Updated: Oct 25
Are you an executive function coach grappling with how to assess your students' executive function skills accurately?
Or a parent who wants to look beyond the day-to-day waves of missing assignments and understand your child's planning, organization, and self-advocacy skills, in an objective and rational manner?
Perhaps, you've even had a comprehensive neuropsychological exam completed for your student, but you still feel like you don't have the answers you are looking for.
These are just some of the questions and challenges that engaged educators, proactive parents, and executive function coaches often grapple with.
There is no "perfect" way to assess executive function skills
I've seen many different attempts to assess executive function skills including:
Neuropsychological exams done by leading professionals (including those who designed the actual norm-referenced measures)
School-based assessments done by school psychologists and special educators
Reports done by Speech-Language Pathologists, Assistive Technology Specialists, and Occupational Therapists
Determinations made by judges about students' executive function skills after serving as an expert witness on executive function skills
After working with hundreds of families, and reviewing countless comprehensive neuropsychological exams, I've come to the conclusion that there is no "perfect" way to assess executive function skills.
The reason is that executive function skills intertwine and overlap with so much of our daily functioning.
Let's take the skill of planning, as an example. In order to plan out reaching an objective such as earning an "A" in a class, you need to utilize a host of other critical skills including:
Inhibition (avoiding attractive distractions that would prevent you from earning the "A")
Sustained attention (you will need to study to pass that mid-term)
Prioritization (what are the most important tasks and projects in service of earning that "A")
Time management (how are you blocking out time to work on the tasks necessary to earn that "A")
Do you see the challenge in trying to accurately measure someone's "planning" skills?
A student may have all the cognitive hardware necessary to plan, and when given a battery of exams, they may appear as "average" or even "above-average" in their abilities, but when it comes to completing their projects and homework in Chemistry, they are missing the mark.
Okay, so how do I measure my child's executive function skills?
I've come to believe that the best way to assess executive function skills is through a holistic assessment of the student's ability to manage their educational experience.
I say "educational" and not "academic" because educational includes:
When we keep this bigger picture view in mind, we can then more accurately assess if a student is developing appropriate executive function skills relative to their peers, age, and maturation.
Since every child develops at a different pace, especially kids with ADHD, we want to support them in "executively" evaluating their development.
By helping them self-evaluate, they start to increase their own awareness, while also establishing their own baselines by which they can grow from.
This also happens to fall into the category of "self-reported grading" which is one of the most powerful impactors on student achievement from the book "Visible Learning" by John Hattie.
For those who don't know John Hattie and the Visible Learning study, this study:
Synthesized 800 meta-studies on various teaching approaches
Encompassed over 250 million studies globally
Is continually updated and refined in this Global Learning Database
Based on the importance of allowing students to "self-report" as a means to improve their educational achievement, I suggest the following approach when evaluating executive function skills.
Step 1: Have the student self-evaluate their executive function skills using one of the tools below
See below for an in-depth description of each of these, but if you are ready to get started, just click on one of the options below.
If you are someone who likes hard, numerical data, I suggest going with Peg Dawson's ESQ.
Seth Perler's "13 Executive Functions Assessment"
Life Skills Advocate "Executive Functioning Assessment"
Step 2: Using the same tool(s), have the parents and other professionals (teachers, therapists, coaches) evaluate the student's EF skills
To keep things manageable, I suggest starting with the student, one parent, and one involved educator who works carefully with the student.
Step 3: Aggregate the results and use them as a starting point to explore where there are discrepancies in the data and why those exist
If you complete the ESQ, you will get results that look something like this:
This is very helpful as it provides numerical scores that can be compared, rather than qualitative statements which may spark great conversations, but not give clear, data-driven metrics, that some parents or professionals wish to view.
There is no perfect way to do this, but it may look like putting the scores on a spreadsheet with three columns like this:
Baseline Data on Sean (Collected 10/25/2023)
Teacher / Coach
Step 4: Select an intervention approach and intervention interval, then repeat steps 1 through 3, to determine if the intervention was effective.
Once you have your baseline, you can then try:
12 weeks of executive function coaching (1 weekly session, 1 monthly Family Team Meeting)
Spending an hour every Sunday creating a plan for the week
Or any other approach that can be implemented with fidelity.
What do I mean when I say implemented with fidelity?
This just means the approach has to be consistent, otherwise, you will not be able to determine what aspect of the approach worked and what didn't.
For example, if you try executive function coaching for 6 weeks, then stop and do Sunday planning sessions with Mom and Dad for the remaining 6 weeks, you will not know if the growth, plateau, or loss of skills was because of the EF coaching or the Sunday parent support.
How do I determine if there was growth, a plateau, or a loss of skills?
At the end of the intervention interval, such as 12 weeks of EF coaching, you can re-assess the student's executive function skills using the same measure and see if there was growth, a plateau, or a loss of skills.
Post-intervention Data on Sean (Collected 1/25/2023)
Teacher / Coach
Average Change from Baseline (+/-)
From this approach, you can see that there is an average growth in all areas, meaning the intervention was successful!
For the remainder of the article, I'll do a deep dive on each of the assessments I've used in an online format, so you can decide which one is best for your student; or better yet, let your kid choose which one they want to use!
How do I conduct an assessment online?
To administer them exclusively online, you can use video conferencing platforms like Google Meet or Zoom. Share the assessment links with the participants, and complete the questionnaires together during the session or have them filled out in advance.
For a multisensory approach, consider incorporating screen-sharing, visual aids, and verbal explanations to ensure an engaging and accessible experience. While the article mainly discusses EF skill assessments, you can explore additional assessments based on your expertise with students with dyslexia or other learning differences.
Both Google Meet and Zoom are user-friendly platforms, so with your comfort in using technology, you should be able to adapt quickly and effectively deliver these assessments online.
Use Peg Dawson's Executive Skills Questionnaire
Peg Dawson is a renowned psychologist who has spent over 40 years working directly with children and adolescents in schools and clinical settings. Co-author of the acclaimed books "Smart but Scattered" and "Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents", Dawson's extensive research and practical experience make her a leading authority in the field of executive function skills.
Peg Dawson's Executive Skills Questionnaire (ESQ) is a self-report tool used to measure executive function skills in adults and children. Executive skills are the cognitive processes that help people plan, organize, and execute tasks.
The ESQ includes questions related to 11 areas of executive functioning:
While there is a complete manual to using this assessment which can be found on this page, here are the steps to use Peg Dawson's ESQ:
How to use Peg Dawson's Executive Skills Questionnaire
1. Obtain the Questionnaire: You can find the ESQ in the book "Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention" by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. You can also find it for free online using this link.
2. Understand the Ratings: Each executive skill is rated on a scale from 1 (Not at all like me) to 5 (Very much like me). There are also "Not Applicable" options.
3. Distribute the Questionnaire: The questionnaire can be completed by individuals about themselves or by others about the individual. For example, parents, teachers, or therapists can complete it about a child, or adults can self-rate. I like to have both parents, one teacher and the student complete this, at the forefront of the coaching process.
4. Complete the Questionnaire: The individual (or person rating the individual) completes the questionnaire by reading each item and selecting the number that best describes the person. It's important to answer honestly and to think about how the person typically behaves, rather than how they behave in their best or worst moments. If you are doing this online, you can complete it with a student and fill it out for them, or send it to them in advance. I suggest doing it with them, so you can easily save the results for your files.
5. Calculate the Scores: Add up the scores for the items under each executive skill to get a total score for that skill. The higher the score, the greater the person's competence in that executive skill. If you are doing it online, the scores will be automatically calculated for you and converted into a neat graph!
6. Interpret the Results: Once all scores are calculated, you can identify the individual's executive skills strengths and weaknesses. The skills with the highest scores are the individual's strengths, while the skills with the lowest scores are areas that may need improvement or support.
7. Develop an Intervention Plan: If the ESQ is being used as part of an intervention plan, use the results to develop strategies to improve the areas of weakness. This could involve direct skill-building activities, environmental modifications, or use of the individual's strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.
Like any self-report measure, the ESQ is not a diagnostic tool and should not be used in isolation to make conclusions about an individual's abilities. It's best used in conjunction with other assessment methods and professional judgment.
Use Seth Perler's "13 Executive Functions Assessment"
Seth Perler, as an executive function coach and educator, has provided an invaluable service to the community of parents and teachers of students with ADHD. He has demystified the complexities of ADHD and executive functioning through his practical, actionable strategies, personalized coaching, and advocacy work.
Of particular note is his YouTube channel, which offers a wealth of educational content on a range of topics. These accessible videos provide insights and strategies that have helped countless families and educators navigate the challenges of ADHD.
Moreover, Perler's transformative TEFOS (The Executive Function Online Summit) conference has brought together experts in the field, parents, teachers, and students to share, learn, and discuss executive function skills.
This conference has been instrumental in fostering a supportive community, spreading awareness, and providing effective strategies to help students with ADHD succeed in school and beyond. Through his multi-faceted approach, Perler continues to make a significant impact on the ADHD and executive function community.
Check out the video below to learn how to use Perler's "13 Executive Functions Assessment" and click here to download the printable assessment sheet.
Life Skills Advocate "Executive Functioning Assessment"
Chris Hanson and the team at Life Skills Advocate have created an easy to use tool to gauge an individual's executive function skills. Accessible on the Life Skills Advocate's official website, the assessment typically focuses on various areas of executive functioning such as planning, organization, time management, task initiation, emotional control, and more.
To use the tool, participants rate their abilities in these areas on a given scale. After completing the assessment, scores are tabulated for each area to identify strengths and areas for improvement.
This insight can guide the development of tailored strategies to bolster executive function skills, making this assessment a beneficial starting point for understanding and enhancing executive functions.
Understanding and nurturing executive function skills is fundamental to a child's academic success and overall well-being. As demonstrated through Peg Dawson's ESQ, Seth Perler's "13 Executive Functions Assessment," and the Life Skills Advocate "Executive Functioning Assessment," there are numerous resources available to help assess and improve these vital skills.
Whether you're a parent, educator, or a coach, these tools can provide crucial insights into a child's strengths and areas for growth. If you're considering professional guidance, an executive function coach can offer personalized strategies based on the assessments' outcomes.
Alternatively, if you're keen on a DIY approach or simply wish to enhance your knowledge, our free course, "Enhance Your Executive Function Skills," can serve as an excellent starting point.
Regardless of the path you choose, we're here to support you. Let's collaborate to equip your child with these crucial skills, paving the way for a brighter future.
Reach out today for a no-cost consultation to discuss how executive function coaching can empower your student and family for a brighter future.
About the author
Sean G. McCormick founded Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered.
He trains educators, parents, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges through his courses in the Executive Function Coaching Academy.