Executive Functioning and ADHD in the Real World
All kids with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) display both problems with how the brain alerts and with executive functioning. However, not all kids with executive functioning difficulties or dysfunction, have ADHD.
One's executive functioning can be impaired for a variety or reasons. When something interferes with a child's or person's focus, they can struggle with planning and prioritizing tasks.
Executive Functioning Impairments can be related to:
- Depression and Mood Disorder
- Sensory Processing Disorder
Attention and executive functioning are different. Attention is the brain's ability to alert, which means shifting attention when it is supposed to in a timely manner.
Executive functioning on the other hand, is the ability to plan and prioritize for a future event. It is all those metacognitive or thinking skills one learns over time to organize oneself towards a goal.
There can be many reasons why one struggles with executive functions but at its core is a difficulty with response inhibition. That means having impulse control, which can impact learning, behavior and social functioning.
Can Executive Functioning Be Learned?
Planning and prioritizing for a future task or event isn't a skill those with ADHD are wired for but executive functioning skills can be taught.
As with any clinical disorder, ADHD has a significant negative impact in some way, shape or form in a child's life. That negative impact not only affects the child or teen, but also their family who has to act as a project manager.
It can be especially frustrating to see your bright child lag behind their siblings and peers despite your best efforts to get them help. Getting expert executive functioning and ADHD care can be like going down a neverending rabbit hole! So many of the families who work with me in person or virtually, find our BrainBehaviorReset™ in a middle of the night Google Search.
Many parents ask about how to help their kids cope with executive functioning issues and ADHD without medication and wonder if it can be achieved. The research, which I outline in my book, It's Gonna Be OK!, shows us that kids with ADHD can thrive without medication.
Remember there are two parts to ADHD: the brain's difficulty with alerting when it is supposed to and a lack of executive functioning. You need to address both issues in order to help kids with ADHD.
When children have trouble with executive function, there needs to be an emphasis on how children learn best. Executive functioning deficits should be addressed in a very strategic manner and until fully developed so you are building on a solid foundation. You can build executive functioning including response inhibition, working memory, time management, how to plan and prioritize, etc.
So, how can you build executive functioning skills? Here are my best tips.
37 Ways to Improve Executive Functioning Skills at Home and School
#1 Understand What Executive Functioning Is
Executive functioning is different from ADHD and understanding that they are a set of skills that can be learned makes a dramatic difference for a child and their family.
#2 Talk Out Loud
Verbalizing metacognitive strategies gives kids a great example of how they should be thinking about thinking and problem-solving.
#3 Ask More Questions
When a child has executive function difficulties, we often get into a pattern of directing them when instead we should be asking more questions. This change helps lead to problem-solving and independent thinking.
#4 Show Them the End Product
When we show kids what the end result is, they are able to “see it.” Their brain just doesn't see what the result looks like, so we start there and show them how to work backwards.
#5 Don't Start with Checklists
When we start with checklists, children don't know what they're working towards, so we need to start with the end result, work through the steps and then the checklist is the final step.
#6 Teach Them About Time
You have to directly work on building a sense of time with kids with executive functioning issues. That means always having them estimate how long something will take, using tech tools, and having them log how much time something took to do.
#7 Practice Time Management
Don't be your child's project manager and instead focus on teaching them and getting them to use time management tools.
#8 Reinforce, Reinforce and Then Reinforce Some More
Don't underestimate how much reinforcement a child needs in order to independently learn. That is why consistency is incredibly important.
#9 Role-Play and Gesture
The ADHD brain benefits for kinesthetic learning, so always role-play and have them gesture in order to learn skills at a deeper level.
#10 Use Positive Reinforcement
Research consistently shows us that when it comes to getting kids to learn through parenting, positive reinforcement is optimal. Kids need emphasis on what they should be doing and not on what they are doing wrong.
#11 Use Mind Maps When Writing
Using visuals like mind mapping helps activate the visual parts of an ADHD brain and gets kids to “see” what they need to do. It acts like a bridge from their ideas to words on a page.
#12 Use Voice to Text Software
Getting thoughts down on a page can be aided with voice to text technology. The ADHD or executive functioning challenged brain often moves too fast to slow down to write.
#13 Activate Their Senses
Anything we can do to make learning more sensory by bringing in taste, touch, smell, and just more kinesthetic, will increase the likelihood that your child will independently learn that desired behavior.
#14 Set Them up for Success
Thinking about every activity as an opportunity to learn means that you are thinking proactively about what they need in order for that activity to be successful.
#15 Set Goals and Micro Goals
While it is important to have a big goal, you also want to outline the micro goals, so your child understands the steps to achieve the end result.
#16 Visualize Yourself Doing the Task
Have your child practice visualizing themselves doing and completing the task. Kids with EF difficulties don't see the end result and we have to activate their brain by having them see themselves doing and completing the task.
#17 Assume Your Child Doesn't Know the Steps
Just because your child is bright doesn't mean they understand the components needed to complete a task, so set them up for her success by visualizing and gesturing what it takes to get the result.
#18 Work on Behavioral Regulation
Response inhibition or putting the brakes on, is the foundation or all executive functioning skills. So, that has to be worked on first before any higher level skills, such as writing can be achieved.
#19 Focus on Emotional Control
Without emotional regulation, you can't think, pay attention or take action, so prioritizing emotional and behavioral regulation are a priority over all of their skills.
#20 Build Working Memory Skills
Working memory is a muscle that can be flexed by using it regularly and pushing the limits by increasing slowly the amount of information a child must hold in their memory while completing a task.
#21 Teach Self Monitoring Skills
Just like math skills, how a child self monitors can be directly and explicitly taught. Scaffolding at first and then providing a lessening amount of reinforcement is how to develop skills.
#22 Teach Planning and Prioritizing
With direct practice, show kids how a task needs to be strategically planned out. Always start with the end result and work backwards with visualization of each step.
#23 Build Task Initiation Skills
Show a child how to strategically start a task and what to do when they feel overwhelmed.
#24 Use Organizational Tools
There are many organizational tools available to kids and you just need to find what works and you have to actually use them.
#25 Use Organized Examples
Show a child what the end product of something that is organized looks like and work backwards. Don't just assume your child knows what a completed project looks like.
#26 Increase Cognitive and Emotional Flexibility
Some children with ADHD can be rigid and resistant, so building opportunities for success without shame and blame can go a long way increasing flexibility.
#27 Teach Situational Awareness
Due to internal and external distractibility, it's important to teach kids with ADHD to survey their environment, so they can have increased self awareness.
#28 Chunk Out Expectations
Give kids small manageable tasks one at a time, to set them up for success. Too many tasks can be overwhelming or forgotten, leading to feelings of failure and resistance.
#29 Rethink Your Child's Struggles
Remind yourself, your child isn't lazy. Children with executive functioning issues feel overwhelmed and take the path of least resistance.
#30 Teach Strategy
Use metacognitive skills and talk about how you strategize out loud so your child constantly gets input about how to organize and problem-solving.
#31 Ask Them What They Would Do
Ask and listen for their strategy and then ask why and how. Low stress conversations like these can have a powerful impact on their coping and problem solving skills.
#32 Come up with a Project to Work on Together
Not all learning has to be academic. Activities that center on cooking, baking, gardening, home improvements (change up furniture in a room or re-paint a room) can be fun, connected learning opportunities where you practice skills side by side. This will help identify your child's processing style and where they have strengths and weaknesses.
#33 Build in Breaks
Planned breaks into tasks, so kids get a sense of how to manage time and their effort. Giving them specific time on and time off and with activity choices (2-3 choices) is a way to refocus and refuel.
#34 Use Mindfulness Activities
Activities that get kids to slow down and connect in the moment, helps with attention and executive functioning. Even quick games like, “I spy” helps kids alert to details.
#35 Go on a Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt
This activity gets kids moving and teaches them to organize their thinking and action. Use a list of items to look for on a nature walk or hike.
#36 Re-Organize Drawers
By practice categorizing and getting rid of unnecessary items and clutter in a small drawer, kids can learn skills in a manageable way that hopefully translates to their lockers and rooms.
#37 Make the Implicit, Explicit
The greatest mistake I see parents and teachers make with kids with EF challenges is the assumption that our bright kids know what to do. That is why the direct teaching of metacognitive problem-solving skills is so important. Role model by talking out loud and you will be surprised what your kid will learn.
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.”
She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach. She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).
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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.