ADHD: What It’s Really All About
ADHD or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is commonly recognized by the inability to sustain attention and an over-abundance of energy, or hyperactivity. It is true that these two traits are often found in students with an ADHD diagnosis. However, it is less often recognized that ADHD is also commonly manifested as impairment with executive functions.
What are executive functions? Let’s dive into that!
What are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are cognitive skills necessary to set, work towards and achieve goals, both in our work and in our daily lives. Research by Dr. Thomas E. Brown has shown that students with ADHD typically struggle with academic tasks because of impairment with executive functions.
Here are the 6 main executive functions Dr. Brown identified to be impaired in students with ADHD:
Organizing, prioritizing, and activating tasks. Students have difficulty in beginning a homework assignment or a study session. Parents might perceive this as procrastination, when actually this is a true impairment of the ability to start easily and independently on a task.
Maintaining attention on a task or the ability to shift attention to a new one as needed. Students are easily distracted by things going on around them. Reading can be especially difficult because lack of focus leads to difficulty grasping what has been read.
Regulating amount of effort required for a task, maintaining effort, and working efficiently, so that longer study periods are difficult. Students struggle with maintaining alertness and get tired easily doing schoolwork. Another notable way this impairment manifests itself is in difficulty waking up in the morning and in being sleepy throughout the day. Parents might recognize this as laziness, but in fact this is a true impairment of the ability to be and stay alert for long periods.
Regulating emotions. Students get easily frustrated when doing schoolwork. This frustration can be debilitating and prevent them from progressing through the task. They may also worry chronically about grades or feel deep disappointment about their grades or academic failures.
Ability to actively use working memory and access recall. Students have difficulties to recall content that they read earlier in the day or week at school. They also struggle to store items in their working memory, a necessary skill – especially in math tasks.
Monitoring and self-regulating actions. Students fidget and cannot stay still (typical hyper-activity); they may also work too quickly through tasks. Impairment also extends to social situations; they can behave impulsively or have trouble regulating their speech (may say hurtful things to peers or parents).
A quick read-through of these executive functions shows that ADHD is complex and affects many critical skills needed to achieve academic success. Impairment in these executive functions can manifest across all six or be severe in only one or two., and each impairment exists on a spectrum and will manifest differently in each student.
It can be helpful for parents think of which of these executive functions may be most impaired in their child. This understanding can help tailor the academic support to their child’s specific needs.