Understanding ADHD: Executive Function Deficiencies And How To Overcome Them

By: Steven Finkelstein

Updated January 31, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

If you have a child with ADHD, or someone else in your family has been diagnosed with the condition, then it is vital for you to understand as much about it as you can. One of the hallmarks of this disorder is that those who have it demonstrate problems with executive function, so in this article, we're going to examine the link between the two. When you're finished reading you should have some valuable fundamental knowledge about ADHD, executive function, and what your child, friend, or relative can do to tackle better the daily tasks that life presents them.

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What Is Executive Function?

Executive function is a term referring to a set of cognitive processes that are needed for controlling behavior. If you have a goal in mind, cognitive function is what facilitates your attainment of that goal. In other words, cognitive function is what's needed for you to focus on some objective, visualize achieving it, and then take the necessary steps to get yourself there. Many of us take it for granted, but for those with ADHD, the brain has developed differently. Some assistance may be required to get from point A, visualizing the objective, to point B, reaching it.

What We Know About The Brain And Executive Function

We know from research that it is the frontal lobe of the brain that allows us to visualize a goal that we've set for ourselves. It is an executive function that enables you to multitask, do things based on your experience, and avoid doing or saying the wrong things at critical moments. It's also responsible for remembering critical details, organizing and planning, switching focus from one thing to another, paying attention, and managing time.

If you have deficiencies in executive function, you're probably going to struggle with things like going to school, getting there on time, and focusing on your tasks while you're there. It will be harder for you to concentrate on your homework and turn it on the due date. As an adult, it can be a struggle for you to hold down a job. You may have a tough time maintaining relationships or doing things independently.

The Two Types Of Executive Function

Executive function can be divided into two subcategories: regulation and organization. Regulation is all about taking stock of your surroundings and then changing your behavior in response to outside stimuli. The organization is about information gathering and then structuring that data for categorization.

Again, in the typical human brain, these are processes that we probably take for granted, but for those with ADHD, it is precisely this sort of thing that presents so many problems. For instance, you might walk past a bakery and see a platter of chocolate-chip cookies. You're trying to lose weight, and so you've put yourself on a strict diet. You know that eating those cookies would be to break your diet, so you control yourself and keep walking.

This is an executive function at work, acting to give you self-control. Someone with ADHD who has not learned ways to control themselves might go in there to buy some of those cookies, regardless of their weight-loss goals. In this way, we can see that ADHD and executive function, or lack thereof, are directly related to each other.

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A Weakness In The Brain's Self-Management System

In the case of someone with ADHD whose brain has developed differently, the frontal lobe isn't functioning correctly, or perhaps it should be said that it is operating in an atypical way. Poor impulse control, unfortunately, is something that can be inherently damaging. The child who cannot control their impulses is probably going to doodle in class, fidget, or talk to their fellow students rather than learning the lesson. The adult who has it might decide to stop and watch a street performer for half an hour, thereby making themselves late for work and getting fired.

Remembering things, creative thinking, and organization of tasks are critical skills to have both as a child and an adult. Don't make the mistake of thinking that ADHD and intelligence are related, because that's not the case. Those who have ADHD can be highly intelligent. It is the weakness in their brain's self-management system that is causing their trouble, not any lack of intellect.

How You Can Tell Your Child Is Struggling

If you see certain symptoms, then it's an early indication that your child may have ADHD or issues with executive function. For example, they might have problems with storytelling, either verbally or in a written form. They might not be good at remembering things or managing projects. They will probably struggle to estimate how much time a project will take. Starting of tasks and activities won't be easy, nor will shifting plans when a situation changes. They may also shut down when a parent or a peer does not act as expected, and they may have trouble expressing what is wrong when this occurs.

How To Manage Executive Function Problems Caused By ADHD

Just because someone with ADHD has problems with executive function, that doesn't mean they can't live a conventional life. It's going to take some training and practice, though, for them to learn how to behave as other people do in areas where executive function comes into play.

One thing that they can do is take a systematic, step-by-step approach to work. They can rely on visual aids to help them get organized like flash cards or color-coded systems. They'll need to learn how to plan for shifts in activities and transition times so that they won't get distracted. They should ask for both written and oral instructions whenever it is possible to do so. They can make schedules and look at them several times every day to know what's coming next.

It's also great for them to use tools like watches with alarms, computers, and time organizers. Anything that can serve as a reminder of what they should be doing and when they should be doing it is going to come in handy.

Improving Time Management

People with ADHD can also take steps to get better at their time management. In school, they can write the due date at the top of each one of their assignments. They can use calendars to keep track of things like chores, activities, and long-term projects. They can break tasks into chunks so that they seem more manageable, and they can come up with realistic time frames for the completion of each one.

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Keeping Objects From Getting Lost And Management Of Space

Since people with ADHD have a tendency to lose things, and they also sometimes have issues with spatial management, it's a smart idea for them to have separate work areas for different projects. They can have different sets of supplies for various activities as well. Cutting clutter is essential, as is keeping their workplaces organized. They can also schedule a weekly or even a daily time for cleaning those workspaces. The younger they are when they fall into these patterns, the more likely that they will be able to stick with them as they get older and join the adult world with its various responsibilities.

Some Ways To Improve Work Habits

Whether someone with ADHD is a child or an adult, they'll need to come up with some work habits that will allow them to keep pace and stay on-task. One way to do that is to make a checklist for assignments. For instance, in the case of a student, the list might include getting out a pencil and paper, putting down the due date and their name, reading the directions, etc. They should meet with a teacher regularly, or a supervisor in the case of an adult in a work setting.

Tutoring Or Coaching For ADHD

There are also some excellent coaches or tutors that can help those with ADHD and executive function problems cope with their daily tasks. These coaches are often behavioral professionals, and likely they have worked with lots of people with ADHD in the past, so they know all about the struggles and challenges that these individuals are facing.

Coaches often make a positive impact on the lives of those they tutor because they don't believe that individuals with ADHD are in any way inferior to people who don't have the disorder. That attitude is contagious, and those with ADHD who receive tutoring from the right coach often can reinvest in their lives with renewed vigor.

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Help The Person In Your Life With ADHD...Find The Assistance They Need To Thrive

Whether it is your child who has ADHD, a friend, a relative, or someone else who is close to you, you should try to be as understanding of them and nurturing toward them as possible. Try not to allow them to get too down on themselves if they struggle, and be a force for positivity in their life. Propose solutions, and be a cheerleader for them. That's something that can be immeasurably valuable in the face of a world that's not always kind to those who are different.

At the same time, make sure you are monitoring your feelings as you strive to help the person who has ADHD. Being that cheerleader can take a lot out of you sometimes, and you should practice self-care to be sure that you're not mentally overexerting yourself. If you have other family members who can help you out, then that's great, since you won't have to shoulder the burden alone. If you need someone to speak to about your child who has ADHD, then you can also reach out to BetterHelp.

It can be quite rewarding helping someone who has problems with executive function, but it can also be exhausting. Talking about the challenges and struggles that you face can be a much-needed outlet.


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