You may not know that much about executive function. But you see it in action every day. It refers to a group of skills that are key to learning and managing daily life. When kids struggle with these skills, it can have a big impact.
Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, plan, set goals, manage time, and get organized. Kids with these challenges often struggle in school. But they’re just as smart as their peers.
There’s no formal diagnosis for when kids struggle with executive function. But tests can show which skills your child has trouble with. That can lead to extra help at school. It also lets you know how you can best support your child.
The more you understand about trouble with executive function, the more you can do to help. This overview can answer your basic questions and lead you to more in-depth information. You’ll also find strategies to help your child manage the challenges.
Signs of Executive Functioning Issues
Kids develop executive function over time. A lot of growth happens in early childhood.
But research shows that the areas of the brain that are responsible for executive function keep developing into the 20s. So, for many kids, the challenges lessen.
Here are some of the skills kids may struggle with:
Holding on to information (working memory)
Understanding different points of view (flexible thinking)
Thinking before they act or speak (self-control)
Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
Starting tasks and staying focused on them until they’re done
Regulating their emotions
Keeping track of what they’re doing (self-monitoring)
Part of executive function is how fast you process information. Some kids have slower processing speed, which means they need more time to take in and respond to information.
Since executive skills develop over time, kids can struggle in different ways at different ages. Here are some signs you might see at various grade levels.
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
Loses track of time
Often does risky things
Has trouble working in groups
Forgets to fill out job or college applications
Is overly optimistic or unrealistic
If some of these signs sound like ADHD, there’s a reason. ADHD is a problem with executive function. But kids don’t have to have ADHD to have trouble with executive skills.
Finding Out If Your Child Has Executive Functioning Issues
There’s no diagnosis for these challenges. But you can still find out the exact skills your child struggles with. This happens through an evaluation, which schools do for free. You’ll also find out about your child’s strengths.
Some specialists do private evaluations, but they’re usually expensive.
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:
Self-control (or “inhibitory control”)
Organization and planning
The ability to shift from one task to another (set shifting)
Kids who have trouble with executive function often struggle in other areas, too. So, testing should be done as a full evaluation that looks at other areas like reading and math.
How You Can Help Your Child With Executive Functioning Issues
There are lots of strategies to try at home to help your child manage the challenges and improve skills.
Here are some things you can do.
There are also things the school can do. Talk to your child’s teacher about what types of support your child might get.