Coping with Executive Function Deficits


Beautiful girl studying in front of big blackboard

According to the Center for Disease Control, 11% of American children have been diagnosed with ADHD since 2011. Many of these 6.4 million sufferers also face varying degrees of executive function deficits, a key symptom of the disorder.

As explained in the recently released Smart but Scattered: How to Use Your Brain’s Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home, leading researchers Peg Dawson and Richard Guare explain that common symptoms include difficulty with response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, sustained attention, planning, prioritization and flexibility.

All of these skills are controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe; its main function is to send and receive information via the central nervous system. The slower maturation of the prefrontal cortex can play a role in executive function issues, magnifying symptoms. Along these lines, National Public Radio’s Tony Cox poses a relevant observation in an Oct. 11, 2011 story, Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years.

“Most of the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood are legally granted by the age of 18,” he says. “That’s when you can vote, enlist in the military, move out on your own, but is that the true age of maturity? A growing body of science says, no. That critical parts of the brain involved in decision-making are not fully developed until years later at age 25 or so.”

According to Understood, a nonprofit organization which helps inform parents with children who struggle with learning and attention issues, executive function skills may be impacted by genetics, differences in the brain such as disorders, diseases, injuries, ADHD, dyslexia, neurological conditions and mood disorders.

I deal with executive function issues, but I don’t have ADHD. My challenges began in middle school, when I had trouble with starting projects, time management, organization and planning. Likewise, I was unable to finish homework on time or find homework I had completed to submit.

I get tutored at Engaging Minds twice a week in Newton, which focuses on teaching executive function skills.

To test for executive function deficits, psychologists measure different abilities. The most  common evaluation is the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), which consists of five parts to yield scores for verbal comprehension, visual spatial intelligence, problem solving, working memory and processing speed. My evaluation showed that I have a below-average ability to organize, along with a lower processing speed.

If ADHD or an executive function issue is officially diagnosed, a tutor can be helpful to offer successful coping skills. Even with all of the progress I have made, though, I still encounter daily issues with procrastination and planning.

Still, executive function deficits don’t have to pose a lifelong problem. It’s best to get help early when the brain is still developing.