Executive Function/EF/Exec Func.:
We’ve all heard about it, often in conjunction with TBI-related impairments and rehabilitation. As research in our field continues though, we are finding that this small category of impairment may not be so small after all. Executive function (EF) inefficiencies appear highly associated with social-cognitive deficits and difficulties with pragmatic language comprehension and use, an area impacting huge numbers of children (and adults) around the country. So having a solid understanding of EF is critical to appropriately addressing the needs of a diverse population of speech-language patients!
WHAT IS IT? EFs are the mental processes that direct cognitive, communicative, and social behaviors. They allow individuals to successfully plan, initiate, carry-out, monitor, and revise tasks and activities. You can think of EFs as little “secretaries” working around the clock to plan and manage everything going on around you.
WHERE DOES EF LIVE? EF functions stem from frontal lobe areas of the brain. This is why EF impairments tend to be so pervasive in traumatic brain injuries; the coup-contrecoup injuries almost inevitably impact frontal lobe well-being.
I keep hearing about Self-Regulation in association with EF. WHAT’S THE DEAL? Self-regulation of one’s behavior, mood, emotions, etc. is inherently tied to EF abilities. Self-regulation is one of the many processes controlled under the EF umbrella, and children who are often overly impulsive in their behaviors and decision-making will likely demonstrate additional EF challenges under closer scrutiny (including deficits in: planning, initiation/drive, self-monitoring, cognitive flexibility, generative thinking, and self-awareness).
HOW DO WE ASSESS EF? Good question! This is a toughy, mainly because these clients can often “pull it together” and appear ok on standardized tests and tasks performed in controlled testing environments (although admittedly for some, these environments may underestimate real world functioning). A good assessment for EF should always include systematic observations of the client in a variety of real-world contexts! Most standardized tests that exist for looking at EF issues are intended for adult patients (although the Behavioral Assessment of the Dysexecutive Syndrome for Children is one option in pediatrics), so obtaining high-quality assessment data for children requires some creativity and a good awareness of the skills necessary to be tested (ability to inhibit, ability to problem solve/plan/sequence, generative abilities/cognitive flexibility). Beyond standardized testing, here are other assessment measures that should be completed:
- Interview: Talk with the client and their family about any personality and behavior changes (especially those that might be difficult to measure out of context). You can also ask your client about a typical day and the challenges they encounter.
- Questionnaires: Adaptations of The Brock Adaptive Functioning Questionnaire or The Dysexecutive Questionnaire will allow you to create a questionnaire appropriate for the pediatric population! You can also use options like the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, which has both a preschool form and an adolescent form.
- Task-Specific “Interview”: Determine a task to be completed by the client. The task should include multiple steps and require various types of attention (sustained attention, alternating attention, etc.). Have the client make predictions about the difficulty of the task and projected success level before beginning. Then carefully observe the client during the task, encouraging them to engage in self-monitoring throughout it. Finally, review the task with the client, asking them how they think they did, how their performance compared to their prediction, and what strategies they used to succeed.
- Observation: You should observe the client in a variety of naturalistic setting performing multi-step activities. Many of these kids can verbally tell you the steps to an activity, but fall apart when actually tasked with completing it.
HOW DO I MANAGE EF DEFICITS IN CHILDREN? This is a huge, ginormous (new word alert) question. Rather than delve into the chasm of management options out there, I will instead leave you with some functional worksheets I have created to help kids recognize their EF challenges, be able to talk about them, and problem-solve strategies for coping with those challenges.
The biggest treatment benefit I have noticed is incorporating LOTS of repetition of the key words you plan to use throughout intervention, and creating treatment resources that are clear, organized, and simple. Remember, these kids have trouble planning, initiating, persevering, self-monitoring, and controlling impulsivity, so activities with too many parts/steps will go right over their heads. I also find it important and helpful to remind kids why they are working on these skills: to make learning at school easier, to feel more organized, to be able to make friends more easily, to know when it’s the right time to talk in a group, etc. The carryover between these EF skills and improved pragmatic language/social-cognitive skills will impress and amaze you!
Many of these kids have a hard time recognizing when a problem is REALLY BIG, and when a problem is totally minor. In other words, every problem is a crisis for them and they need to learn a way to coach themselves through these situations. This easy flow-chart I created is a good way to visualize the “coaching” process. To use the flowchart, begin by asking yourself: “Is this problem a big deal or a little deal?” If you accidentally ripped your paper while tearing it out of the binder, that’s a little deal and one you can go ahead and act upon (getting a new piece of paper). You then can quickly reflect on whether it should have been treated as a bigger deal, or if everything turned out ok. If the problem is a big deal, you should make a plan using the provided steps. Based upon that plan, you act and then review to decide whether your decision was a good one. This also works really well with decision-making for kids who agonize over every little decision. Your goal is to get them to ask themselves: “big deal or little deal?” through self-coaching. I provided you with a link to the PDF of this document-just make sure to ask for permission before handing it out (thanks)!
Impulse control is really hard for this population, so giving these kids a clear definition of when it’s appropriate to speak your thoughts and when it’s not is super important! With something as basic as the page above, you can practice writing out thoughts that need to stay in your head (because blurting them out would be inappropriate/hurt someone’s feelings/make someone feel uncomfortable/etc.). You can even theme the bubble thought activity: what are some thoughts you are likely to have in X class at school that should stay in your head? Or, what are some thoughts you might have when talking to X that should stay in your head?
Helping these kids to figure out how they learn best and then supporting them in becoming strong self-advocates is a great tool for school success! I would pair this resource with a simple document like the one below, so kids can choose a few methods that work well for them and regularly review them to make sure they are using/asking for those modifications and supports when necessary!
I sincerely hope this post has given you a good place to start when it comes to incorporating EF treatment into your intervention plan for kids with these types of challenges! Let me know how the treatment goes 🙂