Understanding Executive Functioning Issues

By The Understood Team
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Executive functioning issues are difficulties with a set of mental skills that are key to learning. Kids who have trouble with executive function often struggle with working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.

This overview can answer your basic questions about executive function in kids. You’ll find expert tips and strategies to help your child, plus ideas on how to work with your child’s school.

What Are Executive Functioning Issues?

Some people describe executive function as “the CEO of the brain.” That’s because these skills are what let us set goals, plan, and get things done. When kids struggle with them, it affects them in and out of school.

Trouble with executive function isn’t a diagnosis or a learning disability. But it’s common in kids who learn and think differently. All kids with ADHD have trouble with it. And lots of kids with learning disabilities struggle with executive function.

The three main areas of executive function are:

  1. Working memory

  2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking)

  3. Inhibitory control (which includes self-control)

Executive function is responsible for a number of skills, including:

  • Paying attention

  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing

  • Starting tasks and staying focused on them to completion

  • Understanding different points of view

  • Regulating emotions

  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)

Trouble with executive function creates challenges with learning. But it doesn’t mean kids are lazy or not intelligent. Kids who struggle with it are just as smart and hardworking as other kids.

Executive skills usually develop quickly in early childhood and into the teens. But they keep developing into the mid-twenties. When kids are younger, some may lag behind peers for a while. As they get older, though, they may have fewer challenges as teens and young adults. And in the meantime, there are strategies and supports at school that can help.

Dive Deeper

Signs That Kids Struggle With Executive Function

Trouble with executive function can affect kids in different ways. Kids may have difficulties in only one or two areas, or in all of them. The difficulties often look like the signs of ADHD. That’s because ADHD is a problem with executive function.

Kids struggling with executive skills may:

  • Have trouble starting and/or completing tasks

  • Have difficulty prioritizing tasks

  • Forget what they’ve just heard or read

  • Have trouble following directions or a sequence of steps

  • Panic when rules or routines change

  • Have trouble switching focus from one task to another

  • Get overly emotional and fixate on things

  • Have trouble organizing their thoughts

  • Have trouble keeping track of their belongings

  • Not be able to manage their time

Since executive function develops over time, a child may struggle in different ways at different ages. Here are some signs you might see at various grade levels.

Preschool–Grade 2

  • Gets frustrated easily, and gives up instead of asking for help

  • Has trouble following directions

  • Has frequent tantrums over minor things

  • Insists on doing things a certain way

  • Answers questions in vague ways

Grades 3–7

  • Starts a task, gets distracted, and never finishes it

  • Often mixes up school assignments and brings home the wrong books

  • Has a messy desk and backpack

  • Wants to have friends come over, but never sets it up

  • Seems to focus on the least important point in a discussion

Teens

  • Loses track of time

  • Engages in risky behavior

  • Has trouble working in groups

  • Forgets to fill out job or college applications

  • Is overly optimistic or unrealistic

Processing speed can also play a role in executive function. Kids need to notice challenges, weigh the options, and put things in context to solve problems. Some of the signs of trouble with executive function may be partly due to slow processing speed.

Dive Deeper

What Can Co-Occur With It

Trouble with executive function can occur with many learning differences. And it always occurs with ADHD. Here are some ways that difficulties with executive skills can overlap with other conditions.

ADHD (also known as ADD) is essentially a problem of executive function. Its main symptoms are all the result of trouble with executive skills. These include impulsivity, difficulty paying attention, poor working memory, trouble managing emotions, and difficulty shifting focus from one task to another.

Learning disabilities don’t always involve a problem with executive function. But it’s not uncommon for kids with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia to also have trouble with executive skills. Learn how problems with executive function can impact reading and math.

Slow processing speed isn’t a problem with executive function. But it can create problems with it. Not being able to quickly size up situations and consider the options means that kids can’t solve problems as fast as they need to.

Learn more about slow processing speed.

Anxiety and depression are common in kids who struggle with executive function, like kids with ADHD. They’re also common in kids with learning disabilities. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what’s causing certain behaviors without professional help.

Learn why kids who learn and think differently are more likely to have anxiety.

Dive Deeper

Possible Causes of Trouble With Executive Function

The exact causes of challenges with executive function aren’t known yet. But brain-imaging studies are shedding some light on how these challenges show up in the brain. Research shows that in kids who struggle with these skills, the frontal areas of the brain responsible for executive function are slower to develop.

Genetics also appear to play a role. Kids who struggle with executive function often have a parent with similar struggles.

Keep in mind, though, that executive function can improve with practice. Giving kids opportunities to pause, step back, and reflect on problems before trying to solve them can help them build these skills. This kind of practice can create changes in brain function that lead to faster brain development.

Dive Deeper

Diagnosing Trouble With Executive Function

There’s no diagnosis called executive function disorder. You won’t find it in the DSM-5, the manual clinicians use to diagnose conditions. But you can still identify problems with executive function by having your child evaluated.

Executive function is complex, so it can be tricky to evaluate. But there are specific tests that look at a wide range of skills that are involved in executive function. These skills include:

  • Attention

  • Inhibitory control

  • Working memory

  • Organization and planning

  • Concept formation

  • Set shifting (the ability to shift from one task to another)

  • Word and idea generation

Testing for executive skills should be part of a full evaluation that also looks for possible learning challenges. This type of evaluation can be done by clinical child psychologists and pediatric neuropsychologists who are trained to give the tests and interpret the results.

Evaluations for ADHD don’t involve tests. But they can still confirm trouble with executive skills.

Dive Deeper

How Professionals Can Help

There are different types of professionals who can help kids improve executive functioning. They may also help with ADHD and other challenges. How these professionals work with kids varies, based on their specialties.

Pediatricians, neurologists, developmental-behavioral pediatricians, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists don’t test for trouble with executive function. But they can refer kids to specialists who do. These medical professionals can diagnose ADHD, though, and develop an ADHD treatment plan. (There are no medications just for executive function, but there are medications for ADHD.) And they can look for other related issues, like anxiety.

Clinical child psychologists may test for challenges with executive function as part of a full evaluation. They may also diagnose ADHD and mental health issues, like anxiety. Some psychologists provide behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Behavior therapy helps kids replace negative behaviors with positive ones. CBT helps kids deal with thoughts and feelings and manage behavior.

Pediatric neuropsychologists may test for trouble with executive function as part of a full evaluation. They may also evaluate for ADHD and common mental health issues that might co-occur. Learn more about the role of pediatric neuropsychologists.

School psychologists can administer school-based testing that helps plan supports and interventions at school. They may also work with kids to come up with strategies to help with social skills and behavior management.

Special education teachers may work with kids to build academic, social, and organization skills. They may also work on strategies for managing behavior.

Read more about the role of special education teachers. And find out how kids struggling with executive function may qualify for a 504 plan or an IEP.

Organizational coaches are consultants you can hire to help your child. They’re not tutors who help build academic skills. Instead, they work with kids on building organization and time management skills. They can also work on study skills. Learn more about organizational coaches.

Dive Deeper

How to Help Your Child

Problems with executive function can impact kids in school and in everyday life. Understanding your child’s challenges makes it easier to find the best support at school and strategies at home.

Here are some things you can do to help your child thrive:

For more ideas, explore this collection of executive function strategies you can try at home.

It’s important for you to have support, too.

Key Takeaways

  • Executive functioning issues are difficulties with a set of mental skills that are key to learning.

  • Kids with these difficulties can be just as smart as their peers.

  • Executive functioning skills can improve with practice.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Philip D. Zelazo, PhD 

is the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

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