School-Based Assessment of Executive Functions

Center on Brain Injury Research and Training
School-Based Assessment of Executive Functions

Assessment of any student should never rely on a single test or measure. Assessment involves gathering data from several sources and synthesizing the information to look for trends and patterns across time and setting. Assessment of executive functions is no different. For an effective assessment of executive functions, a variety of measures should be used including: formal one to one assessment, standardized checklists, observations, interviews and work samples. From these, conclusions may be drawn on the use of executive functions in a particular student. The following is a list of measures and techniques used to gather information on executive functions in students.

Standardized Measures Commonly Used to Test Executive Function:

Caution: Using checklists or rating scales alone may tend to overestimate executive functioning difficulties in typical school children. Therefore, it is important to consider the age of the student and compare student progress with same-age peers. It is a good idea to also consider re-testing or monitoring progress in executive functions later on in the student’s school career.

Rating scales

Behavior Rating Index of Executive Function (BRIEF):

Designed for students ages 5–18, both parent and teacher versions are available. The BRIEF uses a 3 point scale to determine how often a student performs a behavior. It offers a global score and index scores on behavioral regulation (with the scales: Inhibit, Shift, and Emotional control scales) and a Metacognition Index (with scale scores of initiate, working memory, plan/organize, organization of materials and monitor). It was published in 2000 by Psychological Assessment Resources. A preschool version is also available.

Child Behavior Checklist - Teacher Report Form (CBCL):

This is a general measure of behavior that taps into social emotional functioning attention. It was published in 1991 and is published by Achenbach who is also the author.

Formal Measures

NEPSYII (Korkman, Kirk, Kemp, 2007

An individually administered assessment battery for students ages 3 to 4 and 5–16. It is used to measure Social Perception , Executive Functioning/Attention, Language, Memory and Learning, Sensorimotor Functioning, Visuo-spatial Processing.

Cognitive Assessment System (Naglieri & Das, 1997)

Evaluates planning and attention and is one of few measures based on a single theory of intelligence. The battery uses six subtests to evaluate performance in two areas: Planning and Attention both of which are involved with executive functions. It takes about 60 minutes to administer.

Children’s Category Test (Boll, T. 1993)

This brief measure was designed for students ages 6–16 and provides an indication of mental flexibility and a child’s ability to categorize. It takes 15–20 minutes to administer. The overall score is the best indication of performance. The CCT is appropriate for use in combination with intellectual and academic achievement tests and is a nonverbal task to be administered independently or during the California Verbal Learning Test®—Children’s Version’s (CVLT®–C) delayed recall section. It also responds to federal legislation requiring the evaluation of students suspected of having traumatic brain injury. In addition, the test accommodates the needs of children with color acuity problems and may be appropriate for children with severe motor handicaps. Unlike most comparable instruments, CCT was standardized on a national sample with stratification variables including age, sex, race/ethnicity, region, and parent education level. It is a booklet version based on the Halstead-Reitan Category Test for Children. CCT was co-normed with the CVLT-C.

WISC-IV Advanced Clinical interpretation (Weiss, Saklofske, Prifitera, Holdnack)

This text introduced a potential screener/research executive functioning. The index uses 4 subtests based on 1 subtest from each modality. The subtest must not contribute to other indexes. Evidence of sensitivity to EF based disorders uses Comprehension Multiple Choice, Elithorn Mazes, Spatial Span Forward and Cancellation Random. The text has normative information and clinical group research for EF based clinical groups

Observations and Interviews

Use both observations and interviews to determine the following types of information regarding a student’s executive functions and the student’s ability to perform in a variety of situations and environments. Observe in the classroom and in a less structured environment. It is imperative to observe the student in “normal” settings for any type of evaluation. Another vital piece of information comes from interviews with teachers, parents, as well as the student, to determine concerns and areas of interest.

Observe During Assessment

Watch for and ask how well the student is performing on:

  • Self regulation of affect when tasks are demanding or boring
  • Problem solving strategies
  • Perseveration of ideas or response choices
  • Persistence in a goal or in attempting to complete a task
  • Flexibility in ability to switch from task to task or change ideas when solving a problem
  • Attention span and ability to sustain attention
  • Memory or recall of previously learned information or specific words
  • Working memory or the ability to recall needed information such as directions, steps or sequence needed to solve a problem
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Theory of mind (ability to understand the perspective of another person)
  • Task initiation or how long it takes a student to start a task

Classroom Observation

Observe and interview students and teachers to determine activities that indicate the ability to organize, plan, use working memory, initiate, change tasks, sustain attention, use response inhibition, and time management or other executive functions.

To do this, find out if the student:

  • Has materials ready at the beginning of a lesson
  • Begins and stops working when others in the class do
  • Switches from one task to another task
  • Recognizes that another student’s feelings and ideas are equally important
  • Is considerate of others
  • Has difficulty with writing
    • Motor control
    • Planning how written information will fit on a page
    • Writing automatically
    • Difficulty with organization of content in written material
    • Poor retrieval and use of ideas when writing
    • Difficulty holding and manipulating thoughts, retrieving ideas and executing written material
  • In math, look for the following types of difficulties
    • monitoring progress and self correction when doing calculation
    • maintaining an idea, organizing a strategy and retrieving steps accurately when calculating
    • organizing, storing information, retrieving information and executing steps when learning and applying memorized information such as addition facts
  • In reading, look for the following types of difficulties
    • Ability to plan, recall and use decoding strategies
    • Reading words fluently
    • Understanding and using information read in a sentence, passage, or longer article
    • Ability to make inferences or use strategies for reading comprehension
  • In study skills, look for
    • Desk, backpack organization
    • Homework completion
    • Ability to read a text and glean needed information
    • Ability to listen and glean needed information
    • Turning completed homework in on time
    • Interpreting assignments correctly
    • Use of study strategies in classroom

Informal Settings Observation

  • With peers look for
    • Effective interaction in social situations
    • Ability to join a topic of conversation
    • Ability to understand information being discussed by peers
    • Speaking appropriately given a setting
    • Ability to start and stop a conversation appropriately
    • Appropriate comments to others indicating a regard for their feelings
    • Adaptation of behavior to a situation

Home Observations

  • Ask the family the following types of questions
    • Does the student plan events in advance?
    • Is the student able to start and stop a conversation appropriately?
    • Does the student adjust voice, topic of conversation, or comments depending on the setting or environment?
    • What is the student’s ability to initiate activities such as going out of the house, getting to school on time, etc?
    • How well does the student appropriately express emotions?
    • Does the student demonstrate a full range of emotions, few emotions, or extreme emotions only?
    • What types of future plans does the student have?
    • Are the student’s room and belongings organized to an age appropriate degree?

Program Design

  • Create a hypothesis after assembling all the information
    • Hypothesis should rely heavily on observed behaviors within the student’s daily routine.
  • Evaluate hypothesis by trying an intervention and
    • test the outcomes from the intervention used
    • assess the outcomes
  • Modify the program as needed
Posted on BrainLine June 17, 2010.

D’Amato, R.C., Janzen, E.E., & Reynolds, C.R., (2004). Handbook of School Neuropsychology. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Dawson, P., (2004). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and interpretation. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
deCaire, M. Clinical Measurement Consultant, Harcourt Assessment-PsychCorp. Retrieved 11/17/07.

From the Center on Brain Injury Research and Training. Reprinted with permission.

Comments (1)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

Insights into the large idea of executive function (changes due to brain concussions, etc.) are provided in educational books like:  Nerves in Collision book by Walter C. Alvarez, M.D. and the How To book about Hyperactivity (aka Inattentive ADHD), introduction by Anita Uhl Brothers, M.D.  Executive function (simplified)  is the ability to use a written annual planner effectively.  X-ref:  motivational writers - N. Hill, Dale Carnegie, etc.  X-ref:  sustained attention vs involuntary inattention, processing, central auditory processing (CAPD/APD) issues,  working memory, personal initiative vs initiation glitch, etc.  Thank you for raising the topic of executive function.  Appreciate it.