In recent years, educators have focused considerable attention on fostering students’ executive functioning skills. This can be a daunting task for some teachers who are challenged with a lack of time to embed such skill lessons within the expected content area of instruction. It may prove even more complicated when learners with high-functioning autism are a part of their classroom community. Below, we suggest six specific steps teachers, counselors, and school leaders can follow to promote executive functioning skills in students who have high-​functioning autism. The process of assessing student needs, creating visual reminders, and providing constructive feedback can help students’ ability to plan accordingly for school, ward off distractions to focus attention, and control impulses, among other associated competencies.

Defining HFA and Executive Functioning

We will use the term High-Functioning Autism (HFA) instead of Asperger’s to describe this population of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder who exhibit behaviors in two domains: social/communication deficits as well as fixated interests and repetitive behaviors. Asperger’s is no longer a separate diagnostic category in the DSM-5. Middle school students with HFA may demonstrate repetitive patterns of behaviors, e.g., they have to sit in the same chair, use the same pencil, face a specific wall and have fixated interests (such as die-cast toy cars), show extreme withdrawal, and may become distraught when their routines are interrupted. They may also have poor social skills, which makes it hard for them to interact with their peers and develop meaningful relationships. More importantly, they require instructional support to develop executive and social functioning skills.
While varied definitions prevail on the executive functioning skills, here are the high-level key competencies for students:

  • Be goal-oriented.
  • Self-manage: Regulate self, time, and responsibilities accordingly.
  • Persevere with tasks: Start and finish assignments.
  • Be flexible and positively adjust to circumstances: Plan to complete assignments at home when time runs out at school.

Students need these skills almost everywhere in middle school: to follow schedules, keep track of materials, plan for assignments and tests, and work independently. They are also critical for social functioning in order to participate effectively with peers during group work, cope with common frustrations, and ask for support and guidance when disruptions to routines are overwhelming. As most leadership teams can attest, these skills are urgently important because they affect learning.

Students with HFA need more support with executive functioning because of cognitive inflexibility, which means they have a difficult time shifting their thinking between two concepts or thinking about multiple concepts at once. Students with HFA can become so overloaded with a single thought that their planning, organizing, and prioritizing abilities become impaired. For example, most seventh graders can follow a science teacher’s multi-step directions such as, “First, begin coloring the ecosystem that I just handed out. Then, make it into a six-flap foldable and glue it into your interactive notebook.” But a student with HFA might become so focused on a wrinkle or imperfection on the handout that they cannot begin coloring the ecosystem, much less think about gluing it into their notebook.

Additionally, students with HFA struggle with perceiving the emotions of others. They may not be able to read facial cues and body language or understand sarcasm, ridicule, and tones that convey exasperation, which make them vulnerable to social blunder. Moreover, a lack of awareness and regulation of their own emotions, e.g., covering their eyes when they get frustrated, humming the same lyric repeatedly when they are happy, or rubbing their arms repetitively when they are sad, may make them seem odd or different to their peers.

Necessary Steps

School leadership teams can encourage their classroom teachers and mental health specialists to follow these steps to foster executive functioning skills in their students with HFA.

Step 1. Determine Needs

Invite the general and special education teachers to determine the executive functioning skills that the student needs to develop. The fundamental question should be: What essential skill(s) does the student lack in order to be successful in specific classes? The answer can be found in the student’s IEP, classroom observations, discussions with other content area teachers, and interviews with the student and their family. Some of these tasks can be assigned to the school counselor or social worker, such as the interviews. Remind the teachers and specialists to consider the student’s social functioning skills because they are subsumed under executive functioning skills and are just as critical.

The general and special education teachers can then develop appropriate goals and objectives for the student to master. Advise them to outline exactly what the student is expected to do, when they are expected to do it, how often, and for what purpose. Guide them to focus on the student’s assets, such as their cognitive and verbal ability, unique perspective on the world, attention to detail, and specific areas of excellence, and to avoid attending to the student’s deficits and what they cannot do.

Step 2. Examine the Environment

Stimuli in the environment can significantly affect the student. Organize a walk-through of the classrooms with the teachers and specialists to explore distractions that can come from:

  • Lighting: Consider how fluorescent lights, projections from document cameras, and sunlight (or lack thereof) could disturb a student with HFA. Look around the room and decide if reflections from the outside, such as from car windshields, or the inside, such as from laminated posters or desktops, bounce around the classroom. These may similarly interfere with student learning.
  • Seating: Take a moment to ensure that the student’s desk and chair are not wobbly, are clean, and resemble the others. A student with HFA could fixate for a whole period on how different their chair is from the rest. Be mindful that desk arrangements matter. Some students will thrive in classrooms with desks in rows, while others may be more comfortable in a horseshoe. Similarly, some students prefer to sit away from others, while others work well in group seating.
  • Noise level: Be aware of noises that could interrupt learning. These can come from outside the classroom (like the hallway), outdoor campus activities (such as coaches whistling during PE or street traffic), and within the classroom (such as from the air conditioner, overhead light, or transformers).

A good strategy is to sit in the very chair and desk where the student with HFA will be seated. This gives an idea of potential distractions that the student could experience. Also, encourage the teachers to ask the student directly if there are lighting, seating, and/or noise issues in the classroom that might prove to be stressful and anxiety-inducing. Ask the counselor to explore the student’s level of ease in working within the proximity of others. This acquired information can be used to restructure the learning environment to best meet the student’s needs.

Step 3. Create Visual Reminders

Relevant visuals can help the student attend to the identified skills. Suggest ideas to the student’s teachers for creating posters or signs of what the skill looks like in the everyday classroom. For example, a poster can feature a sequence of pictures that depict how to be prepared for the day’s lesson. Another big placard could list expressions to use when working in a group (e.g., “Would you please repeat what you said?”), and a large pocket chart could be used to remind students what to bring to class. A “looks like/sounds like” T-chart could also be displayed on the wall to demonstrate what it means to work independently, plan for a finished project, or keep a calendar.

Checklists, cards, and other organizers printed on durable paper can be made to serve as individual reminders and supports for behavior self-regulation. Checklists, for instance, can be used to prompt students to bring essential materials to individual classes or emphasize important matters to make routine (e.g., Stop by the guidance counselor after seventh period). The counselor and behavioral specialist can be tasked with making laminated cards with pictures of emotions or statements to help students identify and manage their respective emotions. For example, a series of cards can be bound together that convey, “I’m getting stressed. I need to step away,” and “I’m struggling with this assignment. I need help.” (See sidebar on page 37.) The student can use the cards to prompt them to say the expressions and follow through with an intended plan of action such as walking to the calming corner or raising their hand to ask the teacher for guidance. Additionally, graphic organizers can be used to help students clarify what keeps them calm in the classroom, what annoys them, what emotions signal that a crisis is imminent, and what efforts should be made to avoid a meltdown. The information from completed forms can be used to minimize the stimuli known to aggravate the students.

Keep in mind that many of these reminders can be found online and as apps, often for free. An internet search using the phrase “best apps and sites for improving executive function” will retrieve a host of visual planning, working memory, note-taking, and time-management apps.

Step 4. Explain, Model, and Provide Opportunities for Practice

This is perhaps the easiest step because it involves the basic components of instructional design and delivery. All the stakeholders in the student’s schooling should meet with them to explain the identified goals and objectives and why the executive functioning skill(s) are important. In the classroom, the teachers can model the skill and use the visual reminders to complement the instruction. Assign the counselor and the behavior specialist to work similarly with the student in one-on-one sessions. After the stakeholders have taught and modeled the expectations using the visual reminders, they can ask the student specific questions about the skill, (“What’s the first thing you’re going to do with your notebook?”) and allow them opportunities to ask questions of their own. Ample opportunities for guided and independent practice should be provided with and without other students present in the classroom.

Step 5. Provide Feedback, Correction, and Positive Reinforcement

Recommend to staff that oral feedback should be given to improve the student’s performance as they practice the skill. The comments should be constructive—positive and focused on growth (e.g., “It is a good idea to ask, ‘What should I write in my planner?’ before putting it into your backpack”)—rather than critical or punitive (e.g., “You know better. Don’t put away your planner until I say so.”). Remind teachers and specialists that feedback and recommendations for correction are far more effective when they are given close to the time the student practices the skill(s). A student is more likely to improve his or her behavior when the feedback is specific. The teachers should point out what the student does correctly, “You brought all the social studies materials from your locker,” and follow with advice for improvement, “Next time, look at your planner before class to see what materials you can leave in your locker.”

Written feedback should be considered as well, which can serve as positive reinforcement. A fill-in-the-blank form that recognizes the student’s effort and progress can be given when they accomplish the skill, without being a big lift for the educator. Ask the behavior specialist to create a checklist for teachers to fill out to acknowledge the student’s behavior: I asked good questions; I remembered the rules; I spoke quietly when we worked in groups. Another note could explain the student’s successful performance, and the student can fill out the parent’s cellphone number and the best time to call.

Step 6. Assess and Reteach As Needed

Finally, take the time to meet with the teachers and specialists to determine if the student met the identified goals and objectives. In this instance, the assessment is simple: Did the student acquire the executive functioning skill or not? If the answer is yes, provide the student with acknowledgment, praise, and positive reinforcement. If not, reconvene the stakeholders to determine who, how, and when the skill will be taught again with ample practice and specific feedback. The team can consider giving the student a self-assessment, such as a “Grade Yourself” questionnaire they fill out that identifies the challenge associated with the skill and recommendations for how they can be helped, and a place for the student to assign themselves a grade, “A—I was perfect” to “D—I did not do very well.”

Creating a system of processes to help students with HFA is imperative to their educational success. Doing so allows them to flourish and build their confidence within their own executive and social functioning skills, which they can then apply to their everyday lives and in the workforce.

David Campos is a professor of education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX. Kathleen McConnell Fad is an education consultant and author in Austin, TX.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Signal Cards to Help Students With HFA Regulate Behaviors

  • Help Card: Print HELP on a card, give it to the student, and instruct them to place it on the desk whenever the teacher’s support or guidance is needed.
  • Talk Card: Print TALK on a card and place it on the student’s desk to signal that they can speak quietly to others.
  • Break Card: Print I NEED A BREAK on a card, give it to the student, and instruct them to place it on the desk whenever a break is needed for the restroom, a visit to the classroom calming or safe space, or a trip to the counselor’s office.
  • Change Card: Print CHANGE on a card and place it on the student’s desk whenever there will be an abrupt adjustment to their routine.
  • Breathe Card: Print BREATHE on a card and place it on the student’s desk whenever it seems that they are showing signs of distress.