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The Difference Between ADHD and Executive Functioning Issues

By The Understood Team

In many ways, ADHD and executive functioning issues go hand in hand. That’s because most of the symptoms of ADHD (also known as ADD) are actually problems with executive function. (You’ll see the signs of each are very similar!) There’s one big difference between the two, however.

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ADHD is an official diagnosis. Executive functioning issues is not. It’s a term that refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system. Also, trouble with executive function isn’t just a problem for kids with ADHD. Many kids with learning differences struggle with one or more of these key skills.

This chart shows the many similarities and some of the differences between ADHD and executive functioning issues.


ADHD Executive Functioning Issues
What is it?

A brain-based condition that makes it hard for kids to concentrate, use working memory, organize and manage themselves. They may also be impulsive or hyperactive. These are all issues with executive function.

Weaknesses in key mental skills that are responsible for attention, memory, organization and time management, and flexible thinking. Kids with ADHD struggle with these skills. But so do some kids with learning differences who don’t have ADHD.

Signs you may notice
  • Has a hard time paying attention
  • Has difficulty with self-control
  • Has trouble managing emotions
  • Has difficulty holding information in working memory
  • Has trouble switching easily from one activity to another
  • Has trouble getting started on tasks
  • Has problems organizing his time or materials
  • Has difficulty keeping track of what he’s doing
  • Has difficulty completing long-term projects
  • Has trouble with thinking before acting
  • Is easily distracted and often forgetful
  • Doesn’t seem to listen when spoken to
  • Has trouble waiting his turn
  • Fidgets excessively
  • Acts as if he’s “driven by a motor”
  • Interrupts others and talks excessively

See more ADHD symptoms.

  • Has a hard time paying attention
  • Has difficulty with self-control
  • Has trouble managing emotions
  • Has difficulty holding information in working memory
  • Has trouble switching easily from one activity to another
  • Has trouble getting started on tasks
  • Has problems organizing his time and materials
  • Has difficulty keeping track of what he’s doing
  • Has difficulty completing long-term projects
  • Has trouble with thinking before acting
  • Is easily distracted and often forgetful
  • Has trouble waiting his turn
  • Has problems remembering what he’s been asked to do

See more signs of executive functioning issues.

Possible social and emotional impact

Impulsivity and trouble managing emotions may cause difficulty making and keeping friends. Frequent negative feedback for acting out or not paying attention can impact self-esteem and motivation. It can result in kids feeling “bad” or “no good.”

Trouble remembering what he’s been asked to do can cause problems in social relationships. Not thinking flexibly can make it hard to be flexible with others. Poor self-control and self-monitoring can cause problems with friends.

Professionals who can help
  • Pediatricians, neurologists, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists: Diagnose ADHD and prescribe medication. Can also look for other issues, like anxiety. Pediatricians may refer patients to psychologists (or pediatric neuropsychologists) for more complete evaluations.
  • Clinical child psychologists: Diagnose ADHD and mental health issues that may co-occur, like anxiety. May also evaluate for learning differences, including issues with executive function. Provide behavior therapy to teach kids to manage their actions and interactions. Provide cognitive behavioral therapy to help with emotional issues related to their ADHD.
  • Pediatric neuropsychologists: Evaluate for learning differences. That includes tests that look at executive function. May also evaluate for ADHD and common mental health issues that might co-occur.
  • Educational therapists and organizational coaches: Work on organization and time management skills.
  • Pediatricians, neurologists, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists: Refer patients to specialists who can evaluate for executive functioning issues, along with other learning differences. Can diagnose ADHD and prescribe medication for it (there are no medications just for executive functioning issues). Can also look for other related issues, like anxiety.
  • Clinical child psychologists: May evaluate for executive functioning issues as part of a full evaluation for learning differences. Provide behavior therapy to teach kids to manage their actions and interactions. Provide cognitive behavioral therapy to help with emotional issues. May also diagnose for ADHD and mental health issues that may co-occur, like anxiety.
  • Pediatric neuropsychologists: Evaluate for executive functioning issues as part of a full evaluation for learning differences. May also evaluate for ADHD and common mental health issues that might co-occur.
  • Educational therapists and organizational coaches: Work on organization and time management skills.
What the school may provide

Accommodations under a 504 plan or an IEP. Child might be eligible for an IEP under the category of “other health impairment.”

Examples might include:

  • Tutoring or coaching that teaches executive functioning skills
  • Help with organization skills
  • Extra time on tests
  • Preferential seating
  • Opportunities for the student to repeat and rephrase important information
  • Additional structure to the day with routines and predictable transitions
  • Tasks that have been broken down into their smaller components
  • Multisensory teaching techniques
  • Increased structure and expectations for learning activities

See more accommodations for ADHD.

Accommodations under a 504 plan or an IEP. Child might be eligible for an IEP if he has a learning disability or ADHD.

Examples might include:

  • Tutoring or coaching that teaches executive functioning skills
  • Help with organization skills
  • Extra time on tests for kids whose problems with executive function cause them to have slower processing speed
  • Preferential seating
  • Specific academic skill strategies; these might include reading comprehension strategies, asking questions, predicting, summarizing and organizing thoughts for writing
  • Positive reinforcement and encouragement to increase confidence
  • Structured teaching of complex academic skills; multiple opportunities for practice and reinforcement
  • A “road map” to solve various problems with examples that explicitly detail each step

See more accommodations for executive functioning issues.

What you can do at home
  • Create daily routines and rituals to provide structure.
  • Practice self-regulation skills.
  • Model appropriate social behavior.
  • Set rules and stick to them.
  • Break tasks into smaller chunks.
  • Allow for frequent breaks.
  • Have clear expectations for behavior and prepare him in advance for new experiences.
  • Give frequent feedback.
  • Provide positive reinforcement for positive behavior.

Explore specific strategies to help your child with ADHD at home.

  • Create daily routines and rituals to provide structure.
  • Practice self-regulation skills.
  • Model appropriate social behavior.
  • Teach time management skills.
  • Give advance warning of upcoming transitions.
  • Have him talk through difficult tasks. Model thinking aloud during planning and problem-solving situations.
  • Improve monitoring skills by asking him to evaluate his performance. Review the accuracy of his evaluation with him.

Explore specific strategies to help your child with executive functioning issues at home.

For a firsthand glimpse at what it’s like to have ADHD and executive functioning issues, check out a simulation. You can also see a day in the life of a child with executive functioning issues.

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  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
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  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom