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ADHD Lingo: What is Executive Functioning, Anyway???

executive functioningIf you are the parent or a loved one of someone diagnosed with ADHD, you have undoubtedly heard a lot of ADHD “lingo” thrown around by teachers, doctors, psychologists, etc. Aside from the standard, easily definable labels of “inattentive,” “hyperactive,” and “impulsive,” a common but oftentimes confusing phrase used to describe someone with ADHD is “poor executive functioning.” That sounds fancy and complicated, but what does it actually mean?

More importantly, how can it be used to help you and others better understand someone and help them succeed?

In its simplest form, executive functioning refers to any and all skills that are necessary for people to efficiently accomplish tasks and resolve problems. Essentially, these are the skills all teen and adult human beings need to get through their day successfully. Executive functioning consists of way more than just one “skill.”

In fact, there are 11 different executive functioning skills involved:

  • executive functioningSustained attention: Ability to keep paying attention even when you’re tired, bored, or have distractions going on around you
  • Response Inhibition: Thinking before you act
  • Working memory: Being able to keep information in your memory at the same time you’re doing other things, and being able to apply what you learned from past experiences onto future experience
  • Emotional control: Managing your emotions so you can effectively control your behavior, achieve goals, and complete tasks
  • Flexibility: Being able to easily adapt to changes or revise plans when there are setbacks, mistakes, or when you receive new information
  • Task initiation: Starting a task, project, etc. efficiently and without procrastination
  • Planning/prioritization: Ability to create a “road map” or guide to reach a goal, and being able to make decisions about what is important and what isn’t
  • Organization: Being able to create and maintain a system to keep track of things
  • Time management: Ability to estimate how much time something will take and to stay within deadlines
  • Goal-directed persistence: Being able to establish and follow through on a goal without getting distracted
  • Metacognition: Being able to take a step back and watch how you problem-solve, and being able to evaluate and monitor yourself objectively

Typically, people have areas of strength and weakness in executive functioning skills

This is true even for those who have diagnoses that typically are accompanied by weaker executive functioning skills, such as in ADHD and Autism. This means that it is usually inaccurate to say that someone has “poor executive functioning,” because chances are there is at least one area of executive functioning that serves as a strength to the person. The good news with this is that, if you can identify where your weaknesses are, you can better pinpoint interventions and strategies to improve those weaker areas.

Executive functioning skills don’t all develop evenly or at the same time even in “typical” development, so it is important to be aware of this especially when interacting with and setting expectations for children

executive functioningFor example, skills like task initiation, time management, and organization don’t start developing until children are well into elementary school, and metacognition doesn’t come online until at least age 10-11. In contrast, skills like working memory, emotional control, and attention all develop early, within the first 6-12 months of life.

*Information adapted from: Smart but Scattered Teens by Richard Guare, Ph.D., Peg Dawson, Ed.D., and Colin Guare. Purchase here.

Christina Stai

Author: Christina Stai

Dr. Christina Stai is a licensed clinical psychologist in both California and Iowa. She specializes in young children and received her doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.) from Azusa Pacific University, an APA accredited school near Los Angeles. She completed an APA accredited internship and APPIC accredited postdoctoral fellowship at a residential emergency shelter with abused and neglected foster youth.  We are proud that she has joined Hope Springs.

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