The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes executive functioning skills as the key skills for life and learning:
“Being able to focus, hold, and work with information in mind, filter distractions, and switch gears is like having an air traffic control system at a busy airport to manage the arrivals and departures of dozens of planes on multiple runways. In the brain, this air traffic control mechanism is called executive functioning, a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, and revise plans as necessary.”
Their video, below, beautifully illustrates the development of executive function skills in childhood:
While the development of executive functions begins in early childhood, these functions are seated largely in the frontal lobes of the brain which continue developing into adulthood.
In individuals with ADHD and executive functioning challenges, the executive functions can develop erratically, more slowly than in others, and, for some, certain executive functions may develop incompletely.
The impact of weaknesses in executive functions becomes more notable in adulthood as the “air traffic control tower” in the brain has to manage increasingly complex life tasks as well as juggle an increasing number of different tasks in any given period of time. The following list of six executive functions impacted in ADHD, outlined by psychiatrist Thomas E Brown, helps illustrate where challenges may occur:
- Activation: organizing, planning, prioritizing and initiating activity
- Focus: initial attention to task, sustaining focus and shifting or transitioning focus as needed from one task to another
- Effort: regulating alertness (including sleep/wake cycles), maintaining effort, and accommodating processing speed to the task at hand
- Emotional regulation: managing frustration and reactivity, modulating emotions
- Memory: in particularly accessing recall and effectively using working memory, which is the ability to hold several things in mind simultaneously while attending to a task
- Action: monitoring and regulating self-action, in relation to context, timing, pace, communication and relationships
No single formal test can identify executive functioning challenges, but a psychologist or neuro-psychologist well versed in executive functioning can provide an assessment to identify areas of executive functioning weakness or challenge. Such an assessment can yield recommended interventions for executive functioning weaknesses, often including coaching, to help an individual develop compensatory skills and strategies to manage complex life tasks.
Even without a formal assessment, individuals experiencing weaknesses in executive functioning skills, such as those outlined above, can benefit from working with an experienced ADHD or Executive Functioning Coach.
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