Executive Function – What is it, and why do SLPs need to know about it?

According to Dawson and Guare(2010), Executive function refers to “high-level cognitive processes required to plan and direct activities, including task initiation and follow-through, working memory, sustained attention, performance monitoring, inhibition of impulses, and goal-directed behavior (p. vii).”  I had the opportunity this month to listen to Dr. Elaine Fletcher-Janzen talk about executive functioning and how it impacts student learning.  Executive function can be divided into 2 categories – meta-cognition (which includes meta-linguistics) and behavioral regulation.  We’ve talked a lot in our field about meta-linguistics, and I couldn’t stop thinking, “How do executive functions and language interact?”  And after a day of training, my answer was, “A LOT!”  I also started to do some looking at research, and here’s what I found.  Hungerford and Gonyo (2007) looked at scores on the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) to see if they predicted scores on the CELF-4 for students referred for language testing.  They found that the BRIEF predicted working memory, receptive language, language content, and core language scores on the CELF-4.  They didn’t find that it predicted expressive language; however, the researchers thought that it wasn’t predicted because the CELF-4 looked primarily at language at the sentence level, and limited executive functions were needed at that level.  Singer and Bashir (1999) reported that, “Metacognitive strategies, by and large, consist of routines that are mediated with language (p. 267).”  In their case study with George, they found that teaching him executive functioning strategies, his language skills grammatical structure and cohesive ties improved without direct intervention.

Dr. Fletcher-Janzen made the statement, “Teach executive functions from the top down.  Demand organization and then help them organize.”  This made me think about narrative-based interventions – are these interventions so successful in the research because they support student executive functioning skills, too?  Do they support student organization of language which, in turn, helps students support their understanding of language?

So, as you are planning you next therapy session, ask yourself these questions:  Am I teaching language top down and helping children learn how to scaffold their own learning? Or am I teaching discrete skills and expecting my students to generalize?


Dawson, P. and Guere, R. (2010).  Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents:  A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention.  New York:  Guilford Press.

Hungerford, S. and Gonyo, K. (2007).  Relationships Between Executive Functions and Language Variables.  Paper presented at the American Speech Language Hearing Association Conference, 2007.

Singer, B.D. & Bashir, A.S. (1999). What are executive functions and self-regulation and what do they have to do with language learning disorders? Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 30, pp. 256-273.

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