How Do Executive Functions Affect ADHD Students?


Executive functions are basically the management system of the brain. These mental functions which are thought to involve the frontal lobes of the brain help us organize and manage the many tasks in our daily life.

The executive functions’ role is similar to a conductor’s role within an orchestra. The conductor manages, directs, organizes and integrates each member of the orchestra. They cue each musician so they know when to begin to play, and how fast or slow, loud or soft to play and when to stop playing. Without the conductor, the music would not flow as smoothly or sound as beautiful.

Executive Functions and ADHD

An individual with ADHD may have impairment in several areas of executive functioning. Impairments in executive functions can have a major impact on our ability to perform such tasks as planning, prioritizing, organizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and controlling our emotional reactions.

Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and leading researcher on executive functions, identifies six clusters of cognitive functions that constitute a way of conceptualizing executive functions.

We are going to look at the 6 clusters and how they affect students with ADHD.

Activation: Organizing, Prioritizing and Getting Started on Tasks
A student with deficits in this area of executive functioning has difficulty getting school materials organized, distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant information, anticipating and planning for future events, estimating the time needed to complete tasks, and struggles to simply get started on a task.

Focus: Focusing, Maintaining, and Shifting Attention

A student who is easily distracted misses important information provided in class. They are distracted not only by things around them in the classroom but also by their own thoughts. They have difficulty shifting attention when necessary and can get stuck on a thought, thinking only about that topic.

Effort: Regulating Alertness, Sustaining Effort, Processing Speed

A student who has a hard time regulating alertness may become drowsy when they have to sit still and be quiet in order to listen to a lecture or read material that they find boring. It is not that they are over-tired; they simply cannot sustain alertness unless they are actively engaged. In addition, the speed at which a student takes in and understands information can affect school performance. Some students with ADHD process information very slowly, while others may have trouble slowing down enough to process information accurately.

Emotion: Managing Frustrations and Regulating Emotions

A student with impairments in this area of executive functioning may have a very low tolerance for frustration, such as when they don’t how to do a task in class. They can also be extremely sensitive to criticism. Difficult emotions can quickly become overwhelming and emotional reactions may be very intense.

Memory: Using Working Memory and Accessing Recall

Working memory is a “temporary storage system” in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts in mind while solving a problem or performing a task.

Working memory helps an individual hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task and remember what to do next. If a student has impairments in working memory, they may have trouble remembering and following teacher directions, memorizing and recalling math facts or spelling words, computing problems in their head or retrieving information from memory when they need it.

Action: Monitoring and Self-Regulating Action

Individuals with ADHD often have deficits in the ability to regulate their behavior, which can significantly impede social relationships. If a student has difficulty inhibiting behavior they may react impulsively without thought to the context of the situation, or they may overfocus on the reactions of others by becoming too inhibited and withdrawn in interactions.

Like an orchestra, each of these functions works together in various combinations. When one area is impaired, it affects the others. If a student has deficits in one of these key executive functions, it can obviously interfere with school and academic performance.

The Next Steps

Many people find it empowering to understand why they are struggling with their studies. Others feel sad or angry that they struggle with tasks that other people seem to do effortlessly.

The good news is there are accommodations available to support you or your child with your individual study needs. Accommodations are designed to support you in the specific areas that you struggle with.

A few examples of accommodations include a reduced amount of homework (e.g., if the class is asked to do 20 math problems, your child would be asked to 10), extra time taking tests, help with reading assignments, permission to record lectures and help with class notes.

To receive help for your child, a good starting point is to speak to their teacher. The school is required by federal law to provide the additional services they need.

If you are at college or university, visit the office for student disabilities. They will be able to assist you in setting up accommodations.

By Keath Low