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What parents should know about executive function and dysfunction

Eran Grayson
Eran Grayson

Table of Contents

If we illustrate this from a student’s perspective, let’s imagine Devon, a 9th grader, has been assigned a 1500 word essay due in 2 weeks. 

In order to successfully complete this assignment, Devon will need to: 

  • Plan out when he needs to do his research and make an outline well ahead of the due date
  • Manage his time so that he completes his other homework, as well
  • Manage distractions and maintain his focus while he’s working on his essay (hello, TikTok)
  • Monitor his progress and the quality of his work by referring to a grading rubric and getting teacher/peer input on the essay draft
  • Manage frustration and boredom while he works, so he stays on task (again, hello, TikTok, YouTube, and Fortnite)
  • Organize his notes and materials to find the passages he’ll reference in his essay
  • Prioritize working on his essay when he’d rather be playing video games – and also prioritize finding the most relevant quotes to back up his thesis.
  • Think flexibly and solve problems when faced with challenges as he writes. Maybe that first thesis statement was unprovable with the evidence he compiled – time to go back to the drawing board and revise.

Planning, time management, attention, self-awareness, emotion regulation, organization, prioritizing, and flexible thinking are all Executive Function skills that Devon needs to activate in order to get his essay done well and on time. 

But what happens when one or more of these areas is weak? Perhaps you’ve seen that for yourself, when your teen suffers last-minute panic about a big science project they “just remembered.” The ensuing chaos for your household is nobody’s idea of fun. The reality is, students often have academic demands that exceed their current EF capacities. Our brain’s frontal lobes don’t fully mature until our mid-twenties, so there are plenty of opportunities during high school and college for students to get caught in a quagmire of academic failure – not because they don’t have the intellect for the work, but because they don’t have the fully developed executive function capacities that help them get the work done on time and accurately.

ADHD and Executive Dysfunction

Let’s also imagine now that Devon has ADHD. Devon’s brain works differently from neurotypical kids. (If “neurotypical” is a new term to you, it refers to people who do not carry diagnoses such as ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, or other learning differences. The term neurodivergent is often used for people who do have these diagnoses.) He is super bright but his EF skills are pretty weak all around because of his ADHD. Some use the term executive dysfunction to describe a situation like Devon’s. And because he hasn’t yet learned enough about himself to know the structures and tools he needs to have in place to accommodate his EF challenges, he’s pretty frustrated, particularly when a complex, long term assignment comes up like that essay. 

Thankfully, it is not all doom and gloom for students with ADHD to meet their true potential. The first step is developing self-awareness. With some support and guidance as needed, Devon would want to be able to answer questions like:

  • What am I good at?
  • What’s tough for me?
  • What gets in the way of what I need to accomplish?
  • What are my priorities right now?
  • What does the week ahead look like?
  • What tools do I need to use that will help me stay on task?

 

This self-knowledge inventory helps Devon gain some control and agency and forms the basis of an action plan that helps him gain EF skills and confidence. And helps him slay that essay!

Executive function, or EF, refers to the set of abilities residing in our brain’s frontal lobes that help us set and achieve goals. Sounds important, right? It’s even more critical than you may realize, because EF skills impact almost every aspect of a teenager’s life. Let’s take a look at a real-life situation for a typical student to see exactly how executive function plays into their academic demands.

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