ADHD & Executive Function
If your child has ADHD, you have probably come across the term 'Executive Function' before. Unfortunately, it has become a confusing topic, and many parents are asking what the truth about executive function is.
Because of its importance for a developing child, we asked an expert about what executive function is, how to understand where a child's executive function stands, and how to approach this topic that is talked about so often:
The following is an interview from Dr. Tom Pedigo, who has dedicated more than 30 years to helping families with childhood ADHD:
What is executive function?
"Executive Function is actually pretty simple. Some people describe it as 'the management system of the brain' - the skills that help us do things set goals, make plans, and get things done. When people struggle with executive function, it impacts them at home, in school, and in everyday life, because executive function is how the brain goes about approaching, managing, and completing tasks.
Does executive function play a part of a child’s everyday experience?
Definitely. We are not born with executive functions; we develop them throughout our lives, and as our executive functions become stronger, they allow us to tackle the challenges we as we go from childhood to adulthood.
But with many children, and in many children with ADHD, if a child begins to experience difficulties or have problems at a certain developmental stage, it can slow down their development, and often, it can lead to challenges in latter stages of life.
That’s why it’s so important for parents to understand what executive function is, and how your child’s executive function is developing as they continue to grow.
What are some signs of weak executive skills that parents can be looking out for?
Great question. Sometimes, a child’s signs can be subtle. Other times, there are some obvious indications. With executive function, it's all about how the brain puts itself to work.
Things like having trouble starting and/or completing tasks, having difficulty prioritizing tasks, forgetting what they just heard or read, having trouble following directions, or a sequence, panicking when rules or routines change, having trouble switching focus from one task to another, getting overly emotional and fixating on things, having trouble organizing their thoughts, having trouble keeping track of their belongings, having trouble managing their time – these are all signs that a child’s executive functions skills might be struggling to develop.
How can parents make executive function a primary focus of their child’s development?
I think the most important thing that EVERY parent can do is this - pay attention to how your child processes information, and how your child approaches, follows through, and finishes tasks – even to little things like how they make plans.
How do they make jokes, or come up with the rules of silly games to play together? These are great opportunities to see into how your child is making connections and working their brains out.
Watch how they do their chores. Study how and why they make decisions. We can learn so much by just watching our kids and thinking about how they are putting their brains to work!
The next most important thing, I’d say, is to measure your child’s executive function. There are a number of different ways to measure your child’s executive function skills - many different kinds of tests – and having any standardized indication gives you a ‘starting point’.
And if you’re able to measure it regularly, as your child is growing, you’ll see if your child’s development is on track, where their strengths are, where their needs are, and whether or not your child is growing their executive function.
This kind of information is so important for parents to have, in my opinion. For example, let’s say I’ve been working to adjust my child's sleep schedule. If I measure their executive function after trying that for a while, I can see if it’s making a difference or not.
📈 📈 📈 !!!
And that goes for just about anything. If you try different types of behavioral therapy, change your child’s diet, or you just get outside together and exercise more, or start a new medication – measuring your child’s executive function along the way will show you if what you’re spending time and money and effort on is helping your child grow.
If they are, then great! Keep doing those things! But if they aren’t, don’t waste time or energy on them; move to something new that could help.
That makes a lot of sense. So how can a mom measure her child’s executive function?
Esteem is doing something really cool with measuring executive function. It’s called Target Recognition, and it’s one of the cheapest, easiest ways a mom can measure it, without leaving home, and as often as they would like to or see fit.
It’s an Add-On in Esteem that you have your child do. It feels like a game to them, and while they play it, it measures your child’s executive function, and then it walks you through how to understand it.
Are there other ways to measure a child’s executive function? What sets Target Recognition apart from things?
I think Target Recognition is the most helpful for three main reasons:
1. It’s easy and affordable. 💸
You can go to your doctor’s office and request that your child undergo executive function testing, but that’s not very convenient, and it can cost upwards of $100 per time you’d like to measure how your child is doing. Target Recognition is done at home, whenever you want, on your phone.
2. It’s scientifically validated, peer-reviewed by qualified experts. 👩⚕️
There are other kinds of measurement tools parents can find online, but you’ll find some methods that aren’t quite up to the latest research, which can end up being counter-productive.
3. It’s designed for both measurement AND improvement, in a way that works for parents. ⏱️ 📈
When your child tries Target Recognition for the first time, you’ll see a score for the 3 key areas of executive function: working memory, consistency (which is called ‘focus score’), and impulse control. What’s great is that for $14.99 per month, you can have your child do Target Recognition whenever you’d like to measure their executive function. There’s no limit – and the more your child uses it, the more often you’ll be gently challenging their abilities, which can actually lead to growing and developing them.
Wow. So Target Recognition is an Add-On in Esteem? If a mom wants to try it, can you tell us a little bit about what to expect?
Of course. Esteem is free, but for parents who would like to focus a little more intently in a specific area for their child, there are Add-Ons you can purchase to help you work towards what's important to you.
When you add Target Recognition to your Esteem account, it will lead you and your child through how to use it. The first time your child uses it, it only takes about 4 minutes. For those 4 more minutes, your child will see set of the targets on your screen, and the goal is for them to correctly identify how many targets have matching inner and outer circles.
After they’re done, you’ll see their scores, and you’ll have insightful information about where their strengths and needs are with executive function. That’s the measurement part.
The improvement part – how Target Recognition is used as a training tool – is that Esteem schedules a Target Recognition session for your child once per week (though you can choose to use it more or less often, depending on what your goals are).
As your child uses Target Recognition over time, it adapts to your child’s ability level, so that no matter how strong or weak your child’s executive function is today, each time they use it, they’ll be gently challenged to engage their brains and build their skills. And as they start to improve their skills, it will stay just ahead of them so that they can continue their improvement.
Well this has been very helpful, Tom. I’m already starting to think about how and why my child does things the way he does. I wanted to ask you this - you mentioned Social & Emotional growth as an important part of a child’s executive function. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Absolutely. Social and emotional skills go hand-in-hand with executive functioning. As a child’s mental capacities grow, so do things like how much responsibility they can handle, their independence, the types of projects they can do, their relationship skills, what you can trust them with – things like that.
It’s in those types of things – your child’s self-awareness, self-management, social awareness – things of that nature, where parents start to see signs that maybe my child might be lagging behind their peers, and lots of times, it’s because weaker executive functioning.
That makes a lot of sense. So how can parents get some help with knowing how their children are growing socially and emotionally?
Sure. One of the most exciting partnerships that Esteem has is with Aperture Education, which has been a leader for a long time with this. They have an assessment called the DESSA, which is available as an Add-On in Esteem, and it’s a standardized measuring tool that shows you your child’s social and emotional strengths and needs, and how they compare to children of the same age, because their assessment has been nationally normed.
What kinds of things does the DESSA help parents look deeper into?
The DESSA is really great. It hits on 8 key areas that represent ‘core competencies’ – important aspects of development that every child needs. It can really help a parent narrow down where their children have strengths, celebrate those, and where the areas of need are in order to address them.
Target Recognition and the DESSA work together to make a winning team for parents. Because of how closely executive function and social + emotional skills mirror each other, using both of these Add-Ons together gives a parent great insight into how their kids are doing, and how to help them develop healthily and navigate challenges along the way.
Awesome! Well, thank you so much, Tom!
Thanks, Donna. I really hope that this is helpful, and I hope that as parents learn more about how their kids learn and grow, they find confidence being there for them along the way."