February 16, 2017

The Roadmap to Independence: Grades 4-6

This month we’ll continue to move throughout the lifespan as we explore later elementary years. Students who have transitioned from primary grades to later elementary grades are often exposed to different learning experiences than their younger peers. These include experiences that foster more independence and certainly more complex tasks across all subjects. Academics grow more difficult and more is expected of students in terms of responsibility and the ability to work on their own. In these years, students are expected to independently pack their backpacks, work on longer writing tasks, solve more complicated mathematical questions, explore more abstract concepts in science and history, as well as independently turn in finished assignments. Additionally, students are often expected to work collaboratively with their peers with less facilitation from adults and social skills grow more complex. However, due to the primary characteristics related to social difficulties and secondary characteristics related to executive dysfunction, students with ASD may have significant challenges with all of these tasks.

Did you know?

Executive functioning involves all of those processes which help us to learn. Think of it this way: executive functioning is like the conductor of the brain. The conductor organizes, initiates, stops and manages all the other parts of the brain.

Executive functioning helps us to do many important activities. Executive function helps us to attend, plan, organize our materials, and organize the steps to complete an activity. Executive functioning is what helps us to do complicated tasks such as make choices, make decisions, set goals, reason and solve problems. It also helps us to self-monitor our behaviors and control our impulses. In other words, executive functioning helps us to complete tasks. These skills are what help each of us clean a room, make a cup of coffee, complete a project for school, pack a book bag and navigate through activities of daily living. When this part of the brain isn’t functioning correctly, it’s termed executive dysfunction.

Imagine how difficult completing tasks can be for the individual with ASD! Individuals with ASD may have trouble with:

  • Paying attention
  • Organization and planning
  • Starting and stopping tasks
  • Transitioning between locations and activities
  • Completing routines like opening a locker or bringing the right book to class

Managing emotions or controlling impulses

How to Help!

There are many tools to support executive functioning skills and support the student with ASD throughout the day. The following strategies can help students take control of their day and support their success:

Adjust the environment

Structure in the environment lets the student know what is expected. It helps the student know what to do and where to do it. Depending on the age of the student, the environment will look different regarding the size of the furniture, types of materials used, and the structure implemented.

Utilize routines

Developing and maintaining routines are important because first and foremost, they utilize the strengths of students with ASD. Remember, we all like routines but those with ASD thrive in a routine environment, and with the right supports, they quickly learn the steps of a routine. Once a routine has been learned, the student with ASD is able to focus on the content of a task rather than the steps.

Use schedules

Schedules teach expectations. They tell students what to do, where to go, and when to do something. Schedules help students who struggle with transitions by alerting them to what will happen next and also assist with flexibility by preparing the students for changes in their day.

Visual supports

There are many types of visual supports that can assist students with executive functioning challenges. This includes, First / Then visuals, checklists, scales, thermometers, social narratives, and visuals for emotional regulation. Don’t forget, this also includes supports such as graphic organizers to assist students with organizing thoughts across all subjects, including math!

Tech tools

Don’t be afraid to go high tech! Smartphones, tablets, and computers can all assist students with executive functioning skills and can prepare them to use more advanced skills throughout middle school, high school, and beyond! There are many useful apps and programs that can help organize tasks, assist with schedules, and support independence!

Quick Tip!

Prepare for the transition to middle school early. Don’t wait until the last minute to help teach vital skills that will help students succeed during the transition! Noel Woodward, Technical Assistance Associate at VCU-ACE reminds us that, “This will include teaching students how to set up their notebook, how to find things in their notebook, put things in their notebook, use agendas, and be able to communicate their wants and needs in any way, shape, or form!” Noel also advises later elementary teachers to collaborate and communicate with parents and middle school staff as they prepare for a successful transition. To learn more, watch our Ask the Expert video with Noel on students in later elementary years! https://vcuautismcenter.org/resources/asktheexpert/

Want to Learn More?

To learn more about secondary characteristics related to executive dysfunction, register for our Foundations of Autism Spectrum Disorder course:


To learn more about practices to support students with ASD, register for our Evidence-Based Practices to Teach Students with ASD course:


To watch a quick refresher on environmental considerations, transitioning, visual supports, graphic organizers and more, watch our How To videos here:


VCU Coursework in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Virginia Commonwealth University is currently accepting applications for the next cohort for ABA coursework starting in September 2017! VCU offers courses in Applied Behavior Analysis as well as the supervised experience designed to prepare participants to apply to sit for the Behavior Analyst Certification Board® (BACB) examination.

The coursework is provided online so students can access it from anywhere. The professors have a wealth of experience both in public education and in other settings. This makes it so the content is taught using real life examples that are easily applied to students’ current work settings.

Students will complete the courses as a group or cohort. A new cohort is scheduled to begin during the Fall 2017 semester. Courses would be taken across six total semesters (Fall, Spring, Summer, Fall, Spring, Summer). Students with master’s degrees in Education, Psychology, or Behavior Analysis will be given preference for admission.

You must apply and be admitted to the coursework at VCU. The online application can be found on the VCU-ACE website or by following this link: https://vcuautismcenter.org/surveys/abaApplication/. Applications will be accepted using rolling admission but preference will be given to individuals who apply prior to April 1. Applications received after April 1 will be considered depending upon available space.

For more information on the VCU ABA Coursework, please visit our website: https://vcuautismcenter.org/te/coursework/vcuaba.cfm.

Don't Forget!

This month’s webcast on February 14th, 2017 will be the second half of our two-part series with Sean Casey, Ph.D on Conducting Appropriate FBAs. This second half will discuss utilizing Function Based Assessments. Specifically, this webcast will cover:

A theoretical background of ABA; knowledge to operationally define, record, and display behavior for appropriate data analyses; and background knowledge of key concepts that lead to great understanding of why children display challenging behavior. Discussion will include underlying reasons for using the ABA model for challenging behaviors, the ethical use of this technology in school settings, how to define behavior, how to select appropriate methods of data collection, the antecedents that can cause challenging behaviors, and other concepts related to determining the function of behavior.

To register, click here:


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