Children, teens, and even adults are working with executive function skills every single day. Executive function skills are critical and practical to learning to live daily lives. Executive function uses an incredible part of your brain. Executive function is that skill that allows you to mentally visualize what is going to happen in the future and how you are going to be able to accomplish it. Executive function is how we are able to pay attention, organize, plan for the future, stay focused to finish tasks, and how to regulate emotions. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sara Ward on this topic. Check out some more information about executive function, then go check out the Podcast with Sara Ward for some more in depth conversation on the topic! 

How Does Executive Function Affect Us?

When it comes to executive function, parents or caregivers are often doing the planning for younger children, by reminding them of the tasks they need to complete. As students get to middle school and high school, the list of demands for the day and the planning needed are much more significant. When our students struggle with executive function, a standardized test is not going to be able to gauge what executive functioning skills children have. According to Sara Ward, “90% of the time, task planning happens in  a different place from where you execute the plan.” As you plan your day, one important aspect of planning is “feeling the future” or using gestures to feel the future. Before young children can find the verbs to describe their future tasks, gestures will help kids plan the future. Children will gesture how they are going to carry out their plan, like use their hands to describe walking up the stairs to my bedroom for my soccer gear, gesture how they are going to stop in the bathroom, and gesture with hands picking up my cleats. Children can use a gesture to show how they are going to do each of these tasks to work on executive function. When you use your body, it helps students visualize into the future. It is often abstract for our students with autism or executive function deficits to see into the future or visualize the future. Gesturing makes it more concrete. 

Strong Verbs=Executive Function

Children with stronger executive function use strong verbs to describe their activities. When you have vague verbs and struggle with executive function, using their hands, the verb will be easier to find and use. Sara Ward uses an example of putting glue on a paper. She then prompts the student to show her and the child will show the glue going from corner to corner and not just “putting it” in the center, the child will then use the words to describe how they are going from corner to corner with the glue. SLPs are really tasked with working with students on their executive function, as it is so important for their language development, using gestures and then much more specific verbs to communicate. 

Visualizing!

During work with middle school and high school students, visualizing the future for completing a book report or larger assignment to use more specific verbs to describe how they are going to complete it will be tremendous for our students working through these skills. Many adult brains that do not have any problem with executive function, your brain is constantly running a list of what you are doing, what you are doing next, like what is for dinner? When do I need to pick up my daughter? This assignment is due tomorrow, so I need to do it now. Laundry will be flipped in a minute. Remember this is an executive function and working on this with our students will be a huge game changer.

Testing for Executive Function?

Testing for students struggling with executive function must be done by specific evaluators like neuropsychologists. SLPs are not licensed for giving this test. However, Sara Ward discusses many more tests for executive function in detail in the podcast. To highlight a few, Sara does recommend the Barkley Attention Deficit Executive Function Scale, because of the way it differentiates between attention deficits in comparison to executive skills in the individual. Oftentimes, attention deficit is to blame vs. actual lack of executive skills. CEFI, Clinical Executive Function Inventory, is an online tool that Sara suggests to accurately characterize kids behaviors related to executive functioning. 
Executive function is a huge topic for SLPs and for anyone working with students with autism or students with neurotypical brains. There is a load of information regarding working with students with executive function and will absolutely be a game changer in your work with students. Check out the podcast for an engaging discussion with Sara Ward, an expert in the field! Let’s get our students visualizing their futures and organizing their thoughts to build those executive function skills!

Leave a Comment