Executive function issues: Possible causes

By Gail Belsky

Executive Functioning Issues: Possible Causes, executive functioning, boys playing

At a glance

  • Researchers don’t know the exact cause of executive function challenges.

  • Challenges with executive function run in families.

  • Trouble with executive function isn’t a matter of intelligence.

Kids with executive function challenges have trouble with a group of key skills we use to solve problems and get things done. Kids with these challenges may struggle with working memory, flexible thinking, self-control and other skills.

Experts don’t know exactly what causes trouble with executive function. But here are some likely causes and contributing factors.

Genetics

Kids who struggle with executive function often have a parent or other close family member who does, too. That includes kids with ADHD — a common disorder that is a problem with executive function. But not everyone who has a problem with executive function has ADHD.

Differences in brain development

Research shows that certain areas of the brain take longer to develop in people with weak executive skills. These parts of the brain may also be smaller. These areas control working memory and emotional control. It’s important to know that trouble with executive function isn’t a matter of intelligence.

Differences in brain chemicals

There are two main chemicals in the brain that help with focus and impulse control. They are norepinephrine and dopamine. Research suggests that the brains of people with weak executive skills may not use norepinephrine effectively.

Co-occurring conditions

All kids with have weak executive skills. Many kids with dyslexia do, too. Executive function challenges are also common in kids with neurological conditions, mood disorders, and autism.

There are many ways to help kids who struggle with executive function, both at school and at home. Learn more about executive function and the brain. Find out about classroom accommodations for executive function challenges. And discover games that can build executive function skills.

Key takeaways

  • Differences in brain development play a role in executive function challenges.

  • Challenges may also be related to differences in brain chemistry.

  • ADHD is a problem with executive function, but not everyone with executive function challenges has ADHD.

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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.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Laura Tagliareni, PhD is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center.