Understanding Executive Functioning Skills and ADHD

In the past few years there has been a surge in our understanding of executive functioning skills and how they overlap with ADHD.  As a parent of a child or teen with ADHD you’ve likely come across articles about executive functioning online or heard the term mentioned by teachers at your child’s school. However, many parents don’t feel as though they really understand what executive functioning skills are or how they relate to ADHD. Developing a clear understanding of executive functions can help you think more broadly about your child’s ADHD symptoms, and might even help you identify new strategies for helping your child succeed at school and at home.

Executive functions are brain-based abilities responsible for helping us with organization, focus, planning, delayed gratification, and emotion regulation. They represent the brain’s central executive, responsible for overseeing the management of our decisions, behaviors, and emotions – especially when we are planning and working toward achieving a specific goal. Executive functioning skills exist on a continuum. Some people having very strong executive functioning abilities (these are people who are planners and seem to always be on top of everything in their busy lives!) and others have weaker executive functioning skills. As you might have guessed, research has shown that kids and adults with ADHD generally have weaknesses in executive functioning skills.

Dr. Thomas Brown, a leading expert on executive functioning skills and ADHD, breaks executive functions down into six separate interconnected clusters. As you read though the summary of these clusters below, think about your child and their specific strengths and weaknesses in these six areas.  It might be helpful to consider these clusters within the context of an everyday activity like completing homework or getting ready for school in the morning:

  1. Analyzing and Activating: Taking a big picture overview of the job that needs to be completed, organizing thoughts and materials, prioritizing tasks, and initiating work.
  2. Focus: Focusing attention on the project or task, staying focused, and shifting attention back to the task in the fact of distractions.
  3. Effort: Continuing to put in effort until the task is completed, and working at a pace that isn’t too fast and careless or too slow and unproductive.
  4. Emotion: Managing frustration when things get tough.
  5. Memory: Remembering and recalling the steps and information that is needed in order to reach a goal, and using “working memory” to make mental calculations along the way.
  6. Action: Monitoring progress and adjusting actions and plans as needed until the goal is reached.

All children develop executive functioning skills gradually as they age. A five-year-old child has limited executive functioning abilities, and will struggle to work consistently toward a goal or complete a multi-step task. As they age their executive functioning skills will gradually develop and by adolescence they will see significant gains in their ability to achieve long term goals and complete complex tasks. However, when a child has ADHD these executive functioning skills develop more slowly. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a child, adolescent, or young adult with ADHD to have executive functioning skills that are developmentally about two years behind their peers. This is one of the reasons why a very bright student with ADHD might struggle to stay organized or complete and turn in simple homework assignments. Many aspects of the student’s intelligence are highly developed and possibly even advanced, but the executive functioning skills that would allow them to reach their full academic potential are delayed.

As parents, if you can identify which executive functioning skills are weak areas for your child, then you can focus on teaching them these skills and providing supports that will help your child compensate until their skills are more developed. There are a number of excellent books available that you can use as a guide. My favorites are Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Full Potential and Smart but Scattered Teens, both by Peg Dawson Ed.D. and Richard Guare, Ph.D.  As you read and learn more about executive functioning you may just find that a targeted executive functioning skills-based approach is just wanted your child needs to move closer to reaching their full potential.

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