Updated: Jun 15
Executive functioning skills are required to navigate the world successfully. If your child has ADHD, however, their skills may be impaired. Here's what you need to know:
Mikey's a good kid. He's decent at school, kind-hearted, and generally listens when asked to do something. The thing is, mornings with Mikey are a nightmare.
Dirty shirt, no socks
Mom: "Mikey, are you coming? It's 8 am. We need to leave. Now."
Mikey: "What?! 8 am? You just woke me 10 minutes ago!"
Mom:" "We woke you at 7:15, forty-five minutes ago. What have you been doing all this time?!?
Mikey now gets defensive and angry. He was sure only 10 minutes had passed while poking around on his phone, so how could his mom be mad? He sets out to look for his shirt and shorts and heads upstairs.
Mom: "Mikey, that shirt is dirty, and it smells. You just wore it yesterday"!
Mikey: "No, I didn't. It was in my drawer."
Mom: "I'm telling you it is. Stop putting your dirty clothes back in your drawer and stick them in the hamper, and then we won't keep having these arguments! Get changed quickly and put on a clean one, or I will miss my train again. And make sure to bring up a clean pair of socks with you!"
Mikey heads off to change but can't understand why his mom is so annoyed. He got dressed quickly. Why does she always pick on him about what he wears and how he organizes his stuff? He could have sworn this shirt was clean! Now she seems to be steaming for no apparent reason. What a lousy way to start the day!
Why does this keep happening to Mikey? If it's not his shirt, his mom's mad he can't find his shoes. If his shirt is clean and he puts on his shoes, she's yelling at him that he forgot his lunch. And where do his shoes keep disappearing? Every day it's like they've been hijacked by aliens and landed in a new place!
The answer? Executive functioning.
Executive function: Say what?!
Executive functioning is the ability to plan, organize, and problem-solve, helping people mentally represent goals across time, anticipate future consequences of actions, and make behavioral adjustments when needed. It has three main components:
Working memory - the ability to hold multiple thoughts in our minds at once, remembering events that just happened or will happen soon
Mental flexibility - the ability to mentally switch between tasks or demands
Self-control - the ability to regulate our behavior and emotions, holding back when the situation calls for it
These essential functions lie in the background of almost everything we humans do. The functions don't always work right for kids with ADHD. Their executive functioning may be impaired.
So while Mikey's mom may want to tear her hair out, getting Mikey out the door each morning, Mikey also wants to scream. He literally does not understand where the time keeps going or why his sister seems to be doing a seemingly better job getting out smoothly, despite him being "way smarter than her". His mind doesn't work the same way.
Executive functioning, hot, hot, cold!
Scientists have divided executive functioning into two major types to understand them better and deal with impairment. They are hot functions and cold functions.
Hot executive functions are driven by emotion. They relate to situations involving motivation and reward, resisting gratification, and delaying temptation. If your child has problems with their hot executive functioning, some or all of the following are probably familiar:
Jumping out of your chair
Interrupting others mid-sentence
Difficulty waiting for rewards
Difficulty starting a 'boring' task
Emotional outbursts or meltdowns
Cold executive functions are purely cognitive (thought-related). They require rational, logical, and problem-solving skills. Like managing time, organizing belongings, or planning your day. If your child has problems with their cold executive functioning, some or all of the following are probably familiar:
Forgets their stuff at school
Loses track of time
Difficulty packing for school trips
Forgets to study for upcoming tests
Difficulty moving from one task to another
You will find plenty of literature throughout Pery's blog on how to help your child deal with specific hot and cold executive impairments your child struggles with. But here's what you need to know about helping your child:
Don't get mad, teach!
While it's totally normal to get frustrated as you watch your child struggle, it doesn't help. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It sends your child into a defensive "fight or flight" mode. Instead of being open to learning corrective skills, they now want to run away and hide from you.
Picture yourself at age 18, learning how to drive. Suppose you sat behind the wheel for your lesson, and each time you hit the accelerator too quickly, or not quickly enough, you got told off. Well now, your driving hasn’t improved, and you’re starting to feel incompetent.
So how can you, as a parent, react differently?
Pery's here to work with you and your child on that. 1:1 with your care lead, together with your education therapist, and through the many articles we've written on how to deal with individual hot and cold executive functioning skills as your child goes about their day.
We know that working on each skill requires a lot of patience from both you and your child. It's humbling and sometimes humiliating but also exciting, empowering, and ultimately rewarding. It is a lifelong journey, so buckle up. We're in this together. Love, laughter, tears, and all.
Executive functioning is the ability to plan, organize, and problem-solve, helping people meet goals across time, anticipate future consequences, and make behavioral changes as needed.
If your child has ADHD, their executive functioning may be different to a child without ADHD.
The best thing you can do to help is understand their impairments and teach them to compensate accordingly.