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Special Education/Executive Function assessment


QUESTION: Hello. I have a 9-year-old son with Asperger's who is also gifted. He's currently in 4th-grade, with a 1:1 aide, primarily for organization (some behavior). His annual ARD is coming up and I'm wondering if I should request an assessment specifically for executive functioning.  And if so, do you have any recommendations? His deficits in this area have great impact both at home and at school. It's important to me that specific goals are set to improve his skills so that he can hopefully become more independent.

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ANSWER: Hi Michelle,
Thank you so much for writing to me about your elementary school aged son with Asperger's and giftedness--he's twice exceptional.  :)

You are wondering if you should request an evaluation in the area of executive functioning at the upcoming meeting. You'd like me to make recommendations, and your goal for him is greater independence with specific goals in the IEP.

As you probably know, one test or data point should not be used to make decisions. Therefore, multiple ways to evaluate your son's executive functioning would be my recommendation.  I hope to break down executive functioning a bit and make some suggestions for evaluation.

But first, let me talk a bit about the timing of making a request for evaluation.  I would not wait until the upcoming meeting to make the request.  I think it's best to put your request in writing to the team, before the meeting, so that at the meeting, the team can discuss your request and give you an answer as to what the team will agree to do and how it would like to do it.  

There is not one test for executive functioning. A competent psychologist would use aspects of cognitive tests and other tests to explore executive functioning. The psychologist or neuropsychologist can also give rating scales to teachers, and parents, and related service providers.  It's important to carefully consider who should fill out rating forms as executive functions can appear different in different settings. There should also be practical observations and data collection from the classroom, to determine the extent to which the aspects of EF are affecting classroom performance and to tease out what aspects of EF are affecting your son's progress or access to the curriculum.

I found this really cool slide show that breaks down the cognitive process and describes some of the formal tools that can be used to explore the EF areas.

EF is commonly seen as a set of cognitive processes that affect planning, organization, emotional control, and task completion, among others.  Initiation of task, attention, gathering resources, inhibition, and memory skills can all be relevant skills for a child with problems with EFs.  

Here is a very detailed and technical, but useful, course summary by Russell Barkley, a leader in the field.  It talks about pros and cons of various assessment tools.

I think these links will give you plenty of information.  I am very happy to take a follow up question since I have given you such detailed information.  Again, thank you very much for writing to me.  I hope I have given you the information you are seeking.  I wish you all the best as you advocate for your child!

Don't forget, we audit IEPs, advise parents about their rights including obtaining an independent evaluation at public expense if warranted, and we make expert recommendations for how your child's "paper program" or IEP and "real life program" or school placement may be improved to better meet his needs.  

My Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book details evaluations, scores, how to interpret scores, and even has sample letters to request the evaluation.  My School Success for Kids with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders book details positive behavior interventions and the right way to do a functional behavior assessment.  Check them out on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Prufrock Press.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you. This was very helpful. Let me clarify my first question so I can best make a decision.

My son's ARD date will not be until March 2013. We already have several personnel conductiong assessment and observations. I was trying to figure out if it would be beneficial to add a specific assessment for EF or if the already-scheduled assessments would be sufficient. (I would make the request jn writin, now, so that there is plenty of time for it to be completed and reviewed.)

Just from skimming through the website from the link you sent, I do believe I'll request the BRIEF, which is a rating scale for children. The district has a BCBA who will observe my son in all school settings. It sounds as if she would already be taking notes on many of the skills identified with EF. A school psychologist is also part of our assessment team, and he is currently receiving OT services to help within self regulation.

I want your advice on the following:

1) Should I request a specific assessment for Executive Functioning?
2) Who is best-qualified to assess this area, or does the district determine this?

I'm sorry if I'm not vey clear. I hope I made some sense!

Hi Michelle,

It's nice when you give me this information so I can get a more specific idea about the information you're seeking.

Since the school district is doing the evaluation now, I am assuming that you already met as a team, and discussed the evaluations that were going to be done, who would do them, the diagnostic questions to be answered, and the purpose of evaluation.  This would be the right procedure, so that you would have been adequately informed before you provided your consent for the evaluation.  A parent must provide written consent for assessments, for any assessments that are not given to all of the children in the whole school/district.  

If the team did meet, and you gave written consent, I would advise you to review the document you already signed.  If it says that you have already consented to a psychological evaluation for your son, then I would advise you to write to the school psychologist who is doing the evaluation already, specifying that you believe the area of EF is affecting your son, and that you are requesting he/she be sure that the evaluation that is underway includes the areas of EF.  You would say that you would like the evaluation that is underway to explore how any deficits in this area are affecting your child, whether additional or different accommodations or special education or related services may be needed, and whether the IEP should be revised to address these areas.  You can use what I gave you to name specific areas of concern, such as initiation, inhibition, working memory, etc., if possible.  This can get a little tricky, since EF is not a disability in itself, and it is a constellation of skills.

If you have not already consented to a psychological evaluation, then you should
make a written request to evaluate the area of EF, specifically, but you should be prepared that the district may then request a meeting to discuss your request.  

If you did not have a meeting and provide consent in the manner I discussed, then I would advise you to write a letter with your request and ask for the team to meet to discuss.  

It's important that the team would have met to discuss since the evaluation of this area is likely going to be most effective with multiple disciplines working together to collect information.  EXAMPLE:  The psychologist could do formal cognitive testing and rating scales while the BCBA does observations in the classroom, while the teacher and aide collect day to day classroom data.  The OT can also weigh in on the evaluation of EF.

When a parent asks for an evaluation, usually, the consent is provided for broad areas and most of the time, the professional will be allowed to use the types of tools/tests in which they have been trained, that the district has purchased, or that are available to them.  So I am not sure you should request one over the other, especially if the examiner is not trained in its use or interpretation.  The BRIEF is commonly used but there can be other rating scales that can help identify EF areas.  

Did this clarify and 'hit the mark' for your question?  I hope so!  But if not, send me another follow up.  Thanks AGAIN :) for using this service.  

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Michelle R. Davis, M. Ed.


I can answer questions about disability definitions and criteria for services, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004, No Child Left Behind, 504 plans, how to craft an IEP that drives the appropriate services, school placement, dispute options, and least restrictive environment. I worked in the public school system as a special educator and am now in private consulting practice where we assist parents as they navigate the special education process. I have expertise in all educational disabilities except blind/visual impairments and deaf/hard of hearing. This includes ADHD and other health impairments, medical conditions, dyslexia and learning disabilities, Autism, emotional disabilities, language processing problems, and interfering behaviors.


10 years as special educator and administrator in public school system; Director of ABCs for Life Success since 1998; Expert services such as analysis and testimony; Author: Special Needs Advocacy Resource Book: What you can do now to advocate for your exceptional child's education; Special Needs Advocacy Training Institute; internet radio show Teach Your Children Well: Hot Topics in Education; author School Success for Kids with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders released March 2010 (Prufrock Press).

Masters in Special Education with Emphasis on Inclusive Education (Johns Hopkins University); Special Education (James Madison University); Conduct training for Universities, public and private schools, parent groups. Adjunct professor current George Washington University and prior George Mason University.

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