A new collaboration with Project FOCUS in the College of Community Innovation and Education is giving graduate students in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) a unique opportunity  to acquire clinical experience while helping other students.

Project FOCUS (Focused, Organizing, Coaching Undergraduates for Success), provides executive function coaching to help students learn individual compensatory strategies for stress, anxiety and executive function management that are critical to academic and life success.

The 10-session program helps clients, both UCF and non-UCF students, gather the skills and information they need to be able to achieve their academic and personal goals. Five CSD graduate students began assisting in the program in Fall 2023, serving as coaches and providing cognitive therapy to participants under the supervision of clinical faculty. Each student sees up to four clients.

Another cohort of four CSD graduate students is supporting Project FOCUS this spring.

Executive function challenges can present for many reasons. Though executive function deficits are often associated with neurodivergent diagnoses, many of the student clients participating in the program are neurotypical and striving to develop stronger organizational skills. Project FOCUS depends on neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change in response to stimulation and learning — to help students learn new habits and behaviors.  According to research done at UCF, students with executive function challenges who join Project FOCUS perform 80% better after coaching services.

School of Communication Sciences and Disorders Clinical instructor Kelly David ’08 ’13MA, says this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for CSD graduate students, who are required to conduct 400 hours of patient care for degree completion in a variety of clinical domains, including cognition. Students also gain clinical experience in special programs like IREAD, a reading program for youth, or the Intensive Comprehensive Aphasia Program offered at Aphasia House.

“Student clinicians [in Project FOCUS] are seeing the real-time impact of executive dysfunction on academics and employment and are collaboratively working with their students to develop and use compensatory strategies to improve skills such as time management, organization and problem-solving,” David says. “They complete weekly check-ins for accountability for their student, which provides an insight into how these strategies are or are not working. The student clinicians gain experience in applying their knowledge in an individualized way to support their student and overall, the feedback has been positive on both sides of this experience.”

Student clinicians in the Communication Disorders Clinic typically help clients establish goals at the start of the 16-week semester and work to help the client reach those goals throughout the multi-month period. In Project Focus, the student clinician is working in a more dynamic environment, developing new goals targeting executive functioning skills in conjunction with the client on a weekly basis and steadily transitioning ownership of goal setting and accountability to their student.

Kiera Anderson ’22PhD, a research associate in Inclusive Education Services at the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute, serves as the program manager for Project FOCUS and helps train student clinicians to deliver coaching.

“Student clinicians are learning techniques to help people compensate for deficits in executive function skills and strengthen those skills so they can function in daily life,” she says. “They are also learning how to develop intentional, therapeutic relationships with clients, which could translate into any field.”

The CSD students serving in Project FOCUS have the opportunity to gain a different perspective of client interaction in a non-traditional clinical setting. They spend a semester with their student client, guiding them through tasks like meal planning, homework prioritization, task priority management and relationship building, all while focusing on supporting the underlying cognitive functions of these tasks.

The student clinicians who work with clients for the project are mostly aspiring speech-language pathologists. Graduate student Stephanie Roque says this has impacted her future career by providing a foundation of skills she’ll use as a speech-language pathologist.

Left to right: Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute research associate Kiera Anderson ’22PhD, communication sciences and disorders graduate student Stephanie Roque and School of Communication Sciences and Disorders Clinical instructor Kelly David ’08 ’13MA, 

“This experience has helped me understand the significance of active listening and utilizing the individual’s strengths and interests to encourage a sense of motivation within themselves to reach their goals,” Roque says. “The concept of coaching serves as a reminder of the importance of fostering a supportive environment with the individuals and families we will work with.”

Heather Marsden, student clinician in the program in Fall 2023, says the program helped hone her skills she’ll use as a speech-language pathologist and allowed her to witness firsthand the improvement in the students she coached. The program focuses heavily on empowering the student clients to guide their own progress, so they are able to succeed after they graduate from Project FOCUS. This client-led approach is one that the student clinicians will take with them into their future careers.

“I believe the beauty of humanity lies within the unique qualities that each of us has to offer to this world, and Project FOCUS is a constant reminder of this,” Roque says. “Through joint exploration, we use the students’ areas of interests to introduce, implement and modify strategies that can benefit the students’ lives even after the program ends and that is amazing.”