What is an Executive Function?

ADHD brainThe term “executive function” or “executive dysfunction” refers to those skills that are used to “get things done” and to “manage oneself” and they are often associated with ADHD/ADD.  They develop in the precortex of the brain which is in the front forehead area and damage to this area can also impact the executive functions.

I once heard it explained as the skills that a secretary or administrative assistant would handle for an executive. Those things like making sure appointments and schedules were made and kept, projects kept moving, tasks completed, etc. You may have heard it described as the conductor of an orchestra who can come in and transform the racket of multiple instruments tuning up into a beautiful symphony. Here is a more formal definition:

The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation. Taken from: Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel (2008) http://www.ldonline.org/article/29122/

Why is this important? If your child has a weakness in one or more of the executive functions with or without ADHD then it might show up as:

  • Spending hours on homework but be unable to find it when it is time to hand it in
  • Last minute projects that take hours and change course several times
  • Inability to sit down and get started on homework
  • Messy backpacks and notebooks with papers hanging out everywhere
  • Unaware of upcoming tests so fails to study and fails the test

As an adult:

  • Late fees on overdue bills, extra trips to the store for forgotten items, running out of gas
  • Missed appointments and deadlines
  • Difficulty organizing the process of steps for projects and reports
  • Clutter and disorganization due to ineffective or missing household systems

Although the authorities agree on what executive functions are, they do not appear to agree on names for the individual skills that are delayed (up to 3 years according to Russell Barkley). For example, the terms “activation” and “task initiation” basically mean the ability to get started. Kids with this weak skill may have difficulty getting up and out the door in the morning and/or working on homework. Each skill impacts several areas of their life. Over the summer I will be exploring several of these executive function skills and providing some strategies to help strengthen them. So, please check back often.

Thanks for reading!