You may not know that much about executive function. But you see it in action every day. It refers to a group of skills that are key to learning and managing daily life. When kids struggle with these skills, it can have a big impact.
Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, plan, set goals, manage time, and get organized. Kids with these challenges often struggle in school. But they’re just as smart as their peers.
There’s no formal diagnosis for when kids struggle with executive function. But tests can show which skills your child has trouble with. That can lead to extra help at school. It also lets you know how you can best support your child.
The more you understand about trouble with executive function, the more you can do to help. This overview can answer your basic questions and lead you to more in-depth information. You’ll also find strategies to help your child manage the challenges.
Signs of executive function challenges
Kids develop executive function over time. A lot of growth happens in early childhood.
But research shows that the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive function keep developing into the 20s. So, for many kids, the challenges lessen.
Here are some of the skills kids may struggle with:
- Holding on to information (working memory)
- Understanding different points of view (flexible thinking)
- Thinking before they act or speak (self-control)
- Paying attention
- Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
- Starting tasks and staying focused on them until they’re done
- Regulating their emotions
- Keeping track of what they’re doing (self-monitoring)
Part of executive function is how fast you process information. Some kids have slower processing speed, which means they need more time to take in and respond to information.
Since executive skills develop over time, kids can struggle in different ways at different ages. Here are some signs you might see at various grade levels.
- Gets frustrated easily, and gives up instead of asking for help
- Has trouble following directions
- Often throws tantrums over minor things
- Insists on doing things a certain way
- Answers questions in vague ways
- Starts a task, gets distracted, and never finishes it
- Often mixes up school assignments and brings home the wrong books
- Has a messy desk and backpack
- Wants to have friends come over, but never sets it up
- Seems to focus on the least important point in a discussion
Middle school and high school
- Loses track of time
- Often does risky things
- Has trouble working in groups
- Forgets to fill out job or college applications
- Is overly optimistic or unrealistic
If some of these signs sound like ADHD, there’s a reason. ADHD is a problem with executive function. But kids don’t have to have ADHD to have trouble with executive skills.
See a complete list of signs at different ages.
- Read about how these challenges affect young adults.
- Learn more about why some kids have trouble starting tasks.
- Understand the three types of self-control.
Finding out if your child struggles with executive function
There’s no diagnosis for problems with executive function. But you can still find out the exact skills your child struggles with. This happens through an evaluation, which schools do for free. You’ll also find out about your child’s strengths.
Some specialists do private evaluations, but this is usually expensive.
Executive function is complex, so it can be tricky to evaluate. But there are specific tests that look at a wide range of skills involved in executive function. These skills include:
- Self-control (or “inhibitory control”)
- Working memory
- Organization and planning
- Concept formation
- The ability to shift from one task to another (set shifting)
Kids who have trouble with executive function often struggle in other areas, too. Testing should be done as a full evaluation that looks at other areas like reading and math.
How you can help your child with executive function challenges
There are lots of strategies to try at home to help your child manage these challenges and improve skills.
Here are some things you can do.
For more ideas, check out this collection of executive function strategies you can try at home.
There are also things the school can do. Talk to your child’s teacher about what types of support your child might get.
With the right support, kids who struggle with executive function can improve skills and feel more confident. Learn how to improve your child’s self-esteem and help your child stay motivated to work on challenges.
Executive function is a group of important mental skills like focus.
It’s key to learning and managing everyday situations.
You can help your child improve executive skills.
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About the author
About the author
Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.
Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.