What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are the mental processes that enable us to plan ahead, evaluate the past, start and finish a task and manage our time. They can affect what we do in the present and also how we plan and organize for the future. These skills affect our ability to access and juggle many thinking skills at the same time. Executive Functioning skills can also impact how we interact with others. They help us to control our emotions, identify and find solutions for a problem, monitor and stop our actions, evaluate our thoughts and give ourselves direction through self-talk. Executive functions have been described as the conductor (1) or manager of the brain organizing and timing brain functions to work together.

During school, problems with executive functioning (EF) impacts students in almost all their subjects and daily tasks. However, problems with EF often end up being the “hidden learning disability” that is not readily diagnosed. When a student has a learning disability in math, they will be able to function well in other subjects. When the discrepancy in the level of competency in different areas becomes obvious to the parents and teachers, it normally triggers some type of assessment and diagnosis. However, when there is a problem with executive functioning, the student will likely present with similar problems across all subjects. These may present as problems with; starting work, staying focused on work, completing work, and remembering to do the work. When children present with these problems they are often labeled as; lazy, unmotivated, undisciplined, not very bright or simply not trying hard enough.

Active working memory, a part of EF, is used when we need to open and manipulate several files from our memory at the same time, similar to a computer operator accessing several files from saved documents, flipping from one file to another, accessing and using information from all of them. Working memory also helps us to stay attentive and resist distractions, and assists us in making decisions throughout the day. Working memory is a vital executive function that is required for; writing, reading comprehension, complex math problems, problem solving, following directions, monitoring progress and evaluating strengths and needs.

Children with ADHD may have parents who become their “surrogate frontal lobe” (2) taking over tasks of organization, planning, remembering, generally being the executive manager of their child's life, without even realizing it.

For more information on this area access www.aboutkidshealth.ca and www.teachadhd.ca

As we grow older, executive functioning skills become more crucial. Adults take on many roles at one time needing to juggle; work, parenting, paying bills, shopping, house work, paperwork, money management etc. and most adults do not have the luxury of having a manager to assist them with these tasks. Spouses of undiagnosed adults frequently complain of having an extra child to look after rather than another adult to help out, adding a great deal of stress to family life.

The good news is that once diagnosed, many of the core symptoms of ADHD, if not alleviated, can be diminished to a level where people with ADHD can lead happy, productive lives in careers they find stimulating and rewarding. However, it is very important to note that “pills do not teach skills”, especially in the case of executive functioning impairment, so psychosocial treatments, and the teaching and implementation of organizational and time management strategies, as well as classroom and workplace accommodations is essential.

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