Executive Functions

When Executive Functions Falter and Fail

Executive functions are the skills that help us organize projects, manage processes, anticipate needs, and generally get stuff done. In children with ADHD, executive functions are typically weak on even the best day. Midway through the school year when interest and energy are waning, they can be downright terrible. Here’s how parents can help.

Boy with ADHD asleep on book
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Lost, Late or Burnt Out?

Does your child begin the school year excited and determined to do his best, but lose steam by second semester? Do you and teachers complain: “You’ve been at this for six months now, and you still don’t know what you’re doing?”  For the child who has ADHD and executive function challenges, this is difficult to hear. Fortunately, new research on EFs clarifies the causes of “spring fever” in children and suggests strategies that bring relief.

A mother helping her daughter plan her homework and build her executive functions
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What Are EFs, Anyway?

Executive functioning is “an umbrella term for the mental processes that serve a supervisory role in thinking and behavior. It allows us to create a master plan, initiate it in a timely manner, react to changes and challenges, and keep the goals in mind over time,” according to Joyce Cooper-Kahn, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist. Let’s look at some of the reasons children begin to fail as the school year progresses, and see how we can help them.

A frustrated girl proves that ADHD in girls is very real.
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Challenge #1: The Work Is Tougher

Teachers don’t always admit it to students and parents, but the curriculum does get more complex as the year goes on. There is an assumption that basic skills have been covered and that good study habits have been formed. But for the child with anxiety, attention, or learning disabilities, this may not be the case. He or she might be struggling with gaps in basic skills or experiencing problems with speed of performance. When this gap lowers his performance level, or causes missed deadlines, things get challenging.

Boy with ADHD studying
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Fix #1: Fill the Gaps

You need to know what knowledge or skills your child is missing in order to help him acquire them.
The how. Is there a basic process to a task or assignment (research project, book report) that is obvious to most students, but not to the individual with EF challenges?
The what. Perhaps the content is hard, involving abstract ideas and their corresponding details. Your child should revisit concepts until they’re clear.
How accurate. If your child moves on without gaining mastery of a skill, he'll need to relearn or review it every time she has to perform related tasks. Use flash cards to build or retain math facts or vocabulary words. If reading is the problem, Great Leaps, an excellent program for building word fluency, could help.

Frustrated girl with ADHD doing homework
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Challenge #2: She's Bored

The students who need repetition to crystallize new ideas or skills are usually the same ones who crave novelty and change, as most kids with ADHD do. Boredom lowers the levels of dopamine in the brain and can impair the ability to attend to detail and perform work.

Tired girl with ADHD sleeping while studying
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Fix #2: Do Things Differently

If boredom is your child’s problem, change things up. It’s not always possible to find a new teacher or class for your child, but changing the way your child does things can make a difference. Can he or she do homework in a new setting, like the dining room or a library? Or with a partner? Is there a new twist a teacher can add to a repetitive assignment? Is there a new sport your child can try? Learning to change things up is essential for students with ADHD and LD.

Teenage school boy with ADHD with a backpack walking to school
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Challenge #3: Misplaced His Planner...Again

Practice makes perfect, but poor practice creates a mess. If your child is struggling, it might be time to check on those good habits that were set at the beginning of the school year. Is he still using his planner, or does it sit at the bottom of his backpack? Does your child still study for small quizzes, or does he obsess about larger tests? Have homework routines been shelved?

The grade A plus on the homework of someone with ADHD who tries hard in school
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Fix #3: Get Back to Routines

Establishing or re-establishing good habits and routines — planner use, homework structure, or breaking large assignments into smaller ones — can increase the capacity of working memory and help us manage complexity. Making something a habit or routine allows you to do tasks without having to tap into working memory. Increased working memory enables higher-level thinking and increases performance and speed — we work smarter, not harder!

Boy with ADHD does not want to pay attention in school
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Challenge #4: He's Burnt Out

School can wear down students with EF challenges. Imagine having to show up for track practice five days a week, eight hours a day…with a bad ankle. It’s the same feeling for those with learning problems who are in an intense learning situation. To teachers and parents, burnout looks like lethargy, irritability, or work avoidance after a time.

Girl student with ADHD studying outside in nature
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Fix #4: Tune Up the Brain

Research by Stephen Kaplan, Ph.D., and Marc Berman, Ph.D., suggests that even 20 minutes of exposure to nature “resets” our attention and helps us to refocus. Whether we are gazing out a window or walking in a park, nature gives the right level of brain input, or “soft fascination,” to better access EFs and self-regulation. This effect seems to last well beyond the time spent in nature.

Mom planning to make a change for her child with ADHD
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Get Going

Decide on which one or two of these challenges is most affecting your child. If you’d like to create change, take out a calendar and make a plan to start this week and/or this month. Turn those plans into habits through repetition, and your child will be in better shape in time for the transition to summer.