Targeting Executive Functioning Skills Using ABA

Do you realize the skills that it takes just to make sure you’re ready in the morning for work?  There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t have good executive functioning skills.  You might not wake up on time, or forget to pack your lunch.  You might even not know what to do if your bus never shows up.  Difficulties in executive functioning can really get in the way of true independence.  Our goal here is to get our students as independent as possible, so it is imperative we make sure they have these skills.
Executive functioning is the ability to make a plan and execute it successfully.  This might sound like a really vague explanation as to what it is.  However, when you look at the skills that fall under the executive functioning umbrella, it begins to make a lot of sense why lacking these skills can cause real challenges in the way our students navigate through life.

So what exactly consists of executive functioning skills?  Quite a bit, and they are all linked together.
Working memory
Sustained attention
Flexible thinking        
Planning and Goal Setting
Problem solving
Controlling inhibitions

Even though some of our students might not naturally pick up these skills, they are still able to be taught and learn them.  Good old ABA methodology can be super useful for teaching these vital skills. 

Here’s how you can start to work on those ever-important executive functioning skills:

Identify deficits

Figure out what is tripping up your students.  Do you assign a task, and then have them stare in to the abyss for 10 minutes before beginning, despite how fluent they are at the skills?  Does your student break down every time you take a different route to your classroom?  There are several assessments available, to quick and free assessments to pricey, more comprehensive ones.

Make objective goals

As super skilled IEP goal objective writers (and occasional BIP writers), writing objective goals should not be new to us.  The skill we want to teach should be written in objective terms as well.  This will make data collection easy and remove the ambiguity.

Incorporate reinforcement

Just like any behavior, make sure a reinforcement system is in place.  Your students may need you to be delivering the reinforcement or you may even want to use a self-monitoring system (read this post about how I set up a self-monitoring system for my students).


Chaining is breaking down a skill into steps.  This allows our students to learn small steps in order to make a skill attainable.  The type of chaining you use will depend on what type of skill you’re teaching. 

Take data

Of course, you need a data system in place to make sure your student is actually making progress on the skill.  Since many of these skills can be targeted with chaining, using a task analysis can also serve as an easy way to take data.

Okay, so you are probably no stranger to the whole idea of setting goals, taking data, and all that good stuff.  What should we do when we actually put these things into place?


Modeling is awesome for skills that may not be so objective looking.  Depending on what the student’s challenges are, you may have to explicitly model an appropriate response.  For example, I had a student two years ago that got very upset when we couldn’t use the elevator (our room was on the 4th floor, so I couldn’t blame him too much).  When there were times that the elevator was crowded, I would model self-talking myself through not using the elevator.  “Whoops, there’s too many people and it will take too long to ride the elevator.  We’ll just take the stairs, NBD”.  (NBD= No big deal, which was more or less our class motto).    He eventually caught on and would say “you’re right, Ms. Liz. NBD.”

Teach systems

Sometimes, the best way to teach a system is to task analyze the heck out of it.  This removes any ambiguity from completing the task and help our students use a systematic way to complete something.  This is where task analyzing comes in.  Break skills in to steps that a student can follow.  Using schedules in the classroom offer lots of opportunities to teach executive functioning skills, such as task initiation, task completion, and more.  However, many of us spend time teaching our students how to use their individual schedules. 

Play games

Games can be an awesome way to work on executive functioning skills.  A rousing game a memory can really motivate a student to practice those working memory skills.  Fun games like red light green light can be fun for practicing impulsivity.  Using motivating, low-pressure opportunities to practice skills can help students transfer those skills to other areas.

Use curriculum

Personally, I love the Social Thinking curriculum to target many of the areas of self-regulation and flexibility.  I know they are not technically evidence-based, but they certainly lend easy to understand rationales for skills that are not at all black and white.  The Zones of Regulation is awesome to teach students to understand their emotions and appropriate reactions.  The Team of Unthinkables helps students recognize difficulties in thinking and help students develop strategies for overcoming their difficulties.

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