Executive functioning skills can be the engine to your kid’s future success and happiness. Or, they can be the source of many frustrating obstacles. Impairment in executive functioning skills often arises in kids with ADHD and other learning differences. Find out what you need to know to get your kid set on the right track.
The Fundamental Importance of Executive Functioning
Executive functioning is the fundamental process in your brain that makes sure your stuff gets done. It makes sure that when you wake up in the morning, you move through the day in some way that enables you to make it to bed safely that night. Your executive functioning skills make sure that you get something to eat when needed. They help you avoid danger and have a safe place to stay. And, help you occupy yourself with something meaningful to you.
Who’s In Charge Up There?
The executive function component of your brain is like an inner Jiminy Cricket. But one with actual authority and decision-making power. It decides what information gets absorbed or ignored. How it gets processed. What actions should be taken in response? What plans should be made for the future? How to evaluate the significance of past events. Figuring out what’s the best thing for me to be doing right now. And, what’s the best thing for me to do right now to get to where I want to be tomorrow.
Experts use several different metaphors to help describe executive function. They often make comparisons to air traffic control centers or an orchestra conductor. Basically, someone responsible for making all the different pieces of your world come together in a successful production. The entity managing the rapid flow of life’s activities to prevent mishaps and disasters.
We likely often see executive functioning discussed in terms of metaphors because it is somewhat amorphous. It has lots of there there but it is easier to describe the discrete elements in the bucket than it is to describe the actual container as a whole.
The Different Elements of Executive Functioning Skills
Presently, we don’t have an exhaustive list of executive functions, but most experts would include these:
- An inner voice that directs and controls behavior
- Impulse control
- Working memory
- Sustained attention and focus
- Emotional regulation
- Ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate
Stated broadly, executive functions are the brain functions and thought processes that allow you to problem-solve, set priorities, and achieve goals. And, they provide the ability to control your own attention. So, you can make yourself pay attention to something that is dreadfully boring or distasteful.
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Executive Functioning Disorder: When Executive Functioning Goes Awry
Executive Functioning Disorder (EFD) essentially describes some significant impairment in executive function or executive function skills. EFD is not an official diagnosis that you’d find in the DSM-5. But, it is a documented condition that gets studied, discussed, and treated.
Executive function is life’s GPS system for your future. It is the bucket of skills that helps you identify the destination, figure out the best way to get there and provides you with the tools or guidance for the tools that help you implement all of the steps necessary to get there. Including how to recognize and address unexpected problems or issues that crop up along the way.
You could still function without a GPS system. But it is extremely difficult to get someplace when you don’t have a map, directions and you can’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you at any one time. Will you eventually arrive at your destination – assuming you even figure out what that destination might be? Definitely possible. But with lots more difficulty, uncertainty, frustration, and unhappiness. And, the overall journey will likely be unpleasant.
Executive Functioning Can Determine Academic Success.
Impaired executive functioning skills are not related to basic intelligence. But, executive functioning challenges will often lead to academic and school struggles.
In addition to basic problems with attention and focus, impaired executive functioning skills often involve lost and missed assignments. Or, impairments can result in underestimating the time it takes to complete projects. Or, the time remaining on a test. It can lead to missed deadlines. And, it can create an inability to work independently to successfully complete homework.
Thus, impairments in executive function can become more striking and have larger consequences as a child progresses in school. In elementary school, both teachers and parents provide lots of support to kids at home and school. This support helps plan out and organize kids’ activities in an appropriate fashion. But, in middle school and high school, the expectations for independently organizing and managing work increase substantially. And, the overall workload increases as well. A child with impaired executive functioning skills may buckle under the weight of these increased expectations and responsibilities.
For instance, a third or fourth-grade teacher might print up a weekly sheet that lists the class assignments for the entire week with reminders about due dates. And, she might even send an email to parents about upcoming important projects. In contrast, a middle school teacher might simply post the assignments on a bulletin board or chalkboard without fanfare. Relying on the fact that she informed the class at the beginning of the year where to look each day for assignments.
Unfortunately, a child with impaired executive functioning will often be erroneously perceived as having negative character traits like laziness or chronic procrastination. But in reality, performance problems arise from involuntary impairments in executive functioning.
Signs And Symptoms Of Impaired Executive Functioning Skills
- Extremely disorganized.
- Constantly losing things or forgetting them.
- Trouble organizing materials and setting schedules
- Inability to make and follow a plan
- No internal sense of time
- Can’t recall or follow multi-step instructions
- A hard time paying attention
- Difficulty with self-control
- Trouble managing emotions
- Trouble transitioning from one activity to another
- Has difficulty completing long-term projects
- Has trouble with thinking before acting
- Is easily distracted and often forgetful
- Has trouble waiting his turn
- Can’t remember what he’s been asked to do
How is Executive Functioning Disorder different from ADHD?
Many of the symptoms for EFD overlap with symptoms for ADHD. And the line between ADHD and EFD isn’t all that clear. All kids with ADHD most likely have issues with executive function. But, not all kids with executive function issues have ADHD. Most kids with ADHD will likely have some degree of impaired executive functioning skills. And, kids with an inattentive type of ADHD are more likely to show impaired executive functioning than kids who have only the hyperactive-impulsive presentation of ADHD.
Researchers say that ADHD kids have about a 30% delay in the development of executive functioning skills when compared to non-ADHD kids. So, a 10-year-old with ADHD may have executive functioning skills comparable to that of a 7-year-old.
Other conditions that will also exhibit impaired executive functioning:
- Other learning disabilities
- Depression and other mood disorders
The way that you might approach impaired executive functioning skills in kids with ADHD may differ sharply from the approach taken with kids with learning differences or other issues.
For example, if a child’s impaired executive functioning arises from ADHD, appropriate medications and behavioral interventions can help treat it. In contrast, a child with learning disabilities needs tutoring and educational interventions and accommodations directed at his specific learning differences.
This article provides a great example of how impaired executive functioning that results from ADHD looks different from impaired executive functioning that results from learning disabilities. And why the treatments and strategies used to address these impairments must differ in order to be successful.
How Are Impairments In Executive Functioning Skills Diagnosed?
A trained professional such as a child psychologist can assess executive functioning skills when problems get detected. Such professionals will use standard diagnostic tools involving written evaluations or reports from parents and teachers and sometimes the student. For instance, a common diagnostic tool is the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF). It’s a written survey consisting of 86 questions that focus on different areas of executive function.
A full neuropsychological exam includes an assessment of executive functioning skills along with an array of other issues. The benefit of a more comprehensive approach would be the opportunity to identify other conditions that may be affecting your child.
How Are Problems With Executive Functioning Skills Treated?
Treatment for impaired executive functioning skills involves identifying the specific areas in which a child is weak and helping him develop tools and strategies to compensate. Effective treatment will be tailored to the specific needs of the individual child. But the most important thing that you should know is that your child’s executive functioning skills can improve with practice.
Your child can work with a learning specialist or educational therapist to improve executive functioning skills and develop effective organizational skills. But there are also many ways in which parents can work with their kids to improve executive functioning.
Parents Can Help Executive Functioning.
Parents can help kids learn to create and use external cues and tools to fill in for areas where executive functioning skills may be weak.
Create Routines & Systems
Help your child develop routines or systems for keeping track of important information that cannot be adequately or reliably maintained in his own memory. You can work with different tools such as note cards, sticky notes, and task management apps with reminders. Or, a journal or visual planner.
Help your child stay organized with checklists. This helps eliminate any decision-making as to what comes next and the associated anxiety. It also shows them exactly where they need to start the process for any given task.
Help your child learn how to use a planner. Your child’s school may already require a planner. And, they may even provide one. But, you should make sure that he knows how to use it. And that he has a system for making sure assignments get systematically recorded.
You can also create systems of external motivation that can help your child stay on task and work toward goals.
Help Master Time Issues
Kids with impaired executive functioning often lack an internal sense of time. So give them an external way to track time. Like timers, watches, etc.
Obviously, these are tools that many people use every day, including ones that otherwise have a very high level of executive functioning skills. They are extremely effective tools that help people stay on track and get things done.
You can help your child master executive function skills with lots of practice. But, the sooner younger children start this process, the better positioned they will be as they move forward in school.
And don’t think practicing executive function skills has to be a chore or obvious work like homework. You can accomplish these goals with various games and fun activities as well.
Executive Functioning Skills: Key Takeaways For Parents
Impairments in executive functioning can be treated and improved. And, it is a condition that you can actively help to manage with simple tools and strategies.
Parents should be mindful that the presence of impaired executive functioning skills can possibly lead to misdiagnosis of a child’s problems. And, such misdirection can interfere with the implementation of more appropriate and effective treatment options.
Every child needs to develop adequate executive functioning skills. And these skills are worth improving even if any impairments don’t rise to the level of a disorder in any specific child.