Executive Functions 101: What Every Parent Needs To Know

Offered By Leslie Josel-Order Out Of Chaos

When a student struggles with organization, time management, staying focused or even regulating their moods, we are usually quick to label him or her with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). However, it might actually be that they have Executive Dysfunction.

Experts have found that executive functions control how we activate, orchestrate, monitor, evaluate and adapt to different strategies to accomplish various tasks. Executive functions are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain. It is essential to know that they are not fully developed until an individual is in their mid 20s. Some say even later. Unfortunately, students are at a huge deficit just because of their age and those that present with learning or attention difficulties even more so.


Possessing strong executive functions allows one to analyze situations, plan and take action, focus and maintain attention, and adjust actions as needed to get a task completed.  How do executive functions affect a student? Executive functions come into play to perform even the simplest task or behavior.

For example, if a student has to plan out their time to complete a long-term project, they need critical organizing, time management and self-regulating skills. A student who has difficulty with executive functions might not be able to determine the steps needed for their project. They might have difficulty getting started or once they do will not be sure how to prioritize the steps needed to complete the assignment.

A student might have trouble collecting the resources and materials needed and not know how to sufficiently organize them so they are not misplaced. Some will struggle to put the pieces of the project together in an orderly way. Others might set unrealistic deadlines to work through the project or set none at all. And, if they do not monitor their progress from beginning to end, they run the risk of turning in the assignment late or not at all. And lastly, many students will become so overwhelmed and frustrated by the enormity of the project that they will shut down completely and refuse to accomplish it at all.

If you have a student who has reading comprehension or writing difficulties, those limitations will greatly affect his executive function proficiency as well. For example, they might also not know how to begin the writing portion of the project or have no idea how to outline what is necessary. A student might be able to read through the materials, but when finished, forgets the key points they picked up and understood while reading. Understanding which executive functions are limited is the key to assisting your student in developing the necessary skills to become successful.


Let’s use our long term assignment as an example. Using a systematic approach to tackle large projects is essential. Begin by working with the student to outline the goal of the project and break down each step into manageable parts. Prioritize each task and assign deadlines for completing each one. Rely on visual organizational aids like planners, calendars or wipe boards (my favorite) to record all important information and deadlines. Determine how much time each segment will take, making sure your estimates are realistic and in line with those short-term deadlines. To become more realistic about how long certain tasks take, write down time estimates, and then compare them to the actual time it took to complete the task. The more a student records and corrects how long it takes them to do something, the better they will become in narrowing the gap between estimated and actual time.

Remember to instruct them to tackle one task at a time. Make it small and manageable. Much easier to have “collect 3 resources” then it is to have “work on term paper” as an assignment. Have them use time organizers, computers or watches with alarms to stay on task. Help them to prepare visual schedules to review daily. Remind them to try to do the things they least want to do first so that they will find it satisfying to move on to tasks they find more enjoyable. Encourage them to work with a friend to help them focus and stay on task (body doubling). And of course, help them build in small rewards for themselves when each task is completed.

It is important to help your students understand that just like any other muscle, strengthening their executive functioning “muscle” takes consistent training. Learning to time manage, prioritize, organize, initiate, sustain focus to name just a few, requires learning new behaviors, developing unique strategies and a great deal of patience. I like to equate it to running a long distance marathon. As their “coach” we want to help our students identify which executive function they are having trouble with, what skills are essential for them to carry out certain tasks and assist them in developing strategies and tools to help them make it to the finish line!

If you are a parent looking for more information about ADHD and Executive Dysfunction we are here to help. In a brand new webinar, Demystifying ADHD and Executive Functions, Leslie will explain the differences between ADHD and EF and help you understand what it means when they say that ADHD is a self-regulation issue and NOT an attention issue. She will break down the 6 pillars of executive functions, and provide insight on how to recognize if your student presents with executive dysfunction,  and detail specific scaffolding, strategies and systems to support them. Join us  for this webinar on October 15th at 8PM EST!!  We will cover:

  • The 6 types of Executive Functions and how they specifically affect your student’s organizing, time management, procrastination, and initiation.

  • The main differences between Executive Functions and ADHD and how to recognize the difference. 

  • Specific accommodations to ask for at school and to implement at home to strengthen your student’s EF muscle.

  • REAL practical tips and tools to help conquer organization, time management and focusing weaknesses.

AND, I’ll share my SECRET SAUCE on how to get your student to actually REMEMBER TO REMEMBER!