What is executive function?
If do much reading about ADHD sooner or later you are going to come across the term “executive function” and wonder what in the heck is that?
Simply put, executive function is a term that psychologists and medical professionals use to describe the higher functions of our brain that help us control and self-manage ourselves. Here’s one technical definition: “The administrative portion of the brain that coordinates and regulates organization, time management and perception, deferred gratification, prioritization, attention, impulse control and persistence at tasks.” So what does that really mean?
Executive function is most easily understood by looking at a few examples:
- When you resist that piece of chocolate when you are on a diet, you are using the executive function of your brain to defer the pleasure of that yummy chocolate right now for your longer term goal of losing weight.
- When you bite your tongue instead of telling someone off, your executive functions help you evaluate consequences (you might hurt their feelings or make them mad at you) and control the impulse to blurt out your opinion.
- If you have a project in school that you really dislike but you know you need to accomplish in order to pass the class, executive functions help you make a plan to break down the project into bite sized pieces, stick with it when you are feeling frustrated or bored, and ask for help when you get stuck.
- Getting ready to leave the house on time, you use executive functions to keep one eye on the clock and the other on the things you need to get into your backpack before you run out the door to catch the bus.
LD Online, a great source of information about learning disabilities and ADHD, identifies some of the major areas of executive functions:
- making plans,
- keeping track of time,
- keeping track of more than one thing at once,
- meaningfully including past knowledge in discussions,
- engaging in group dynamics,
- reflecting on our work and evaluating ideas,
- changing our minds and making mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing,
- finishing work on time,
- asking for help,
- waiting to speak until we’re called on, and
- seeking more information when we need it.
ADHD and Executive Functioning
The challenge with understanding how ADHD and executive functioning are interrelated is that EVERYONE can have executive function troubles at different times – it’s a matter of degree. When you have ADHD you are more often challenged by executive functions than people who don’t have it.
Let’s assume you have ADHD. When something is interesting to you, you are all over it. No executive function problems there, right? However, you’ve probably also found that difficult or uninteresting tasks can be very difficult to pay attention to – even when it’s something that is important such as remembering your girlfriend’s birthday or paying your water bill. Executive functions help reveal why ADHD isn’t simply a matter of will power or caring enough. As Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., Yale University School of Medicine says,
Most people, those who do not have ADHD, can usually make themselves pay attention to tasks, even tasks that are boring, when they recognize that they just have to do it. People with ADHD find it much more difficult to make themselves pay attention unless the task is one that has immediate interest value to them. The core of their problem is … being able to manage their mind to focus on tasks they need to do, even when those tasks are not immediately interesting.
An ADHD coach works with you to support and build your executive functions
The role of a coach is to address executive functioning challenges with structured support and accountability. Their long term goal is to help you figure out strategies and accommodations to work with your ADHD so you can accomplish everything you care about and need to get done to achieve your goals. Edge Coaches will help you with executive functions such as:
- goal setting,
- confidence building,
- prioritizing, and
- persisting at tasks.
You can learn to work with your ADHD strengths – hyperfocusing on things that are interesting for example. And you can learn ways to stick with it to do those boring tasks (like filling out paperwork, showing up on time or passing a prerequisite class) so you can accomplish your dreams. What are you waiting for?