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Measuring Your Child’s Executive Function: What Families Needs to Know

If you want to measure your child’s executive function, or your school or doctor is recommending an executive function evaluation, this post is for you. Here you will learn about 3 common ways to measure executive function and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Before We Begin:

This article explains a scientific paper that analyzes various methods of measuring executive function. The paper is “Measuring Young Children’s Executive Function and Self-Regulation in Classrooms and Other Real-World Settings” McCoy, D. C. (2019). Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, volume 22, pages 63-74. Published by Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature. 

Key Takeaways

Research has shown a child’s early executive function (EF) and self-regulation (SR) skills build the foundation for successes in life, such as improved academic performance and good mental and physical health. There are several tools that have been developed to measure these skills. 

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each type of assessment.

Direct Assessments

Direct assessments measure how well children perform certain tasks. They are often in the form of games, either online or with physical objects, or conversation. Children complete these to see how well they do certain tasks related to thinking and controlling behavior. Most of these assessments have been around for a long time and are verified by scientists.

Advantages of Direct Assessments:

  • Direct assessments are always done the same way, which keeps them fair and exact. 
  • These tests are good at identifying specific thinking and behavior skills. This helps show how the different parts of your child’s thinking and behavior work together.

Disadvantages of Direct Assessments:

  • They might still measure more than just what they’re supposed to. For example, a simple test to see if your child can remember number order needs your child to use other skills like paying attention and following instructions.
  • Some kids might not do well on these tests because of things not connected to their EF skills. For example, a child who is shy may have struggles that aren’t really related to the tasks in the test. This can make it seem like they have trouble with thinking and behavior skills when it’s really something else. 

Adult Reports

Adult reports are when parents, teachers, or other caregivers share how kids behave in their every day life. These reports usually take around 15 minutes to complete, and are usually pretty reliable. However, research also shows that adult reports are prone to various forms of bias. Adult reports have been around for a long time.

Advantages of Adult Reports:

  • Adult reports are good for research because they’re cheap and easy to do – all it takes is an adult’s time to fill them out!
  • These reports usually cover lots of different thinking and behavior skills all in one, which is great for looking at the big picture. 

Disadvantages of Adult Reports

  • Adult reports, especially those focused on problems like attention or behavior, are good at spotting kids who need extra help, but they don’t identify kids who are excelling at EF skills.
  • It might be hard to separate the other information the adult doing the report knows about the child. This means that adult reports are very subjective and may be biased. 

Tests measuring different forms of executive function skills indicate that they begin to develop shortly after birth, with ages 3 to 5 a window of opportunity for dramatic growth in these skills. Development continues throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

Observational Tools

Observational tools involve someone watching kids do activities and then filling out a form about what they saw.

Advantages of Observational Tools:

  • The people observing and rating the child doesn’t already know them, so they are able to be objective.
  • Usually these observers have watched lots of kids, so they can compare the kid they’re watching to others they’ve seen, which helps make their ratings fair.

Disadvantages of Observational Tools:

  • They take a bit longer than direct assessments and adult reports.
  • The people observing the child only see what’s happening at one time, so they can’t really share how the child behaves in different situations.
  • Kids might act differently when they know someone’s watching them, making it hard to get a true picture of their skills.

Actionable Steps for Parents

If you want to learn more about executive function, check out this Webinar from the National Head Start Association

Check out some of our other EF Tips for Families

Take a free online course: Introduction to Executive Function.