The first time I heard the term “Executive Function,” I was sitting in the stark office of a really boring, dry, almost-retired psychiatrist. Papers and magazines were strewn everywhere in this tiny space – probably a collection of information and medical research that had been accumulating throughout his entire career. Just like the papers, my mind was scattered. My husband and I had taken the (big) step to bring our then 6-year-old son in to get assessed for, well, something. We thought anxiety, maybe ADHD, but we wondered if ADHD was even a real thing.

We didn’t know much about anything at the time. All we knew was that our first grade boy was melting down at school, underperforming, and having trouble making and keeping friends. There was something wrong, and no matter how hard we tried, traditional parenting and discipline techniques weren’t effective.

As my 6-year-old bounced around the room, touching model after model, and my husband sat next to me with his long, lanky legs shaking uncontrollably (as they usually do when he’s a little nervous), I began feeling claustrophobic. The room was small, the air thick, my nerves frayed, and the psychiatrist’s voice sounded more and more like Charlie Brown’s teacher. You know…

“Wah wah wah… executive function… wah wah wah.”

Huh? Executive Function? My lawyer mind went to the only “executive function” I had ever known – the one held by the President of the United States. But wait… What did the President have to do with my son’s performance in first grade?? I thought we were talking ADHD here.

It was only later that I began to understand that Executive Function is a fancy word for a set of skills that SHOULD have been developing for my son but weren’t. His executive functioning skills were developmentally delayed. In fact, the vast majority of kids with ADHD have significant deficits in their executive functioning skills.

So, I wondered, if Executive Function and ADHD are so closely related, why not call ADHD “executive function disorder”? Well, I’ve come to find that many other disorders and conditions also impact executive function: dyslexia, autism, brain injuries, and mood disorders (like depression or anxiety). So, it’s not quite that simple.

Through my experience, I’ve also learned that the only way to truly understand what your child is struggling with – to really imagine what it’s like to stand in his or her shoes – is to learn the relationship between Executive Function and ADHD; to learn what Executive Function is, how your child’s impairment is impacting him, and how to help him develop the skills to overcome those deficits.

This post provides a fairly “technical” and high-level overview of what Executive Function is, so that you can understand just how a deficit affects your child’s day-to-day life. Later posts will dive into each of these more in depth, but for now, let’s stick with the basics…

Executive function is loosely defined as the set of behaviors and mental coordination needed to manage yourself and your interactions with the world around you. Sometimes I describe it to my son as the traffic controller of his brain – it’s the director at the helm of all the madness that naturally goes on in our minds (yes, even yours!). It helps us organize our thoughts, decide which thoughts are important or appropriate for the situation, modulate our feelings, and stop us from acting upon every impulse that runs through our brains.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Inside Out,” you can definitely visualize the Control Room – the hub of executive function! (Much more on that INCREDIBLE movie another time).

Executive function holds the keys to self-regulation. And every parent of an ADHD kiddo knows that their kids’ struggles can be summed up with one word: selfDISregulation.

There are many ways to categorize or explain executive function, but the one that I like most is explained by Dr. Gerard Gioia and his team. They explain that executive function is most reflected in clusters of behaviors, associated with the following functions:

  • Emotional control (moderating responses)
  • Initiation (ability to start a task or problem-solve)
  • Shift (moving from one activity to another or being flexible in approach)
  • Inhibition (stopping yourself from doing or saying something inappropriate for the circumstances)
  • Working memory (retaining facts in memory while analyzing information; accessing information from long-term memory)
  • Planning, prioritization, and organization (managing tasks in proper time)

My guess is that you – like me – are looking at this list and nodding, knowing just exactly how much your child(ren) struggles with one or more of these components. According to Dr. Thomas Brown, these functions are broad, and they overlap and impact one another.

Executive Function and ADHD

ADHD “short circuits” the executive function and its processes, making it incredibly difficult – often literally impossible – for a child to self-regulate and perform tasks that are considered (by some) to be basic, age-appropriate behaviors. Our kiddos do not choose to act impulsively. No amount of “discipline” will correct their poor self-regulation. {Just like no amount of discipline would heal her broken arm… but that’s an entirely different blog post!}

As parents of children with ADHD, we are familiar with all of these components of behavior, and we live (and work) with them daily. But in case you’re wondering how some of these deficits “show up” in the real world, here are some examples many of us have experienced first hand.

  • Emotional control: The tantrum your child cannot come down from, over something that you had no idea would upset him so much. Maybe you cooked a meal he didn’t like, or you asked him to do something they didn’t want to do. From your perspective, the intensity of your child’s emotional reactions does not match the circumstances.
  • Initiation: You’ve asked your child to do something countless times, and maybe even given her exact steps to get started, but something always prevents her from acting upon the task assigned. The ability to initiate an action is obviously missing, whether due to distraction, confusion, or lack of motivation (often confused for laziness).
  • Shift: How many times have you struggled to get your child to move on to a new task, a new activity, or even a new place? The ability to shift focus is a struggle, whether she has become affixed on one thing, or if she cannot focus enough attention to the new activity/item. And, as many of you know first-hand… when a need to be flexible or change course occurs in an uncontrolled environment (i.e., the grocery store), emotional control goes right out the window and you’re left with a screaming, blubbering kid in the frozen food aisle.
  • Inhibition: This is one of the “clusters” that most parents reading this are familiar with. Your child has excessive reactions to stimuli, does things he knows he shouldn’t do (hit, yell, play rough, ignore your requests, etc.), and they seemingly have no way of stopping the behavior – either that, or they are purposefully ignoring rules and directions… I know it’s crossed your mind. You may find yourself screaming, “Just Stop!” … but you know it won’t work.
  • Working memory: Ever ask your kid to go upstairs and get ready for school and they come back down with their pajamas still on, and a book in their hand? Uh… where are your clothes? “Oh, yeah!” Our ADHD kiddos often cannot recall what they were told 5 minutes ago. Perhaps they start a task and then trail off. Often, your child won’t ask for redirection, and will be easily frustrated when she must return to an activity when it’s uncompleted. Distraction plays a huge role here, and this can make even small tasks, like getting dressed in the morning, insurmountable (but I don’t have to tell you that, do I?).
  • Planning, prioritization, and organization: Your ADHD kiddo literally has a different sense of time than the rest of the world. They live in the “now” and have a very hard time even conceptualizing how to pull together long-term projects or tasks. As for organization, well, let’s just say my house will never be featured in “Getting Organized Magazine,” and my ADHD child’s room is among the worst in the house. Anything he touches becomes disheveled.

The day I learned the relationship between executive function and ADHD was a life-changer. When I started to understand that not only was there a logical, legitimate REASON for my son’s seemingly crazy behaviors, but also that he wasn’t conspiring to drive me crazy, I became much less crazy myself.

I realized that he couldn’t help much of what was happening and that if he could he would.

I also realized that many of the traditional ways of parenting simply aren’t going to work for a kid with ADHD. However, understanding each of these clusters in detail will empower you to address the issue at the root cause, tailor behavior modification techniques that actually have a chance to work, and – most importantly – stay (somewhat) sane.

Share your thoughts below!

Together, We’ve Got This!


Honestly Erin