What they are, how they develop and how they impact individuals with ADHD

    Over the last decade, the term executive functioning has become synonymous with ADHD.   Our executive functioning abilities determine how we regulate our behavior, our emotions and our attention.   Our executive functioning is also involved in how we plan, problem-solve, inhibit behavior, self-monitor our behavior and engage in self-directed private speech (often referred to as our working memory).   Will power and self-discipline are executive functions. Research has demonstrated that individuals with ADHD are 30% behind their peers with the development of their executive functions. The executive functions are not fully developed until we 30 years old.

    Individuals with ADHD often fail to finish things, they struggle with not responding to the irrelevant and they have a hard time inhibiting strong emotions once they have been provoked.   They also have a hard time holding information in mind (working memory). Further, it is not uncommon for individuals with ADHD to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. These are all related to our executive functions. Our executive functions take what you know and apply it to the future. They are related to persistence and engaging in goal-directed behavior.  However, as Russell Barkley points out, ADHD can also be considered an “intention deficit” (not paying attention to what is coming next).   Hindsight and foresight are often impaired in individuals with ADHD because of the difficulty with holding information in mind.   What needs to be done, how it should be done, and when something should be done all require effective executive functioning.  

    Typically developing executive functioning systems progress in the following ways:

    –We shift from being externally motivated to internally motivated (mentally represented)
    –We shift from the temporal now to the hypothetical future
    –We shift from immediate gratification to valuing the delayed gratification
    –We shift from being controlled by others to self regulation

    The time horizon (how far we project our thoughts into the future) for a typical child develops in the following ways:

    –2 year old- now
    –3-5 year old- 5-20 minutes
    –6-7 year old- several hours
    –8-12 year old- 8-12 hours
    –12-16 year old- 2-3 days
    –17-23 year old- 2-3 weeks
    –23-35 year old- 3-5 weeks
    If you have ever struggled with last minute requests, reminders or sharing of information,  it may be that the time horizon is delayed.  This is neurologically based and environmental modifications will need to occur in order to compensate for his delay.
     The impact of compromised executive functioning development on future planning (such as a long-term project)
    •The first executive function to emerge is visual imagery (ie nonverbal working memory).  It starts to develop at 3 months of age and takes 10 years to emerge- or longer if you have ADHD. 
    •When you are able to hold an image in your mind, it is possible to use self-talk to guide and control your behavior.
    •Planning and problem-solving are the last EF skills to develop.  Holding a goal in mind and planning what to do is working memory.
    •The executive functions allow us to demonstrate situational awareness, predict possible outcomes, recall past experiences and generate a plan to achieve an outcome. 
    •Self-directed imagery and self speech precede the development of planning and problem-solving skills
    •If you do not have a mental image, you will struggle with self talk, it will tend to be negative and it will interfere with you executing a task.  Therefore, it can be very effective to use speech that promotes visual imagery and to start with the end (a finished project) in mind.
     Click on the link below for more information on age appropriate activities that foster executive functioning