When we set out to understand the impact ADHD has on an individual, it is important to understand the role the executive functions play in the symptoms that we see.

We are aware that ADHD is characterized by distractibility, impulsivity and hyperactivity. But what is occurring below the surface? The symptoms and behaviors that we see are a direct result of an impairment of the executive functions.

What are executive functions?

The executive functions are a set of mental skills that allow us to manage and regulate our behaviors, actions, and emotions.

When our executive functions are working well, we are able to navigate our day; set priorities, plan, organize, regulate emotions, direct, sustain and shift attention and engage in various other goal directed behaviors.

When our executive functions are not operating at optimal performance we tend to have difficulty starting projects or tasks, focusing, finding our keys or other important items, remembering appointments, staying organized and making decisions. When we are not able to access our executive functions it is often hard to regulate our energy and emotions.

Various individuals have identified the set of skills that fall under the umbrella term, executive functions. Regardless of which model you choose, being able to understand and identify an area of challenge allows you to target that area with specific strategies and supports.

Peg Dawson and Richard Guare identify two broad areas of executive function skills. The first area includes skills that allow an individual to select and achieve a goal.

  • Planning – The ability to figure out the steps needed to complete a task.
  • Organization – The ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials.
  • Time Management – The ability to understand time, including the passage of time, and use the knowledge to accomplish tasks within time limits.
  • Working Memory – The ability to draw on past learning to apply to a present or future situation. Working memory also refers to the ability to hold on to information long enough to be able to use it (also known as the mind’s sticky note).
  • Metacognition – The ability to self-monitor and self-evaluate.

The second area of executive functions includes those skills that are related to guiding behavior while attempting to accomplish a goal or task.

  • Response Inhibition – The ability to think before you act or speak.
  • Emotional Control – The ability to manage emotions so that you are able to complete your task/goal.
  • Sustained Attention – The ability to maintain attention to achieve a goal despite distractions, fatigue or boredom.
  • Task Initiation – The ability to start a task.
  • Flexibility – The ability to “roll with the punches” or regroup in the face of obstacles and setbacks.
  • Goal Directed Persistence – The ability to see a goal/project through to completion.

(Adapted from, Coaching Students with Executive Skills Deficits, by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, 2012 The Guilford Press, pages 8-9)

Understanding that ADHD is an impairment of executive functions allows us to reframe the symptoms and challenges that are often seen. This knowledge allows us to take control of our life and implement strategies where necessary.

It is important to remember that having ADHD doesn’t mean a life with only challenges. Great strengths are also seen in people who have ADHD.

Contact me to discuss your ADHD related challenges, learn about your uniquely wired brain, maximize your strengths and create the life you want to live.