What Is Executive Function?

If you have a child diagnosed with ADHD, or you have ADHD, you may have heard the term “executive function” – from a treatment specialist or in your own research and reading – and wondered exactly what it is.
In terms of how executive function relates to ADHD, understanding a little bit about it goes a long way to understanding the behaviour of someone diagnosed with the disorder.

So what is it? Its difficult to explain in laymen’s terms because so much of it is learned as you grow and it becomes second nature…
My favourite adult ADHD blogger, Zoë Kessler, wrote the following in a blog post:

I should have had an inkling about my absent ability to self-observe from the number of times I was told as a child, “I wish you could hear yourself!

Have you ever told your child with ADHD the same thing? How many times have you wanted to ask your ADHD son or daughter why they can’t remember to put their shoes on or brush their teeth every day?
Executive function affects just about everything you do, every day! Executive function is self-observation. Not learning from yesterday’s disaster’s is an inability to self-observe. Not remembering you were late yesterday because you didn’t leave the house on time is a lack of executive function.

If you are neuro-typical*, you know how to start your work day- whether its a set of tasks you perform every day or every day is different- you know, without thinking too hard about it, what to do to start each task and how to complete it. You know how to finish your work in order to make sure you meet deadlines and you can get home by a specific time every day.
You can estimate fairly accurately how much time has passed or how much time you have left for a deadline or before you change tasks without looking at a clock.
This is your executive function at work.
You know you have to get up at a certain time every morning in order to shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack a lunch and drive to school or work. As you grow and mature, you develop an innate intuition that constantly tells you- unconsciously- how much time you have left for a set of tasks- you know how long it takes you to eat breakfast, put make-up on, drive to work, and so on.
This is your executive function at work.

If you are neuro-atypical**, you are seldom on time without taking extreme steps or having someone assist you. If you have a child with ADHD this may go a little way to explaining drama you have in the morning – every SINGLE day.
Someone with ADHD can see the big picture in their heads. They can see the end product in every glorious detail, but the planning that is necessary to follow through with a task isn’t there.
They have no inhibition- they agree to plans and/ or invitations without checking a calendar or speaking to the rest of their family first.
Their working memory isn’t very good, meaning they battle to hold onto information long enough to use it to complete a task.
They’re always running out of tools and resources because they don’t properly plan, which links back to working memory.
They have no emotional control, its either hysterically funny or its the end of the world, and these reactions are aggravated by their frustration with not completing tasks or being criticised for bad or no organisation.

How does Executive Function affect learning? In school, at home or in the workplace, we’re called on all day, every day, to self-regulate behavior. Normally, features of executive function are seen in a person’s ability to:

  • make plans
  • keep track of time & keep track of more than one thing at once
  • meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • engage in group dynamics
  • evaluate ideas, change their mind & make mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading & writing
  • reflect on their work
  • finish work on time
  • ask for help
  • wait to speak until they’re called on
  • seek more information when they need it

So yes, children and adults with ADHD come across as lazy and unorganised, and yes executive function can be improved and coping mechanisms learned, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of focus.

Links you might want to click to read more about it:

Executive functioning, very simply put, is that part of the brain that coordinates and organizes information
Executive functions let you organize a trip, a research project, or a paper for school
Helping Children with Executive Functioning Problems Stop Irritating Behavior
Helping Children with Executive Functioning Problems to Manage Physical Impulsiveness
Helping Children with Executive Functioning Problems Turn In Their Homework
Lazy Kid or Executive Dysfunction?
* your brain works “normally”, you do not have ADHD
**your brain is wired differently, you have ADHD
Disclaimer: I am not a professional anything. I have ADHD – not officially diagnosed – and I’m a mom to an adult with ADHD. What I write is based on what I have learned in living with and researching mine and my son’s disorder.

1 thought on “What Is Executive Function?

  1. Angel, thank you for this post. I nodded after EVERY SINGLE FREAKING SENTENCE! I had no idea what a HUGE role Executive Function played in our lives. For the moment I am working on ways to improve Executive Function. As you know, it’s a bit of a battle. But, I live in hope.
    Thank you for this.

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