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Executive Dysfunction in Kids - 5 Tips for Parents

Joanna Savarese, Ph.D.

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Our brain’s ability to organize information, set goals, complete a project from A to Z, and make good decisions is an essential part of our daily living and general functioning in this world. Without this ability, we would have a tremendously difficult time managing ourselves and the world around us. The term, executive functions, encompasses these essential mental functions, such as planning, organizing, inhibiting our response and behavior, and self-regulating.

Children who have executive functioning issues demonstrate problems in these essential mental functions more frequently and consistently than their same age peers. Additionally, these deficits in their essential mental functions impact their daily life and interferes with them being successful students. Between behavioral issues and academic difficulty in and out of the classroom, school life and home life can become more challenging. These children may act out impulsively in the classroom and demonstrate behavioral problems at school and home. They may have difficulty starting and finishing their schoolwork, managing their time, paying attention, and following directions.

Problems in executive functioning are common in children with ADHD and learning disabilities. However, sometimes, this may just be an area of weakness for your child.

Here are a few suggestions for parents:

  1. Be mindful of the developmental trajectory - Keep in mind the age of your child and determine if his/her behavior is age appropriate.

  2. Remember, it is not their fault – Children with EF issues may be experiencing social isolation, embarrassment, and shame because of their EF deficits and their school and family life might be suffering. It is not their fault and as parents, they need our help. They are doing their best given their biological circumstance. Have empathy and understanding for your child – that creates trust in your relationship and your child is more likely to listen and respond positively to you if he/she feels safe.

  3. Don’t judge or criticize your child - These children need kindness. For several hours out of their day your child might be in a situation (school or home) where they are constantly being told what not to do and who not to be. Criticizing and judging them based on your own insecurities and frustration will only continue to harm them.

  4. Focus on their positive attributes – Focus on what your child is good at and use that toward your advantage. Take skills from their strengths and apply them toward their weaknesses. This is especially helpful when doing homework and when you want them to help around the house.

  5. Positively reinforce good behavior and self-control – Kids with ADHD and executive functioning issues work well with positive reinforcement. These children respond to this approach because rewards and pleasurable experiences increase the level of dopamine in the brain creating “feel good” sensations in the body. And, who wouldn’t want that! Make sure the reinforcements are small, immediate, and frequent. Reward your child for small victories, too – this will allow them to see the value in themselves and in their ability to do something well.

Sometimes the best way we can help our children is by asking ourselves “If I was in this situation, what would I need and how would I want my parent or teacher to help me.” Often, we have the answers in front of us, we just need to dig a little deeper to find them.

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