Executive Functions

7 Executive Functioning Deficits That Deflate Motivation for Teens with ADHD

Executive dysfunction causes problems with planning, organizing, prioritizing, and sticking to a goal, among other challenges. It’s also a major reason behind motivation challenges in tweens and teens with ADHD. Learn about seven important executive function skills, their relationship to motivation, and how to improve each skill.

The ADHD brain
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Executive Dysfunction, ADHD, and Motivation

Lackluster and inconsistent motivation are part and parcel of ADHD. From a lack of self-confidence to a desire for autonomy (and its corollary, defiance), tweens and teens with ADHD struggle to get and stay motivated — especially on the tough stuff — for myriad reasons.

Deficits in executive function (EF) — the brain tools that allow us to plan, organize, prioritize, initiate, and meet our goals — are a major contributor to motivation challenges in adolescents with ADHD. Children and teens with ADHD experience a three-year delay in the development of their executive function skills, so it's almost certain they will require additional support to bolster their executive functioning skills and increase motivation.

Read on to learn more about the executive function skills tied to motivation, the most significant EF challenges shared by parents in a recent ADDitude webinar, and expert strategies to improve each EF skill.

Photo taken in Wroclaw, Poland
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Executive Functioning Skill: Initiation

"How do you get them to start? When the work piles up, my child gets overwhelmed and does not know when or how to start. I try to get my child to do homework, but they growl at me and say that 'they know' but still won’t do anything."

"My son is 16 and has trouble getting started on a simple list of chores or homework without outside pressure, which usually means me (mom) resorting to a large amount of nagging."

How to Improve Initiation Skills

  • Break down tasks to reduce overwhelm.
  • Tap into your child's innate desire for mastery and independence. While it may not seem like it, all children want to be able to do things on their own.

Next Steps:


Alarm clock and colour papers on the yellow background.
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Executive Functioning Skill: Time Management

"How do you motivate kids for time-sensitive things? Like brushing their teeth on time before they miss the bus?"

"My daughter has zero sense of time. I'm always telling her to think about how she'll feel later about the choices she is making now, but it has no impact."

"My 15-year-old grandson refuses to move at a pace to get the school bus on time and/or get to school on time."

How to Improve Time-Management Skills

  • Make time physical. Use a Time Timer or an analog clock to help your child see time ticking.
  • Use alarms, alerts, and other reminders to keep your child on track.
  • Use backwards design (i.e., plan with the end first) and teach your child how to use time estimation tools.

Next Steps:

Close up of multicolor pencils organized in jars
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Executive Functioning Skill: Organization

"My older teen is almost completely resistant to making lists and plans, and finds it insulting. Do you have any advice on this?"

"How do I convince my 12-year-old to write down assignments in his school agenda? I have explained how helpful it is, but he just won’t do it."

"My son refuses systems of organization, like planners for school, places for storage, etc. He knows he has ADHD, but feels he's doing fine and doesn't need help."

How to Improve Organization Skills

  • Use self-smart systems that make sense for your child's brain.
  • Create and stick to routines.
  • Designate spaces for storing materials.
  • Lay out steps for completing tasks.
  • Rely on looking, not recalling.

Next Steps:

An illustration of a To-Do List for adults with ADHD
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Executive Functioning Skill: Prioritizing

"How can I help my child determine when an item on the list should be accomplished, and when they can move to the next one?"

"Do you have any suggestions for someone who doesn't do well with lists?"

"It all feels like pushing boulders up a hill. How can my child get free of this when every task feels hard and dreaded?"

How to Improve Prioritization Skills

  • Understand urgency versus importance. Teens who struggle to prioritize tend to view all tasks as equally important. Help your child understand that urgency is tied to time, while importance is tied to value.
  • Make a big to-do list and help your child chunk it off into smaller, actionable items.

Next Steps:

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Executive Functioning Skill: Sustained Attention

"For my 17-year-old, dopamine-creating activities (YouTube, video games, etc.) are prioritized over anything else. Limitations on these activities are viewed as punishment. Completing homework is the biggest issue. I am at a loss at where to go next."

"How do we motivate teens when they are sucked into their devices and phones? The reality is that parents are competing against the distracting devices that they love. It doubles the challenge of lack of motivation and a task not being as interesting as their device."

"How can a teenager resist distractions, then sustain and redirect attention on their own to complete a task?"

How to Help Your Child Sustain Attention

  • Limit distractions. If devices are derailing your child's focus, come up with clear screen time rules. Remember, your child's screen time is a privilege.
  • Set realistic work periods. Note long can your child keep focused before they need a break.
  • Determine task order of operations. Divide tasks into easy, medium, and hard, for example, and ask your child which task they'd like to do first. Will it help them to start with an easier task to build momentum, or to start with the hard task to get it out of the way?
  • Work as a family to build accountability — body doubling in action.

Next Steps:

Project tracking, goal tracker, task completion or checklist to remind project progress concept, businessman project manager holding big pencil to check completed tasks in project management timeline.
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Executive Functioning Skill: Goal-Directed Persistence

"How can you help a student that suffers ADHD paralysis and play games on the phone instead of getting homework done?"

"What do you do when rewards or incentives are not working to motivate?"

"How can I keep my child motivated on same task after the initial goal is achieved?"

How to Improve Goal-Directed Persistence

  • Co-create a reachable goal. Your child needs a reasonable, realistic, and totally attainable goal to get and keep the ball rolling. Be sure to talk to your child about incentives — what would they like to see when they reach the finish line?
  • Offer neutral cues for getting back to work. Ask your child how they would like to be guided back to the task to encourage compliance.
  • Plan for obstacles and strategize options. Again, work with your child to figure out where they might get stuck and what they will need to keep going.

Next Steps:

Three speech bubbles, representing the questions people often have about the side effects of ADHD medications
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Executive Functioning Skill: Metacognition

Metacognition refers to awareness and understanding of one's own thinking and thought processes. This "self-talk" skill improves self-awareness, which could help your teen notice when and why they are feeling unmotivated, and what they might to do to overcome that hurdle. Metacognition also improves planning, focus, persistence, and problem-solving skills.

How to Improve Metacognitive Skills

  • Ask your child open-ended questions to foster self- reflection. Ask questions like...
    • "What is the task?"
    • "What do you think you can do first?"
    • "What is your plan if you become distracted while working on a task?"

Additional Steps:

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More Strategies to Motivate Teens with ADHD

To learn more about motivating adolescents with ADHD, listen to the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Motivating the Unmotivated: Strategies for Middle and High School Students with ADHD" by Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast live on January 11, 2023.

Executive Functioning Skills and Teen Motivation: Next Steps

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