Whether you’re working with a young child, teen, or adult, executive functioning skills are among the most critical and practical skills we need. In this interview with Sara Ward, an SLP specializing in executive function, she shares her unique background that makes this work so special to her, as well as some really interesting approaches to assessment and intervention.
Many people have different explanations for executive functioning. Sara defines executive functioning for young children in the most basic form, sequencing. As you reach middle and high school, you’re continuing to plan with a window of time and space that is continuously growing. It’s very easy for parents and professionals to be a child’s “prosthetic frontal lobe”, we visualize the students through space and time and we at times over prompt.
So in a neurotypical brain this is the ability to visualize where you are in a future time or space. 90% of the time, task planning happens in a different place from where you execute the plan. Naturally, as you might plan your day and anticipate the tasks necessary to accomplish your daily routine, you may use gestures to prompt your steps.
An intervention Sara uses that is really successful in young children is teaching them to gesture. So a child with really great executive functioning skills would use very specific verbs to describe the steps necessary for their future plans. With a child who is lacking in executive function, you might prompt them to show you with their hands. Oftentimes, when students are able to feel the steps with their hands, the attached verb comes. So there is this language and movement attached with task execution.
How do you determine the need for executive functioning? Assessments are tricky because SLP’s are not licensed to administer tests related to neurocapability. Evaluators tend to look at Executive Skills through observation and rating scales. Sara recommends the Barkley Attention Deficit Executive Function Scale, because of the way it differentiates between attention deficits in comparison to executive skills in the individual. CEFI, Clinical Executive Function Inventory, is an online tool that Sara suggests to accurately characterize kids behaviors related to executive functioning. She also mentions several other tests and scales that can be used, in addition to looking at existing speech and language assessments with an executive functioning lens.
Sara provides so many great suggestions and tools for working with students on executive functioning and the program she developed. As an experienced SLP, I myself found this information so enlightening. I cannot wait to take these tools to my next IEP meeting and to my therapy. I hope you found this just as helpful.
Sarah Ward, M.S., CCC/SLP has over 25 years of experience in the treatment of executive dysfunction. Sarah is an internationally recognized expert on executive function and presents seminars on the programs and strategies she has developed with her Co-Director Kristen Jacobsen. Their 360 Thinking Executive Function Program received the Innovative Promising Practices Award from the National Organization CHADD. She has presented to over 1600 public and private schools worldwide.
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