How does a child with executive function challenges think differently?

By Laura Tagliareni, PhD

How does a child with executive functioning issues think differently?, child sad

Question:

Last week a psychologist told me my son has executive function challenges. She said he has a “disorganized mind.” What does this mean? How do kids with executive function challenges think differently?

Answer:

challenges can vary greatly from one child to the next. That’s why I want to start off by saying that I can’t make any broad generalizations about how children with these issues think. There is no “one size fits all” explanation.

It’s also important to note that children with executive function challenges don’t necessarily “think” differently. What they struggle with is the process of coordinating, prioritizing, or managing information needed to perform tasks successfully.

So even though kids with these issues may be highly intelligent, gifted, artistic, athletic, or musically talented, they may struggle to complete seemingly simple tasks — like remembering to turn in their homework.

Kids who struggle to start or finish a task may have difficulty with one or more aspects of executive function. This is the umbrella term that refers to skill development in the following areas:

  • Planning and prioritizing

  • Starting a task (experts often describe this as “initiation”)

  • Controlling impulses (experts call this “inhibition”)

  • Shifting from one activity to the next

  • Controlling emotions

  • Using working memory

  • Organizing materials

  • Self-monitoring

To use these skills, kids also need to be able to do things like pay attention and filter out essential from nonessential details. Some children who have trouble with executive function may develop these skills later than their peers do. Other kids may have ongoing weaknesses.

All of these skills develop differently. They can also vary a great deal depending on a child’s age and on the degree of difficulties and strengths in other areas.

For example, gifted children in grade school or middle school may not feel the need to take notes during class. Or they may get the right answers in math without needing to “show their work.” But they may have weaker development in areas like note-taking because they don’t have to rely on those skills until high school or college.

So, to recap: It’s unclear what exactly the psychologist was referring to when she described your son as having a “disorganized mind.” But regardless of his age or abilities, childhood is full of new learning experiences and requires managing vast amounts of information.

Remember that your son is unique. Identifying his strengths and weaknesses through a comprehensive evaluation is a good first step toward figuring out how to address his challenges.

Keep in mind that there are many options that can help your child with executive function challenges. These include classroom accommodations, graphic organizers, and apps and other kinds of assistive technology.

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    About the author

    About the author

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