Understanding the Relationship Between Executive Functioning and ADHD

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Many people probably know that there exists a connection between executive functioning and ADHD. They might not, however, fully understand the implications of that connection. Furthermore, probably few of us really grasp the concept of executive functioning itself.

Ultimately, executive functioning and ADHD are very closely connected. In fact, many ADHD symptoms originate with limited executive functioning abilities. Since science has shown time and again this close relationship between executive functioning and ADHD, we as managers of ADHD really need to have a good grasp of what that means for managing ADHD well.

In this article, we seek to more clearly define both executive functioning and ADHD. We want to provide a clear picture of what executive functioning means and how it relates to ADHD and why that matters. In the end, we want you as the parent or as an adult with ADHD to come away with a better understanding of how to manage ADHD symptoms well overall.

What is Executive Functioning?

The first step towards understanding executive functioning and ADHD involves unpacking what executive functioning entails. According to the University of California, San Francisco, executive functions are “the higher-level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors.” In short, executive functions encompass your brain’s ability to process information. This processing also involves  organizing how you interact and respond to your environment.

The CEO of your brain

The idea of “executive” connects with the business world as in a CEO of a company. Executive functions, more or less, operate as your brain’s CEO. In much the same way as a CEO must receive information, organize it, and then direct responses to it, executive functions in the brain do much the same thing. These cognitive processes involve many directing or organizing functions. These include everything from responding to questions asked to you, emotionally reacting to something that happens to you, and many things in between.

Executive functions as two categories

Most researchers have the same general idea of what executive function entails. Nevertheless, many scientist break executive functioning up differently. One way to understand executive functions is to view them as fitting into two categories. Scientists divide these categories into organization and regulation functions.

Organizational executive functions typically include processes such as attention, abstract thought, planning, and problem solving. Regulatory executive functions, on the other hand, include processes such as self-control, decision-making, and emotional response.

Executive functions as three distinct areas

Another way to view executive functions is to break them down into three areas. These three areas include working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. First, working memory involves using information in the very short term. This, for instance, could involve reading comprehension tests. On such tests, a student reads a story. After reading, they then use the information from the story to answer questions.

Secondly, inhibitory control involves maintaining focus. Specifically this means keeping control in spite of distractions or outside stimuli. This feature includes self-control and the ability to stay focused and resist distraction. Finally, cognitive flexibility means the ability to have flexibility in one’s thinking. This attribute involves problem-solving and working out multiple solutions for the same obstacle.

When you bring all three areas together, you get a complete picture of executive functions. Once combined, all three areas show us how we intake information. Additionally, executive functions show us how we store and process and then use the information.

How do Executive Functioning and ADHD Relate to One Another?

Now that we understand the basics of executive functioning, we can move to the next step. Now, we need to understand how executive functioning and ADHD relate to one another. As we just discussed, executive functions include all the mental processes that allow our brains to organize and regulate mental action. Most people with ADHD struggle with nearly all the key indicators of executive functioning. In fact, individuals with ADHD many times also have EFD, which stands for executive function disorder.

Understanding executive function disorder

First off, we need to note that EFD and ADHD, though similar, are not exactly the same thing. Many people with ADHD also have EFD, but people with EFD don’t necessarily have ADHD. You can also have ADHD without EFD.

EFD, though, entails having difficulty in using one’s executive functioning. This usually means a person struggles with taking in information, organizing it appropriately, and then responding accordingly. For instance, someone who struggles with EFD would have great difficulty working through an assigned book report. Even though you may provide instructions on how to do the book report and where to get a book, they will struggle with taking your instructions and putting them into practice.

Combining EFD with ADHD

As we just mentioned, while EFD and ADHD aren’t exactly the same thing, many people with ADHD also have EFD. In fact, up to 90% of people with ADHD also have EFD. This means that most children with ADHD will also struggle with executive functioning in some regard.

This, in itself, shouldn’t be too surprising as many of the key symptoms of ADHD have to do with executive functioning. Children with ADHD tend to have trouble with memory, staying on focus, being easily distracted, and sometimes have trouble processing emotions. All these characteristics point to issues not only with ADHD but with executive functioning, as well.

How Does the Connection between Executive Functioning and ADHD affect ADHD Symptoms?

When it comes down to it, we all really care most about the symptoms of ADHD and how to manage them. In our current discussion, this leads us to the address how the connection between executive functioning and ADHD affects the symptoms. Since executive functioning and ADHD share such a close connection, most times you may not be able to separate the symptoms one from the other.

This means that executive function disorder could be viewed as a byproduct or co-occurring problem with ADHD. In effect, then, one doesn’t make the symptoms of the other any worse or better. Rather, the symptoms of both improve or worsen as you put in place symptom management strategies.

Ultimately, the best way to approach executive functioning and ADHD is to view them as two sides of the same coin. If you work to address and limit ADHD symptoms, you effectively can also work to improve executive functioning overall.

Does Prescription Medication Help Improve Executive Functioning?

If you deal with ADHD symptoms, there is a high probability that you take or have taken prescription medication in the past. Even with some side effects, prescription medication still tends to be one of the most effective means for treating ADHD. That leads us then to question how prescription medication may impact executive functioning.

When diagnosed with ADHD, most doctors will most likely prescribe or recommend looking into prescription medications. While prescription treatments come with the possibility of side effects, doctors recommend them because they still provide one of the most effective ways to treat ADHD symptoms. In fact, we here at FastBraiin recommend you look into ADHD prescription medication as part of a larger treatment strategy.

In short, prescription medications typically work to alleviate ADHD symptoms. When it comes to executive functioning, though, it depends on a few factors as to whether or not medication can help. If the executive function disorder occurs in relation to ADHD then typically medication can help both general ADHD symptoms and executive functioning. On the other hand, if the two things result from different influences, then prescription medication might do little to address executive functioning concerns.

A deficit in executive functioning can result from other issues than ADHD. Predominately, difficulty in executive function can derive from a learning disability. For the parent, it’s important to understand this distinction.

If you are taking measures to address ADHD, but you don’t see any improvement in your child’s executive functioning, then an undiagnosed learning disability might be to blame. If you have concerns this might be the case, you should consult with your doctor on the next steps forward.

What are Other Ways I can Help Improve Executive Functioning Overall?

Since executive functioning and ADHD have such a close relationship, in addition to medication, one would think that there might be other ways to improve executive functioning. This thought occurs as there exist many ways to manage ADHD symptoms.

From behavioral management techniques to use of diet and exercise to supplements, we have many tools to help mitigate the effect of ADHD symptoms. This makes one wonder, could there exist other ways to improve executive functioning?

We all have to learn executive functioning

In short, yes, there exist many ways and activities to help improve one’s executive functioning ability. None of us are born with executive functioning skills. Rather, we each learn executive functions over time and through various interactions. What this means is that executive functioning can be taught and can be taught no matter one’s limitation.

Since none of us have executive functioning at birth, all of us learn as we grow. Much of school and early education, in fact, revolve around teaching better use of several executive functions such as memory, problem-solving, and decision-making. For a parent, though, who needs additional resources, numerous places have activities to help out.

Finding the tools to succeed

For starters, we recommend beginning with an activities guide developed by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. You don’t have to stop there, though. We also recommend trying some of the memory techniques in our article on ADHD and forgetfulness. You can even try using apps to help yourself or your child with improving executive functioning and ADHD.

In conclusion, just because you have ADHD and may struggle with executive functioning doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything about it. While some people might have an easier ability to learn executive functioning, with practice all of us can improve our abilities over time.

The first step to moving forward is acknowledging the problem. The second step is finding tools that help you or your child improve over time. If you only look, you can find tools to help you with executive functioning almost anywhere.

Understanding Executive Functioning and ADHD and Why it Matters

If you are reading this, you probably aren’t a doctor, specialist, or medical expert on ADHD. More than likely, you are just an ordinary average parent who wants to understand ADHD better for yourself or your kids.

We get that. Here at FastBraiin, we work with parents all the time. What we want to convey to parents ultimately is that you can learn and find the tools you need to manage ADHD effectively.

While getting input from doctors and specialists plays an important part in developing an ADHD comprehensive treatment plan, you, as a parent, can address ADHD well with some tools at your side. Part of your tools should include general information on ADHD which can help make you your own ADHD expert. That’s why we provide information like this post. We believe that you should know as much about ADHD as possible so you can address it well.

Understanding executive functioning and ADHD fits into this mold. It’s important to understand this connection because it helps gives you insight into the larger picture of how the ADHD brain works. With understanding the ADHD mind better, you can better address and manage symptoms. Use the information provided here and through other articles online and in print to improve your ability to address ADHD today.