Executive Functioning Issues: Possible Causes

By Amanda Morin
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Kids with weak executive functioning skills have trouble with things like planning, organizing and managing time. Experts don’t know exactly what causes this. But there are some likely causes and contributing factors.

Genes and Heredity

We all use executive functioning skills to approach thinking and problem-solving. Chances are your child uses them differently than her peers. She probably uses them the way you do. A 2008 study found that differences in these skills are “almost entirely genetic in origin.” Your child may have inherited your weaknesses—but your strengths as well.

Differences in Brain Structure

Executive functioning skills are mostly controlled in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. People who have injuries or diseases affecting the prefrontal cortex often have executive functioning issues. Researchers are looking at whether the size or shape of the prefrontal cortex is different in kids with weak executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning issues aren’t a sign of low IQ. Most kids with learning and thinking differences have an average or above-average IQ.

Differences in Brain Chemicals

The brains of people with executive functioning issues may not use norepinephrine effectively. Norepinephrine and dopamine are the main chemicals that help the brain maintain focus and control impulses.

As norepinephrine travels through nerve cells, it carries information to the prefrontal cortex and is used by other nerve cells to trigger the brain to react. But sometimes nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex block the use of norepinephrine. When that happens, kids with executive functioning issues aren’t able to control impulses or pay attention well. (The same goes for kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD.)

Other Issues

It’s unusual for a child to have executive functioning issues and no other health problem. Kids with ADHD and dyslexia often struggle with executive functioning. So do children with neurological conditions, mood disorders and autism. Executive functioning issues are also associated with acquired brain injury, fetal alcohol syndrome and some kinds of cancer treatments.

Work in Progress

Executive functioning skills develop at different rates in different kids. And they continue to develop all the way through childhood. Your child can learn to maximize her strengths to overcome weaknesses in other areas. You can help by trying strategies at home. Ask your child’s teacher about classroom accommodations such as prompts, reminders and check-ins.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Laura Tagliareni, PhD 

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

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