Do kids outgrow executive function challenges?

By Thomas E. Brown, PhD

Do kids outgrow executive functioning issues?, two girls playing

Question:

My daughter is 10 and the school is telling me she has executive function challenges. She has a lot of trouble focusing on her work. She’s very disorganized and is a lot more forgetful than other kids her age. Is this something she might outgrow?

Answer:

Executive function is sometimes called the management system of the brain. These skills don’t mature in most children until age 18 or 20. This process can take even longer for kids who have trouble with executive function.

A lot of the research we have on executive function challenges comes from studies of kids with . They tend to have more trouble with executive function skills than most other kids the same age. Research has shown that on average, kids with ADHD take about three years longer than their peers to develop these self-management skills.

The good news is that for many people with ADHD, executive function skills eventually mature by their early to mid 20s. The not-so-good news is that growing up with this kind of delay can be very frustrating. It can make school and other aspects of daily life a lot more difficult.

That’s because executive function skills help us focus and keep working on tasks we need to do — even when the tasks may not be especially interesting. These skills help us set priorities, get organized, and get started on our work. They help us remember what we have read, what we have learned, and what we need to do.

Challenges with executive function can often cause more problems as grade-schoolers move up to middle school. This is when students have to start changing classrooms several times a day. They have to juggle assignments from more than one teacher. There are also more notebooks and other stuff to keep track of.

High school brings even more challenges. Classwork gets more difficult. There’s more homework. And students are expected to work more independently.

It’s important for you and your child to know that having trouble with executive function has nothing to do with how smart a person is. Some extremely intelligent people have these difficulties.

Here’s one way I like to describe executive function challenges. It’s like having an orchestra where each musician plays their own instrument very well. But there’s no conductor to signal the flutes to start playing or the violins to fade out.

I also want to mention one aspect of executive function challenges and ADHD that often puzzles parents. All kids with these challenges have a few activities in which they perform very well. They can focus for a long time when doing something they find really interesting.

For one child, it may be playing a sport or a video game. For another, it may be making art or building model airplanes. Yet until their brain matures, they may be unable to get themselves to focus on school and other things that may be more important.

This is not a matter of willpower. It’s a matter of brain development and brain chemistry.

There are many ways to help kids with executive function challenges. You may want to read about classroom accommodations. You may also want to learn about ADHD medication. It can be quite helpful in improving things like focus and effort while kids and their parents are waiting for the brain to develop these abilities.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.