Executive Functioning and ADHD: What Parents Should Know

Posted Behind the Wheel with ADHD News

With these tips, parents can help kids improve their ability to plan, organize and execute daily tasks.

By Jennifer Lea Reynolds, Contributor – Source: US News July 19, 2017, at 2:58 p.m.

Parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder undoubtedly come across a variety of phrases pertaining to the disorder – “executive functioning” among them. However, sifting through the deluge of information can be overwhelming. What exactly does executive functioning mean, and what are some ways parents can help children cope with related challenges?

In short, executive functioning has to do with the ability to plan, organize and execute daily tasks, says Dr. Marilyn Griffin, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and medical director of the Comprehensive ADHD Clinic in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. She explains that planning and organizing daily tasks is typically more difficult for a child, adolescent or adult with ADHD who usually already struggles with forgetfulness, losing things or an inability to focus. Therefore, Griffin says that carrying out executive functioning skills can be challenging.

At the same time, Ann Shanahan, an ADHD and executive functioning coach at Shanahan Sweeney Coaching in Chicago, who also offers driver education to parents, teens and instructors through the program Behind the Wheel With ADHD, stresses that not everyone with ADHD has executive function challenges. She notes that just because they have ADHD doesn’t mean they’ll have planning struggles by default. It works the other way around, too. She says someone may have executive functioning challenges but not have ADHD. Secondly, Shanahan explains that “executive function challenges can show up in ADHD as well as in other disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s,” so they don’t just play a role with ADHD specifically.

One way parents may be able to tell if their ADHD child has executive functioning issues may boil down to a commonly used phrase. “When a parent says, ‘get your act together,’” Shanahan explains, “a lot of times, that really means the child’s planning and organizing isn’t good.” But parents should understand that this is about a deficiency in their inability to organize and plan, so it’s important to rid the assumption that it’s about laziness or stupidity, she says. Children “want to excel and plan, but sometimes don’t have the tools to do so,” she says.

Mounting frustrations over these daily struggles may become upsetting for both parents and children. Griffin says she’s had parents tell her that they have to constantly remind their child to do something, which can become bothersome. But taking some important tips into consideration can alleviate annoyances related to executive functioning deficits. Not only will this help the child plan and execute daily tasks better, but Griffin says it can “take the burden off the parent” in the case of having to present frequent reminders.

Here are some suggestions on how parents can improve their child’s executive functioning skills.

Use Visuals and Simple Planners

Griffin encourages parents to provide children with visual reminders about their home responsibilities in the form of a “chore chart,” a visual she says provides a sense of accomplishment with each activity that’s crossed off or erased.

“A chore chart outlines the expectations of a child,” she says, noting that parents should be detailed about the tasks by specifying things beyond simply “clean the bedroom.” Tasks like making the bed or putting toys in place are more concrete.

“Kids with attention or planning challenges like things very simple and visual most of the time,” Shanahan says. She says a planner is often an ideal way to help, and that it should be printed and made visible to children.

When it comes to the type of planner, Shanahan says to “keep it simple.” She suggests using a school-issued planner. Parents should go over it with their child every Sunday night to prepare for the week ahead.

Consider Timers

Another way to help fine-tune executive functioning skills is to instill the importance of time management. Griffin explains that some individuals with ADHD have difficulties figuring how much time should be allotted for various tasks, often underestimating how long something may take. She says parents should make sure a child schedules enough time to do homework, for example, by using timers.

“The rule of thumb is that, on average, for every year a person is, there’s a two-minute attention span for a subject,” Shanahan says. “So if a child is 15 years old, that would be 30 minutes.” Something called a “time timer,” Shanahan notes, helps a person keep track of the amount of time they want to devote to a particular task. Using the 30 minutes as an example, when that time is up, that’s the cue to take a break – but not for screen time, she says. “Do something like have a snack or take a walk between transitioning from subject to subject,” she says.

Use Acronyms

Some children may also benefit by recalling acronyms. Shanahan suggests “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” to remember the directions north, east, south and west. Similarly, she devised “All Good Kids Like Milk,” as a cornerstone for defensive driving. It means:

  • Aim high in steering.
  • Get the big picture.
  • Keep your eyes moving.
  • Leave yourself an out.
  • Make sure they see you.

Experts from PsychCentral.com, an online mental health social network, note that acronyms are indeed helpful. They’re suggested as one technique that “a person can use to help them improve their ability to remember something.”

Remain Involved and Offer Praise

“ADHD children may often feel ostracized by peers,” Griffin says. “So they may develop poor self-esteem as a result.” Therefore, she stresses the importance of positive reinforcement or giving a reward for task completion. For example, if a child struggles with remembering tasks and goes a few days without needing a reminder, perhaps he or she can select the family outing for the upcoming weekend, she suggests.

Additionally, it’s critical to reassure these children that they’re fully capable of meeting goals and performing well socially and academically. Telling them that there’s nothing wrong with them, but that their brain just works differently, is helpful, Griffin says.

It’s also essential for parents to remain involved in their child’s activities, especially when it comes to teacher interaction. “Stay in touch with teachers,” Griffin advises. “They are a child’s biggest advocate to ensure they have everything they need to be successful.” Teachers get to know the intricacies of each child’s behaviors and skills, she says, so they may be able to inform parents of habits parents might not have otherwise known about.

After obtaining information from a teacher or another person, it may be time to seek help from a primary medical provider and a psychologist, Shanahan says. But if a parent tries these things and they don’t seem to offer sufficient support, she says outside help from a coach may be worth exploring. She suggests parents go online and visit the Edge Foundation, a nonprofit coaching organization that provides people with evidence-based practices and resources designed to improve executive functioning skills for students with ADHD.


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