Executive Functioning Expert Sarah Ward Works with KA-12 Faculty

By Lindsey Kundel, Director of Communications & Marketing

Taipei American School was thrilled to welcome Sarah Ward to work with teaching faculty on November 12 as part of the school's larger work to support all students. She conducted three separate presentations with teaching faculty from the three divisions from 8:30-11:30 AM over Zoom.

Sarah Ward (M.S., CCC/SLP) is the Co-Director of Cognitive Connections and has over 25 years of experience in diagnostic evaluations, treatment, and case management of children, adolescents and adults with a wide range of developmental and acquired brain-based learning difficulties and behavioral problems not limited to but including Attention Deficit Disorder, Verbal Learning Disabilities, Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Other Social-Cognitive Learning Disabilities, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Acquired Brain Injury. Her particular interest is in the assessment and treatment of executive function deficits. She holds an adjunct faculty appointment at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. 

Today, Ward's work with TAS faculty members focused on the development of executive functioning skills across different age ranges along with providing a number of concrete techniques that teachers can use to build these skills in developmentally appropriate ways.

Ward opened up her discussion by stressing the importance of nonverbal working memory in a person's executive functioning, saying that non-verbal working memory should always occur before the verbal working memory process. Ward described this as a student's ability to have a "thought-bubble" that guides them through if-then conditional thinking. A student then will move into the verbal working memory process, which is the process by which a student engages in self-talk to work through problems. Many students with poor executive functioning are unable to engage in this conditional thinking process. They might present with verbal working memory, but much of it is a negative form of self-talk.

Another important part of her talk today was around the concept of situational awareness, including one's ability to navigate space, time, objects, and people. Situational awareness helps a person navigate a room, understand a day or week's timeline, get their objects organized, and to read the role of different people (including themselves).

According to Ward, a neurotypical person's ability to read the room happens twice as fast as it takes to blink your eye. However, if a person has impaired executive functioning, this process takes much more time and discussion to facilitate.

A student's ability to have both situational awareness coupled with nonverbal working memory allows them to engage in something Ward calls "mimetic-ideational information processing," which is a mental trial and error simulation that many of us engage in without realizing it.

One of Ward's most important reminders had to do with helping teachers understand that individuals with poor executive functioning are not intentionally trying to forget things in their locker or to come to class unprepared. "90% of the time, we imagine what we are going to do in one space to carry out a plan in another," said Ward. 

This matters, she said, because there is both a time and a geographic barrier to a student's ability to have helpful cues that would better enable them to succeed.

The distance in time and space that a person is able to envision and rehearse their future goals is called the temporal-spatial window. Ward says that this window is larger for neurotypical individuals and smaller for individuals with cognitive impairments. Essentially, the question each of us has to ask ourselves is, "How far into the future can we see?"

There are developmental norms for the temporal-spatial window. A two-year-old can only see into the present; they quite literally cannot see far into the future. By 3-5 years old, individuals can visualize themselves into the future between 5-20 minutes. By early elementary school (Grade K- Grade 2), students can see themselves several hours into the future. By Grades 3-6, individuals can see themselves 8-12 hours in the future. Most high school students can, surprisingly, only see themselves 2-3 days into the future. It is not until a person is 17-23 years old that you can see 2-3 weeks into the future, and by 23-35 years old a person can see 3-5 weeks into the future.

Executive functioning has three important sequences: planning backward, executing a task forwards, and self-monitoring ourselves while problem-solving and controlling emotions.

Ward reminded teachers that all students and teachers are using their executive function skills throughout the day. She concluded her talk today with skills that both teachers and students can practice to help improve executive functioning skills. She stressed that these are skills that can be improved and aren't just a given.

Helping to improve how teachers scaffold these skills, Ward argues, will benefit all students, not just the students with poor executive functioning.