Executive functioning issues

Do Kids Outgrow Executive Functioning Issues?

By Thomas E. Brown

My daughter is 10 and the school is telling me she has “executive functioning issues.” 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?

Thomas E. Brown

Consulting Psychologist, Understood; Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Keck School of Medicine of USC

Executive functions are the self-management system of the brain. These functions don’t fully mature in most children until age 18 or 20. This process can take even longer for kids with executive functioning issues.

A lot of the research we have on executive functioning issues comes from studies of kids with ADHD. They tend to have more issues with executive functions 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 kids with ADHD, executive functions eventually mature by their early to mid-twenties. 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 functions are what help us focus and keep working on tasks we need to do—even when the tasks may not be especially interesting. These functions 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.

Issues with executive functioning 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 issues with executive functioning 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 functioning issues. It’s like having an orchestra where each musician plays her 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 functioning issues and ADHD that often puzzles parents. All kids with these issues 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 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 will power. It’s a matter of brain development and brain chemistry.

There are many ways to help kids with executive functioning issues. You may want to read about classroom accommodations. Extra support from parents is also key. Parenting Coach has lots of tips on lots of topics, including getting organized and managing ADHD.

You may also want to read 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.

About the Author

Portrait of Tom Brown

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

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