Executive function is like the CEO of the brain. It’s in charge of making sure things get done from the planning stages of the job to the final deadline. When kids have issues with executive functioning, any task that requires planning, organization, memory, time management and flexible thinking becomes a challenge. The more you know about the challenges, the better you’ll be able to help your child build her executive skills and manage the difficulties.
What are executive functioning issues?
Executive functioning issues aren’t considered a disability on their own. They’re weaknesses in a key set of mental skills. And they often appear in kids with learning and attention issues. What are executive functions? How do they impact learning and everyday living?
Executive functions consist of several mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information. These skills enable people to plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, pay attention and get started on tasks. They also help people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.
If your child has executive functioning issues, any task requiring these skills could be a challenge. That could include doing a load of laundry or completing a school project. Having issues with executive functioning makes it difficult to:
- Keep track of time
- Make plans
- Make sure work is finished on time
- Apply previously learned information to solve problems
- Analyze ideas
- Look for help or more information when it is needed
How Executive Functioning Works
Another way to understand your child’s difficulties is to see how the process of executive functioning works. Here is an example of how the process works, broken down into six steps:
- Analyze a task. Figure out what needs to be done.
- Plan how to handle the task.
- Get organized. Break down the plan into a series of steps.
- Figure out how much time is needed to carry out the plan, and set aside the time.
- Make adjustments as needed
- Finish the task in the time allotted.
If executive functioning is working well and the task is fairly simple, the brain may go through these steps in a matter of seconds. If your child has weak executive skills, though, performing even a simple task can be challenging. Remembering a specific word may be as big a struggle as planning tomorrow’s schedule.
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How common are executive functioning issues?
It’s not clear how many kids struggle with executive functioning issues. The issues aren’t uncommon, though. They often appear in kids with ADHD and dyslexia, as well as other conditions. An estimated 30 percent of people with ADHD have executive functioning issues.
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What causes executive functioning issues?
Scientists still aren’t sure why some children have executive functioning difficulties. Research has identified some possible links:
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- Genes and heredity: Kids differ in how they use executive skills. But chances are high that your child uses them in the same way you do. Studies show that the differences among kids are almost completely influenced by genes.
- Brain differences: For the most part, executive functioning is controlled by a region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Research has shown that people who have disorders, diseases or injuries to the prefrontal cortex often develop executive functioning issues. Experts are using that research to study whether the prefrontal cortex in kids with executive functioning issues works differently than in other kids.
- Other disabilities and disorders: Kids with ADHD and dyslexia often struggle with executive functioning. So do children with neurological conditions, mood disorders, autism and acquired brain injury.
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