The Relationship Between Executive Functioning and Emotional Regulation

How many times have you tried to get your kids ready for school, and someone has a meltdown before they ever get out the door? Or your toddler is constantly bouncing from one extreme of emotions to another – elated one minute and falling apart the next? Whether you have a child on the autism spectrum, or a toddler who is just navigating the self-help journey, this morning routine is just what your child needs to improve their emotional regulation skills.

Why do toddlers and autistic children struggle with emotional regulation?

Toddlers and children on the autism spectrum generally struggle with executive dysfunction, which leads to difficulties with emotional regulation and self soothing strategies. Executive functioning is what allows the brain to categorize and respond to the constant barrage of incoming and outgoing signals. If the child is struggling emotionally, their brain will not be able to direct these signals properly; and if the brain is not handling the signals properly, the child becomes emotionally unstable. It’s a vicious cycle, and it explains the child’s inability to self regulate.

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Executive functioning and emotional regulation

Imagine a kid in a batting cage, who is just learning to hit the ball. They are struggling just to hit a single ball as it comes at them. They have to watch the ball coming their way, swing the bat, and then follow through to see how well they hit it…or if they hit it. You’ve probably even seen that one kid who’s terrified of the ball, and closes his eyes as he swings!

This is a good illustration of executive functioning.

Now let’s pretend that we’re going to increase the speed, so balls are constantly flying at this poor kid, who is already terrified of the ball, can’t focus enough to swing or steady his arms, and quickly becomes overwhelmed with the entire situation.

You can probably guess what happens next.

The child will likely melt down. Whether they frantically scream for help, run away, or curl up in a ball to avoid being hit by the incoming baseballs, they are going to react in a way that protects them or helps them escape from the overwhelming situation.

(The reverse is also true: if the child becomes enraged or overwhelmed by sadness, they will not be able to hit a ball, or focus on their task.)

You see it, right? That’s exactly how executive functioning works. Your toddler is just learning to deal with daily life situations, and your child with autism is in the same boat. So, when too many things come at them at once, no matter how small those things are, the child is going to have a meltdown.

By the way, a super example of this is the movie Inside Out – you should definitely see it if you haven’t already!

Executive functioning and emotional regulation help

The good news: there IS hope for improving these skills! Here are some ideas for improving executive functioning and emotional regulation:

Executive functioning:

1)Use a planner for weekly tasks

Show your child how to fill in their weekly schedule (or daily schedule for toddlers and children with lower cognitive levels). This will take some practice, but planning is a great way to improve organization skills.

2)Make lists

Make short lists of items for young children to collect. Make short lists of tasks for older children to complete. Visual aids can be used for both, if necessary.

3)Set time limits for list items

Use a timer to help your child complete a task, or individual items on a list, within a designated time frame. This will help them achieve small goals.

4)Follow a routine

Giving your child consistency will help them know what to expect. When they get comfortable with a routine, they feel more in control, and know what to expect. This will help your child to focus and complete tasks at the designated time.

Emotional regulation:


Doing 10 minutes of physical exercise, first thing in the morning, works wonders for emotional regulation. Try this simple, 7-minute morning routine.

2)Emotion Books

As an autism mom, I am constantly reading emotion books to my kids. They are great for recognizing how emotions look and what causes them, and also how to appropriately respond to them.

3)Visual aids

Don’t just tell your child how to respond to negative emotions – show them. Your example is great, but a visual aid is even better for many. Make a visual calm down checklist or problem solving flowchart for your kids, and demonstrate these techniques.

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4)Social stories

Social stories are helpful for so many situations. If you have a child with autism, you definitely need to be using them. There are even social story apps these days, so there’s no reason not to! Using social stories can help your child to know how to respond appropriately to big emotions.

5)Calming Techniques

Teach your child different self-calming techniques, such as deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball, or using a crash pad. Create a calming corner, tent, or sensory room for them to go to when they feel overwhelmed and need a break. (Feel free to check out our play room and sensory room!) You can also help your child by doing gentle joint compressions or brushing.


Help your child improve their executive functioning and emotional regulation skills

Understanding the relationship between executive functioning and emotional regulation is a big step in improving these skills. If you implement the above suggestions on a regular basis, your child should begin to recognize their emotions and deal more appropriately with them. This will help them to be able to properly receive and direct signals throughout the day. Just remember not to push your autistic child too hard at once – gently entice them on a consistent basis for the best results.


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