Executive function is a set of mental skills that act as a command center in the brain. They help us plan, manage time, control emotions, and get tasks done. They’re also important for staying focused and solving problems. So struggling with executive function can have a big impact on kids.
Trouble with executive skills is common in kids who learn and think differently. And all kids with ADHD struggle with it.
Executive function skills develop over time, and at different rates. So it can be hard to tell if what you’re seeing is something to be concerned about or if it’s common for a child’s age group.
For example, lots of middle-schoolers are overdramatic. And lots of high-schoolers have trouble managing time when there’s so much on their plate.
It really depends on if the things you’re seeing keep causing problems. This list can help you spot trouble with executive function in kids.
Trouble with executive function in preschool
- Gets frustrated easily, might throw things instead of asking for help
- Has trouble following directions and often forgets what to do
- Has lots of tantrums over things that seem minor
- Acts out instead of expressing feelings
- Struggles with basic classroom tasks like finding things in a cubby or packing up at the end of the day
- Raises hand but doesn’t remember the answer when called on
- Is very stubborn about doing things a certain way
- Answers questions in a way that’s off-topic
Trouble with executive function in grade school
- Starts a task and gets distracted, then doesn’t finish
- Can solve a math problem one way but gets stuck when asked to solve it a different way
- Focuses on the least important thing you said
- Mixes up assignments and doesn’t bring home the right books and handouts needed for homework
- Has a messy desk and backpack
- Panics when rules or routines change, like going out to dinner instead of ordering in because it’s Friday and that’s pizza night
- Sticks with a plan even when it’s clear that the plan isn’t working
Trouble with executive function in middle school
- Wants to invite kids over but never gets around to scheduling it
- Hesitates to make afterschool plans and instead just follows what the other kids are doing
- Is still arranging materials in science lab while the other kids are halfway through the experiment
- Has a hard time starting a big assignment and focuses on the less important details first
- Gets very upset about seemingly small things, like running out of a favorite snack at home
- Often thinks the teacher is being “unfair,” like when told to do work at home that other kids finished in class
Trouble with executive function in high school
- Has trouble finishing short-answer tests on time
- Loses track of time and is often still “in the middle of something”
- Hasn’t filled out any of the job applications that have been sitting around for a month
- Tries to convince you to extend curfew but can’t give any good reasons why
- Has trouble working in groups and complains about the other kids
- Has a hard time taking and acting on feedback
- Is impulsive and takes lots of risks
Parents and caregivers: If you’re noticing lots of these behaviors, you might want to learn more about ADHD. An ADHD evaluation can help you understand what’s going on. You can also request a free school evaluation to get a better sense of your child's strengths and challenges.
There are lots of ways to help with executive function at home, too. Here are strategies you can try.
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About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Philip D. Zelazo, PhD is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.