Executive Dysfunction

What Does Executive Function Disorder Look Like in Children?

Executive dysfunction can start as early as age 2. Learn how to recognize the signs of EFD in your child with this information.

A boy in the science lab at school, smiling happily and experiencing no anxiety
Boy with brain on his head

Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction in Children

Up to 90 percent of kids with ADHD also have executive function challenges, many of which last into adulthood.

The seven executive functions (self-awareness, inhibition, non-verbal working memory, verbal working memory, emotional self-regulation, self-motivation, and planning and problem solving) develop consecutively over time. Self-awareness starts to develop around age 2; by age 30, planning and problem solving are fully developed in a neurotypical brain. However, individuals with ADHD generally lag 30 to 40 percent behind their peers in developing one executive function, and then the next.

Executive dysfunction is often difficult to ignore during the transitions to 6th or 9th grade, when school structures and schedules change dramatically, and academic expectations increase. Parents and teachers often don’t get why kids can’t work independently on an assignment, and assume they’ll “pick up” the necessary skills. It’s important to start helping kids with ADHD/EFD early, and to acknowledge the problems those disorders cause so that kids don’t feel stupid or lazy.

If your child has trouble getting started, can only remember two or three things at a time, struggles with problem solving, or feels overwhelmed at school, he or she might have an executive function deficit. Common signs and symptoms of EFD in children include:

  • Forgetting tasks and homework
  • Trouble starting homework independently
  • Difficulty estimating how long a task will take
  • Being distracted easily
  • Difficulty keeping track of belongings
  • Inability to remember names and other key details
  • Trouble listening to and following instructions
  • Moving on to another task before one is finished
  • Difficulty remembering and following multi-step instructions
  • Problems understanding roles in multi-part organizations, like sports teams
  • Trouble transitioning between tasks

Awareness of these symptoms can help parents set up an early detection system so they can seek an evaluation and treatment before a child begins to struggle in school.

Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction at Home

Symptoms of EFD may present in a variety of ways. To determine if your scattered child could be showing signs of EFD, look for the following identifiers at home:

  • If you sit with your child and help structure assignments, homework gets done. If you say, “Go do your homework,” then check in later, it won’t be complete, or even started.
  • When you ask your child to go upstairs and get ready for bed, she goes upstairs, but then gets distracted and forgets what she was supposed to do next.
  • Your child’s room could be described as chaotic. Clothes are on the floor, and all the dresser drawers are open, with items falling out. Clean clothes are mixed up with dirty.
  • You ask your child to wait while you finish a phone call before he tells you something important, but by the time you hang up, he’s forgotten what he wanted to say.
  • If you ask your child to re-tell a story you just told, she has a hard time and skips key details.
  • Your child has difficulty keeping in mind all the elements required to participate in a team sport.

Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction at School

Many children with EFD struggle at school because of impairments in working memory. The following signs may suggest that EFD is affecting learning:

  • Your child daydreams regularly in class.
  • The teacher has sent several notes home that your child does not finish classwork.
  • Your child is engaged and active in verbal tasks, like class discussions.
  • During recess, your child plays well with friends and enjoys games, but when he tells you about it, he can’t remember his playmates names.
  • Your child’s backpack is a mess.
  • If the teacher or a buddy helps give structure to a task, your child can finish it.
  • Your child regularly forgets to bring home the materials and books she needs to do her homework.
  • The lost and found bin is full of your child’s clothes, books, pencils – anything that isn’t attached to him.
  • Your child has difficulty remembering all the steps required to solve a multi-step math or word problem.