During the past decade, brain researchers have identified a set of abilities that help us manage our time, energy, resources, and talents: these skills are called “executive functions.” As it turns out, children, teens, and adults who have ADD/ADHD struggle with any number of poor executive skills.
Many have compared the executive skills to the CEO of a company: these skills help us efficiently and effectively manage all our other skills. Over the years, researchers have identified specific cognitive abilities that are necessary to successfully execute daily tasks. Each child, teen, and adult diagnosed with ADD/ADHD can have a unique set of executive skill strengths and weaknesses. Understanding your loved one’s specific executive skill strengths and needs can help you better understand how to help.
Response Inhibition (Thinking Before Acting)
Simply stated, response inhibition is the ability to think before acting. Internationally recognized ADHD expert Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D. has said that this skill plays a critical role in all the other executive skills: for example, a child’s ability to “focus” or sustain attention involves inhibiting all the other distractions around her. For suggestions to address the challenges most often associated with this executive skill, browse articles tagged “Response Inhibition.”
Emotional control is closely related to response inhibition and involves the capacity to control one’s emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or manage behavior. This executive skill is critical to developing and maintaining strong relationships. The lack of this skill is often the most damaging to the individual and those who love and care for him. Articles tagged “Emotional Control” provide a number of suggestions to address the challenges most often associated with this executive skill.
Flexibility for Transitions
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to adapt plans in the face of change, obstacles, setbacks, new information, and mistakes. Children and adults who struggle with this skill can have tremendous difficulty making transitions. Cognitive Flexibility articles include suggestions for addressing poor flexibility for transitions at home and in the classroom.
Sustained attention is the ability to maintain attention to a specific situation or task in spite of distractibility, poor mental energy, or boredom. This skill is often misunderstood because of the terms we have used to describe it: for example, “attention deficit” makes it sound as if the individual cannot pay attention to anything when, in fact, we pay attention to everything. Sustained attention is really about maintaining attention to the right thing at the right time. Problems with this executive skill are best addressed through suggestions outlined in articles tagged “Sustained Attention.”
Working memory is the capacity to hold information in mind while performing complex tasks. This skill is important for following multiple step instructions and solving complex multifaceted math procedures and problems. Working memory is largely responsible for the learning challenges children and teens with ADHD experience. To learn how to help, read the articles about working memory.
Time management involves estimating how much time one has and how to best allocate it in order to stay within time limits/deadlines for achieving goals. Kids and adults who struggle with time management often arrive late to class, practice, dinner dates, and meetings because they just “lost track of time.” Time management articles provide suggestions for addressing this critical executive function.
Task initiation is the ability to begin a task in an efficient and timely manner without procrastinating. For those of us who struggle with this skill, our brain actually tricks us into thinking that we work best when we are under the pressure of meeting a deadline at the last minute: stress produces adrenalin which produces the exact chemicals our brain needs to pay attention to the right thing at the right time. Unfortunately, this additional stress and adrenalin are not good for our bodies. Task initiation articles suggest ways to avoid procrastination.
This executive skill involves creating a plan and prioritizing activities necessary to complete a task, finish a project, or reach a goal. Operating without a plan is like driving in foreign, unfamiliar territory without a map: it’s easy to get lost and you can spend a lot of valuable time driving in circles getting nowhere fast. A number of articles include suggestions for planning and prioritizing when completing tasks.
Organization is the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials. Over the years, I have seen problems with organization keep thousands of smart people from experiencing their full potential. In today’s face-paced world, organizational systems are critical to success in school, business, and life. For help with this executive skill, consider the articles tagged “Organization.”
Self-monitoring is the ability to think about one’s thinking, self-monitor, and self-evaluate. Children with poor self-monitoring often struggle to know if they are on the right track when solving a problem at school and on the playground: most devastating, these kids who are often brilliant in so many other ways also often struggle to pick up on social cues from their peers. Recommendations for helping your child with this skill are detailed in self-monitoring articles.
Goal-directed persistence involves the ability to follow through to completion of a goal, while not being distracted by competing events. These competing activities are often good things, but they are not the things that will help an individual reach his or her goals. Spending time completing unfinished chores around the house is a good thing unless you really need to be finishing an important project for school. Guidelines for goal setting and achievement are included in the articles tagged “Goal-Directed Persistence.”
(c) 2009- 2012, Monte W. Davenport, Ph.D.