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Executive Function & ADHD in Children

ADHD and Exeuctive Function - Kids playing with fidget spinner

What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of essential skills we use each day. They help us regulate our emotions and accomplish all kinds of tasks. Children rely on their executive function skill set for everything – from getting dressed in the morning to managing their emotions to completing assignments at school.

Executive Function Skills Include:

  • Planning a task
  • Organizing materials
  • Managing time needed to accomplish a task
  • Making decisions – yes, even small ones
  • Transitioning from one task or situation to another
  • Controlling emotional reactions or self-regulating
  • Learning from past experiences

Executive Functions and the ADHD Child

Did you know that most kids (though not all) with ADHD will have some sort of executive function deficit? This deficit makes it more difficult for them to regulate and accomplish tasks. Children who have poor executive functioning often appear more disorganized than their peers, regularly losing or forgetting important steps and materials. Maintaining a clean working environment or bedroom is overwhelming for them – especially once a mess has built up. Even simpler tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning, will take them longer due to poor time management. These children tend to struggle more in school, finding it difficult to complete tasks in a timely manner, memorize facts, solve multi-step problems, and identify important information.

What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a condition that makes it unusually difficult for children to concentrate, to pay attention, to sit still, to follow directions, and to control impulsive behavior. Symptoms of ADHD are divided into two groups: inattentive behaviors and hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.

Inattentive symptoms of ADHD:

  • Gets distracted easily
  • Appears to not be listening when directly spoken to
  • Struggles with receiving and following directions
  • Difficulties with planning and organization
  • Avoids or dislikes sustained mental or physical effort
  • Seems forgetful, or regularly losing items

Hyperactive or impulsive symptoms of ADHD:

  • Has trouble staying still, constantly fidgeting or squirming
  • Runs, moves, or climbs excessively
  • Finds it difficult to play quietly
  • Appears to be “driven by a motor” (always on the go)
  • Is extremely impatient Talks excessively, blurting out, or interrupting

How Can I Help my Child Overcome?

To help children with ADHD and executive function deficits, we must teach them the tools they need to tackle daily tasks that require planning, time management, and organization. Here are a few to get them started:

Checklists

The necessary steps required to complete a task may not be clear to a child with an executive function deficit. They may not be able to decide where or how to begin the task at hand, resulting in meltdown and an inability to even start. Checklists can help to minimize the mental and emotional strain by allowing the child to focus on one step of the task at a time. Checklists can be made for virtually any task that the child struggles with – cleaning their work area, morning routine, bedtime routines, homework, etc. Check lists can help save sanity for both the parent and the child. Make sure checklists are visual and easy to comprehend – using words, pictures, or both.

Utilize a Visual Timer

Children with executive function deficits often struggle with “time blindness”. Utilizing marked clocks, timers, counters, or apps can help children see how much time has passed, how much is left, and how quickly it is passing. This helps make time a physical, measurable thing, rather than an abstract concept. This can also help with planning for transitions between activities.

Create a Routine

Picture schedules and checklists can help kids keep track of and follow a routine. A routine checklist shows them what they need to do in the mornings before school and in the evening before calling it a night. It also helps them remember the order in which to do things in – this begins to help them with the basics of planning and organizing other kinds of tasks. You can use routines/checklists in conjunction with a visual timer or even a reward system. Routine charts can help instill self-confidence and independence in the child.

Write it Down

Encourage children to write things down or ask for written instructions whenever possible. Help them compensate for forgetfulness by coming up with tools to preventing it in the first place. Just like with checklists and timers, help the child make important information visual using note cards, signs, sticky notes, lists, journals, planners, etc. We can bolster the child’s executive functioning skills and help them build working memory by finding a method that works best for them.

Stop to Refuel

Self-regulation and executive functions tend to be a finite resource. They can quickly become depleted, especially when the child has been hard at work. Give the child a chance to refuel by encouraging frequent short breaks (between 3 and 10 -minutes) during tasks that stress their executive system. Breaks between timed tasks can help encourage follow through on longer more overwhelming tasks, such as cleaning a bedroom or completing a larger assignment.

Make it a Game

Remember that play is a child’s primary mode of learning. Games that require memory, strategy, and organization allow children to practice executive function skills. When choosing a game, be sure to choose one with rules that are simple and age appropriate. The game should be fun and enjoyable while still challenging. Initially the child my need a lot of guidance from an adult, but over time gradually decrease the role the adult plays in the child’s decision making – encouraging them to remember the rules and plan their next move independently. These types of games can be board or card games, physical games such as Simon says, movement games to songs/music, or even puzzles, matching games, and word finds. As they get older the games can become more complex requiring more focus and planning.

Show Compassion

The most important thing we can do as parents is show compassion and a willingness to help our children learn. They are going to make mistakes, but we can equip ourselves with the knowledge necessary to identify skill deficits. We can teach them how to overcome executive function challenges and prevent lapses in planning, organization, and time management in the future.

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