Activation: an Executive Function

“Why doesn’t my daughter ever get her homework done on time?”
“I always procrastinate – I just can’t seem to get started until the last minute!”
“I can’t estimate how long it will take to write a paper.”
“I forgot I had history homework….”

To an observer who doesn’t understand ADHD, these students might look lazy or avoidant, but that is not the case. Their problems are real and as frustrating to them as to parents and teachers. What’s going on with these intelligent students that makes it so hard for them to get things done in a timely manner and with more ease? 

ADHD experts increasingly describe ADHD as a disorder of “executive functions.” Executive functions are the cognitive management system of the brain.

Like an executive in a corporation who must coordinate all the functions of the business, the brain’s executive functions involve the following:

  • planning, prioritizing, organizing 
  • focusing attention when and where needed, 
  • regulating and sustaining effort
  • managing frustration when challenges arise 
  • accessing information, and both 
  • monitoring and regulating action. 

The executive functions are seated largely in the frontal lobes of the brain and are impacted by genetics, development, and neural functioning. 

One of the executive functions Dr. Thomas E. Brown describes is activation. Brown defines activation as follows:

“[O]rganizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work tasks. [Individuals] with ADD describe chronic difficulty with excessive procrastination. Often they will put off getting started on a task, even a task they recognize as very important to them, until the very last minute. It is as though they cannot get themselves started until the point where they perceive the task as an acute emergency.”

For students, challenges with activation can seriously impact school work, manifesting in difficulties such as the following:

  • keeping materials organized
  • finding materials needed to complete homework projects
  • keeping track of assignments
  • avoiding homework because of difficulty starting
  • deciding which task(s) or project(s) need to be started first
  • estimating how long any particular assignment(s) might take to complete 
  • deciding when to start any given assignment
  • getting started on writing papers or other multi-step projects
  • failing to complete or work by its due date
  • turning in completed work in a timely manner

Executive functioning challenges are real! And frustrating!

If handled with accusation and blame, students having trouble with activating are likely to develop poor self-esteem and self-confidence. If handled with understanding and compassion, students can be helped to develop self-awareness in relation to activation challenges; can be engaged in developing strategies to compensate for the lack of ability to activate; and can begin to manage this challenge with greater success.

Smart but Scattered
Smart but Scattered Teens
Late, Lost and Unprepared

Previous relevant blog posts:
Ready, Set, Go? Activation and ADHD
How to Get Going on a Task: Ten Tips for Success!
A Cognitive Functioning Model for ADHD

Photo credit: Stuart Miles,

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