EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING & ADHD
ADHD can have many impacts on a child. Executive function are skills people use throughout the day to work towards getting things accomplished. Once you learn how executive functioning is impacted by ADHD, you will better understand your child's behaviors. This allows you to work towards getting your child the supports and modifications at school to help them improve these skills.
WHAT IS EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING?
Executive function is a group of cognitive skills and processes including working memory, attention control, inhibition and problem solving. The brain uses the frontal lobe to control these functions. Since ADHD affects the frontal lobe of the brain, children with ADHD can be very challenged with these skills that seem to be effortless for others without ADHD. Knowing these areas can be greatly impacted by ADHD makes it easier to understand the challenges and frustrations your child must feel when trying to do things that appear to be easy to you.
HOW WE USE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING:
Executive functions are activities that require conscious thought and effort. It's not like breathing, where your body just does it without any thought. When we are given a task to do, without knowing it our brain will start to process the information and we will work through it in our mind and start to tackle the task. It takes conscious effort however we often don't realize the actual steps our thinking goes through to digest the information and put it to action.
WHEN ADHD MEETS EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING
Things work a little differently for a child with ADHD. An ADHD child may hear the information and their mind will take a different path than the average person. Their mind won't just start to digest the information and think through the steps of how to complete the task. It just doesn't happen naturally for them. When the ability to control these thoughts and efforts don't happen naturally, many daily tasks that seem simple to you are extremely difficult for your child. A person with ADHD needs to learn strategies and special coping techniques to gain better control in this area. They need to learn how to digest what is said, break it down in to steps in a logical order then do one step at a time. Seems obvious to us, but for our kids it's a real challenge.
I can remember giving my son a task to go upstairs and get socks on and get his shoes so we can leave for school. My son would be upstairs for 10 minutes and I would yell up to remind him to come down with socks and shoes. He would appear in the kitchen (with no socks or shoes) blowing a whistle and say, "hey remember this whistle I got for my birthday?" Can anyone relate??? At this point we are late, and I am annoyed thinking "how hard is it to get socks and shoes? We do this every morning!" This is an example of how the executive functioning falls apart especially with multi-step tasks. Asking him to go upstairs, get shoes, get socks and come back down is four separate tasks. The only thing my son really heard was "go upstairs". The rest....well let's just say it went out the window!
I NEEDED TO THINK DIFFERENTLY
I started to try and better understand how I could work through this with my son and help him better learn how to complete a multi-step task as simple as getting socks and shoes. How could I handle it differently? I would get at eye level to get his attention and say "listen, I need you to do something. You need to go upstairs and get TWO things...socks and shoes and come back downstairs. What are the two things?" He would repeat "socks and shoes". I would then try to make it fun and say "I bet you can't do that in less than 30 seconds..." My son was super competitive, so he was always up for the challenge...it started to work! We had socks and shoes in less than a minute! Score 1 for mom!!
WHAT SKILLS ARE PART OF EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING?
Dr. Russell Barkley is one of my favorite researchers on ADHD. He has many great books and videos on ADHD that offer so much insight. He indicates that the 5 key areas affected in executive functioning for ADHD kids are inhibiting behaviors, non-verbal working memory, self-talk/self-guidance, emotional control and planning/problem solving skills. Realizing this, can you imagine how hard it is for your child to get through a single day??? Basically, they can be challenged at almost anything they do or experience all day long. No wonder why my son had meltdowns and was frustrated. I am frustrated and stressed just reading about it! Here's a short 3 minute video by Dr. Barkley that lays this out.
Dr. Barkley references in other material that children with ADHD have executive functioning skills 30% behind that of a non-ADHD child. He also emphasizes that executive functioning has nothing to do with IQ of ADHD children. I have put this into a chart form for you to better understand what age level of executive functioning your child may be functioning at based on Dr. Barkley's 30% Rule.
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This information and chart does not offer an excuse for why your child behaves the way he or she does. It offers an explanation. What you choose to do with this information makes all the difference. Knowing that your child is unable to process information, impulses and emotions like most people, hopefully changes your thinking on how to react to these situations. ADHD kids need to learn skills. They need strategies, techniques and replacement behaviors. It's our job as parents to help support them at home and get them the supports and educational services they need at school to learn these skills.
One way to get the school team on your side is to present this information in an IEP meeting. Sometimes we need to make a point or educate the staff on what we know if it can help our child succeed. When I presented this information in an IEP meeting, I was asked for a copy and not all of the staff was aware of the information I shared. It's all about baby steps sometimes but if they are willing to hear what I say and learn from me about my child, I am moving in the right direction to get him what he needs.
I hope this information is helpful as you seek to better understand your child and how to help him or her. It is a work in progress and as a parent you need to keep trying and moving forward. It is not easy at all, but we can't give up on our kids. They need an advocate in their corner. If you are frustrated with the IEP process and getting the supports your child needs at school, contact me. As an educational advocate and a mom of a child with ADD, I fully understand these challenges and would love to help. When working with clients, my goal is to teach the parents HOW to advocate for their child so that one day they won't need me anymore. I can coach you and give you the resources you need to successfully advocate for your child at school. Get your free download of the Executive Functioning Age Chart below and stay tuned for more helpful information and resources to help you advocate for your child!