, and teaching organizational skills which can further support your child’s development. Resources such as online support groups and informational websites can empower parents with knowledge and connect them with a community facing similar challenges.

Recognizing the intricate relationship between executive function deficits and developmental language disorder is pivotal for parents seeking to support their children. By understanding the challenges in communication, academics, and emotional well-being, parents can implement targeted strategies and collaborate with professionals to create a supportive environment that fosters their child’s overall development. Early intervention and ongoing support are key factors in helping children with DLD navigate these challenges and reach their full potential.


For specific tips you can use during daily life at home, be sure to check out Part Two of this blog called “Reflexive Questioning: Tips to Help Your Child Become an Effective Problem-Solver, Decision-Maker, and Flexible, Active Learner”


If you’re feeling inspired to dive deeper and empower your child, join me in my ‘Communicate with Confidence’ course. Together, we’ll explore practical, real-life strategies to transform challenges into opportunities for growth. Enroll now and start your journey toward effective communication today!!


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