ADHD and Executive Functions
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Odell has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
If your child always forgets to turn in completed homework or has a backpack filled with a collection of old assignments and rotting lunches, he or she may be displaying difficulty with executive functions. Executive functions are brain-based cognitive skills that are crucial for goal setting and decision making. They also help with the management of feelings, behavior, and attention. While there are dozens of theories of executive functions, the most recent view is that executive functions include skills such as working memory, flexibility, organization, self-control, time management, and sustained attention.
Executive functions are not a new phenomenon, having been identified by psychologists as crucial for self-control for the past 50 years. In today’s world they are defined as the cognitive processes that help children with self-management and are seen as the key to being successful in school and other activities. When psychologists talked about executive functions in the past they often viewed them as fixed capacities, so it was assumed that individuals could not improve their ability to pay attention, increase memory skills, or acquire organizational capacities. However with our new understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain, scientists now recognize that executive functions are changeable, and that like the brain can be improved through targeted practice and training.
A number of prominent ADHD experts, including Russell Barkley, PhD and Thomas Brown, PhD, have identified ADHD as a “disorder of executive functioning.” Many people with ADHD experience difficulty with processes such as working memory, self-control, following multi-step directions, planning and foresight, organization, time management, and inflexible problem-solving skills. These are the skills that are typically described as “executive functions.”
When we begin to view ADHD as a disorder of executive functioning, it opens up opportunities for treating specific skills for people with ADHD. For example, training in working-memory skills (such as with Cogmed Working Memory training or Jungle Memory) can clearly lead to the development of a longer attention span, less distractibility, and improved organizational skills. Learning to use technologies such as a smartphone based calendar can be a powerful tool for improving time management and planning skills. Recent studies also indicate how vigorous exercise, yoga, and meditation, can be tools for improving executive functioning skills such as sustained attention, working memory, and self-control.
To learn more about how to improve your child’s executive functions and how they play a role in ADHD, check out the following resources:
Learn more about Dr. Odell:
Dr. Odell is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children in which he has developed concepts such as “play diets” and “engamement” to help parents and teachers understand the impact of digital technologies on children. He is the author of Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World: A Guide to Choosing and Using Popular Video Games and Apps to Improve Executive Functioning in Children and Teens.