Executive functioning issues

What’s the Difference Between Executive Functioning Issues and ADHD?

By Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

What’s the difference between executive functioning issues and ADHD?

If your child has an ADHD diagnosis, is being evaluated for ADHD, or even if you’re just doing research on the disorder, you might also hear that she could have problems with executive functioning. This can be confusing! They seem to be two different ways of describing the difficulties your child is having.

Simply put, executive functions are self-regulating skills. We all use them every day to do things like plan ahead, stay organized, solve problems and focus on what’s important. These are some of the same things kids with ADHD have trouble doing. So is there a difference between executive functioning issues and ADHD? And if so, what is it?

ADHD is a disorder that’s defined by three broad sets of behaviors or symptoms: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. Kids with ADHD have trouble doing things like paying attention, following directions, sitting quietly and waiting for their turn.

Children are diagnosed with ADHD if they demonstrate these symptoms much more often than other children their age do, and so much so that and it’s causing them real difficulty at school and in their lives.

Executive functions, on the other hand, are very specific ways that the brain works. This means that things like inattention and impulsivity are divided into more distinct skills that kids typically develop during childhood and adolescence.

There are many individual functions, but they fit into these areas:

  • Planning
  • Organizing
  • Setting priorities
  • Shifting between situations or thoughts
  • Controlling our emotions and impulsivity
  • Using working memory
  • Monitoring ourselves to keep track of how we’re doing

Researchers note that problems with executive functions can be seen in two different arenas. First, you see them in a child’s external behavior. Second, they affect kids internally, in how they think and learn. Let’s look at each of them separately.

External Issues

  • Being disorganized
  • Losing things all the time
  • Poor time management
  • Inability to complete a task
  • Inability to make a plan (and follow it)

Internal Issues

  • Difficulty deciding what’s important/unimportant when reading or listening
  • Problems absorbing/retaining what is taught in school
  • Problems understanding and following verbal directions
  • Problems organizing thoughts
  • Problems with clear, organized writing

Many kids who have ADHD do struggle with executive functioning. But it’s also possible for a kid to have executive functioning issues without having ADHD, or have ADHD without executive functioning issues.

How can this information help your child?

First, understanding if your child has executive functioning problems can help you support her more effectively. Seeing these things as specific skills, and figuring out which ones might be a problem for your child, makes it easier to understand why she’s struggling and how to help her.

Experts in executive functioning have developed tests and questionnaires to measure how well a child can perform specific functions. Those measures allow them to identify where each child needs the most assistance. Knowing this makes it easier for teachers to give your child more targeted help.

You can also work with a learning specialist who can teach her how to compensate for areas of weakness. Kids with executive functioning issues often need to create routines and use special techniques to do tasks that other kids do without thinking about it. A detailed breakdown also makes it possible to identify areas where a child is stronger. Then she can learn to use her strengths to compensate for weaknesses.

In some cases, knowing more about executive functions can also give you a deeper understanding of a child’s ADHD diagnosis.

“Applying the concept of executive functioning to ADHD can improve treatment by making the targets of intervention more specific and providing a better understanding of an individual child’s strengths and weaknesses,” explains Susan Schwartz, a learning and education specialist. “No two children are alike.”

Can medication help with executive functioning?

You might wonder: If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD and you’ve also been told he has executive functioning issues, does treating the ADHD with medication solve the executive functioning problems? The best answer we can come up with is yes and no.

Research shows clearly that use of ADHD medications lessens symptoms of inattention and impulsivity while a child is taking the medication. There are a lot of executive functions involved in those broad symptoms. But clinical experience also shows that many kids with ADHD, even if they’re taking medication, still need help to manage their executive functioning issues. Then they can do as well as they’re capable of in school and in other areas.

The good news? With extra help and focus on these areas, kids can accomplish a lot and let the world know how capable they are.

Learn more about strategies you can try at home to help kids with ADHD and executive functioning issues.

About the Author

Child Mind Institute

Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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