Guest Post: What is Executive Functioning and How Does It Relate to ADHD?

{Today’s article was contributed by The Edge Foundation.}

If do much reading about ADHD sooner or later you are going to come across the term “executive function” and wonder how does this affect my child and what do I do about it?

Simply put, executive function is a term that psychologists and medical professionals use to describe the higher functions of our brain that help us control and self-manage ourselves. Here’s one technical definition: “The administrative portion of the brain that coordinates and regulates organization, time management and perception, deferred gratification, prioritization, attention, impulse control and persistence at tasks.” So what does that really mean?

Executive function is most easily understood by looking at a few examples:

  • When you resist that piece of chocolate when you are on a diet, you are using the executive function of your brain to defer the pleasure of that yummy chocolate right now for your longer term goal of losing weight.
  • When you bite your tongue instead of telling someone off, your executive functions help you evaluate consequences (you might hurt their feelings or make them mad at you) and control the impulse to blurt out your opinion.
  • If you have a project in school that you really dislike but you know you need to accomplish in order to pass the class, executive functions help you make a plan to break down the project into bite sized pieces, stick with it when you are feeling frustrated or bored, and ask for help when you get stuck.
  • Getting ready to leave the house on time, you use executive functions to keep one eye on the clock and the other on the things you need to get into your backpack before you run out the door to catch the bus.

LD Online, a great source of information about learning disabilities and ADHD, identifies some of the major areas of executive functions:

  • making plans,
  • keeping track of time,
  • keeping track of more than one thing at once,
  • meaningfully including past knowledge in discussions,
  • engaging in group dynamics,
  • reflecting on our work and evaluating ideas,
  • changing our minds and making mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing,
  • finishing work on time,
  • asking for help,
  • waiting to speak until we’re called on, and
  • seeking more information when we need it.

ADHD and Executive Functioning

The challenge with understanding how ADHD and executive functioning are interrelated is that EVERYONE can have executive function troubles at different times – it’s a matter of degree. People who have ADHD are more often challenged by executive functions than people who don’t have it.

Have you noticed when something is interesting to your child they are all over it?. No executive function problems there, right? However, you’ve probably also noticed that difficult or uninteresting tasks can be very difficult to pay attention to – even when it’s something that is very important such as remembering the time of a final exam or to turn in a field trip permission form. Executive functions help reveal why ADHD isn’t simply a matter of will power or caring enough. As Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., Yale University School of Medicine says,

“Most people, those who do not have ADHD, can usually make themselves pay attention to tasks, even tasks that are boring, when they recognize that they just have to do it. People with ADHD find it much more difficult to make themselves pay attention unless the task is one that has immediate interest value to them. The core of their problem is … being able to manage their mind to focus on tasks they need to do, even when those tasks are not immediately interesting.

How can you boost your executive functions?

The challenge for many people with ADHD is that they know what they should be doing, they just have trouble making themselves do it. There are tons of organizing and self management tips out there, but until your child has figured out his or her own personal strengths and weaknesses it can be hard to find the ones that work best. Some easy-to-implement ideas include:

  • Using a timer to monitor internet surfing time
  • Placing post-it notes by the door as reminders of things to be done when leaving the house for the day
  • Putting your ADHD medicine on your son or daughter’s toothbrush so he or she is sure to take it in the morning

As a parent of a teen or young adult, you know that it’s easier to make suggestions than to get your child to try them. Teens have trouble taking direction from their parents because they are at a life stage where they need to form their own identity and independence. Parents, therefore, can feel helpless to helping a child get on track. That’s where an ADHD coach comes in.

Recent studies have shown that an ADHD coach can help provide your child with structure, support and accountability while they work with him or her to figure out long-term life-skills strategies. An ADHD coach helps reduce conflict between you and your child because he works with your child to achieve goals she sets for herself while supporting and building her executive functions. Then you can get out of the role as nag and back to being a parent.

For more information about ADHD coaching, visit the Edge Foundation, a nonprofit, 501(c) 3 organization that provides coaches for ADHD high school and college students. They recently completed research that showed ADHD coaching boosts executive functioning.

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom.
A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom’s view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at http://BoyWithoutInstructions.com.

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Related posts:

adhd and school, executive functioning, NEWLY DIAGNOSED ·

About the author

COVER3D_400sq_bestsellAward-Winning Blogger. Freelance Writer. Author. Warrior Mom. A self-described “veteran” parent of a son with ADHD, Penny Williams is the author of the Amazon best-seller about her parenthood in the trenches, Boy Without Instructions: Surviving the Learning Curve of Parenting a Child with ADHD. She is also the creator of the award-winning website, {a mom's view of ADHD}, a frequent contributor on parenting a child with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications, and co-founder of the annual Happy Mama Conference & Retreat, a weekend away for moms of kids with neurobehavioral disorders. Look for her second book, What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting ADHD, in late 2014. Follow Penny at http://BoyWithoutInstructions.com.

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The "ADHD Mommas" are not medical or mental health professionals, nor an ADHD coach. Any opinions shared here are just that, opinions. I, and the other "ADHD Mommas," are sharing our experiences with our own ADHD children. Please do not re-post or publish any content or photos without a link back to {a mom's view of ADHD}. Have the courtesy to give credit where credit is due. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

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