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ADHD & Executive Functioning

The brain can be compared to an orchestra, where each instrument is a different part of the brain and the conductor is the brain’s executive function. The orchestra operates well with a good conductor, but if the conductor is missing, the orchestra would find it challenging to function harmoniously, even though each individual instrument might be played outstandingly well.

Executive function – the conductor of our brain orchestra – is important for everyday activities. It enables a person to take in information, interpret and process the information, then make decisions based on this information. It will help your child to plan, organise their tasks, prioritise, memorise, manage their time, complete and check their work and be able to multitask.

Children and adults with ADHD often have an immature or disorganised executive functioning that makes simple tasks more complicated and frustrating. There are several key skills involved in executive function, but your child may only struggle in some of the following areas.

🧩 Working memory: The ability of your child to hold information in their mind and use it to complete a task. They have a hard time remembering directions, taking notes or understanding something you’ve just explained to them. If your child has trouble with working memory, you frequently may hear ‘I forgot what I was going to say.’ Children with weak working-memory skills have trouble following multi-step tasks.

🧩 Self-monitoring: The ability of your child to keep track of and evaluate their performance on regular tasks. These children have limited self-awareness and understanding of strategies. They often don’t know how to check their work.

🧩 Planning and prioritising: The ability of your child to come up with the steps needed to reach a goal and to decide their order of importance. These children are easily overwhelmed by multiple tasks. They may have trouble seeing the main idea.

🧩 Task initiation: The ability of your child to get started on something. These children often struggle with planning and prioritising tasks and can be perceived as being lazy. They may be overwhelmed and do nothing.

🧩 Organisation: The ability of your child to keep track of information and their belongings. These children struggle with organisational issues and constantly misplace items. They can’t find a way to get organised, even when there are negative consequences to being disorganised.

🧩 Emotional control: The ability of your child to manage their feelings by focusing on the end result or goal. Children with ADHD who struggle with emotional control often have trouble accepting negative feedback. They display poor self-regulation and struggle to finish a task when something upsets them.

🧩 Flexibility: The ability of your child to roll with the punches and come up with new approaches when a plan fails. Children with ADHD may be inflexible and may interpret suggestions as criticism. They may find it difficult to change course, what can result in frustration and panic.

So how might these difficulties show up in your child’s everyday activities? Here are some examples:

🔸 The inability to pause.

Challenges associated with ADHD are often not due to a lack of skills or knowledge. Instead, they are caused by an inability to demonstrate skills or to draw on knowledge as and when required (at the point of performance). For example, your child may know exactly how to get dressed for school, but some distraction could derail the process. Strategies and reminders must always be targeted at the point of performance.

🔸 Time blindness.

People with ADHD are able to work towards deadlines that are close in time, but lose sight when deadlines are further out. This means many projects are completed at the last minute.

Tip: Make time visible with weekly, daily and monthly planners.

🔹 Memory blanks.

While the long-term memories of many children are excellent, they often struggle to hold information working memory. For example: mental arithmetic can be challenging, even for those who excel at mathematics and verbal instructions are ineffective.

It is essential to externalise memory requirements, preferably at the point of performance.

Tip: Visual prompts are necessary to remind your child of what needs to be done at the time and place required.

🔹 The inability to self-motivate. ADHD brings with it a deficit of motivation. It is dependent on the immediate environment, with immediate consequences and rewards being the most effective incentives. Video games, for example, provide immediate rewards and consequences. Homework, on the other hand, provides no immediate reward, and has possible consequences sometime in the future.

Tip: It is important to devise systems for getting tasks done that include immediate rewards and to teach your child to use fun activities as a reward for completing challenging tasks.

🔹 The inability to plan and problem-solve.

This will cause your child to stall when faced with challenging tasks. Assignments and projects, for example, seem impossible to complete when the first step is not clear.

Tip: Chunking and creating a hands-on plan that is visually presented is important.

An understanding of what is happening in your child’s brain, will help you to choose from the strategies provided in the ADHD Go-To Guide and to target them for the best results.

Michele Toner & Desiree Silva

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