Girl looking amazed in a room full of jars with sweets
Girl looking amazed in a room full of jars with sweets

Executive functioning and the things that affect it

Research shows that executive dysfunction is a core challenge for both adults and children with neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD or Autism.

Need to know

Research shows that executive dysfunction is a core challenge for both adults and children with neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD or Autism.

Executive functioning, in simple terms, is the ability to control our thoughts and actions to reach a goal. To do this, we need to pay attention and keep important information in our mind while we work on it. We need to be able to plan ahead, keep track of what we’re doing and make changes as needed, while blocking out distractions that can prevent us from achieving that goal.

Your child might be struggling with executive dysfunction if they experience difficulty with: 

  • organising or getting started on tasks; 
  • remembering what to do or where things are; 
  • focusing on activities that they are not interested in; 
  • making decisions; and
  • regulating attention and emotions.

Why it’s important

Executive functioning requires energy and cognitive resources. Executive dysfunction is much more likely and impactful when you don’t have “enough fuel in the tank”: you are temporarily less capable of performing executive functions when you have already used up cognitive resources. 

Studies show that there are situations and tasks that put a greater demand on executive functions, depleting available resources much more quickly. In the article we explore some factors which can draw down on cognitive resources and make executive dysfunction worse. They include:

  • Sensory processing;
  • Situational uncertainty;
  • Sleep disturbances; and
  • Multi-tasking.

Sensory processing

Sensory processing is the way the brain and nerves organise and make sense of the information from our senses. This includes things we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense about our body movement and balance. 

Sensory processing has three stages: 

1. Detecting what’s happening around us; 

2. Adjusting how much attention we pay to different things; and 

3. Figuring out what something is and what it means.

A child who struggles with sensory processing will use considerable resources to modulate or filter out unnecessary sensory input so that they can focus on completing a task. For example, the noise of kids in the playground or the itchy tags on clothes.

Situational uncertainty

Uncertainty means not having all the information you need. It could be not knowing if something will happen, when or where it will happen. It could also be having many different pieces of information that don’t match up and not knowing which one is correct. 

Even if a situation is familiar, you might feel powerless, stressed and not know how to best respond. This uses significant cognitive resources and self-control, which can make executive functioning more difficult. 

A child who has to navigate situational uncertainty will use considerable resources to regulate emotions and make additional decisions. For example, a change in normal daily routine where your child has to walk to school instead of riding their bike, or your child’s teacher assigning unexpected group work.

Sleep disturbances

Sleep disturbances can impact the duration and quality of sleep. Research has found that sleep patterns influence two specific executive functions, inhibition and working memory. 

Using executive functions requires a lot of effort; it’s easier to continue doing what you’ve been doing than to change, it’s easier to give into temptation than to resist it, and it’s easier to do what is habitual than to plan what to do next. 

A child who experiences sleep disturbances is much more likely to exhibit executive function impairment if they suffer from delayed sleep onset or regular and prolonged night wakings.

Multi-tasking

Doing more than one thing concurrently requires the use of working memory to hold what to do next and continuously cycle through them to ensure that each one remains active, it requires task-switching which changes the goal based on the task, and self-regulation to pursue the goal of the current task. 

A child who is doing two or more tasks simultaneously, or switching back and forth from one thing to another will experience challenges with executive function. For example, copying text off the board or taking notes while listening to the teacher.

Tips & strategies

Take regular breaks – ensure that your child has regular breaks especially when they are doing cognitive intensive tasks like homework. 

Reduce environment stressors – where possible adjust lights, temperature or move locations to reduce problematic sensory stimuli. 

Use routines – knowing what to do and what to expect frees up cognitive resources that can be used for other things. Routines are also a great way to split tasks into smaller individual steps avoiding the temptation to do more than one thing at a time.

Use short and simple directions – long winded explanations or multi step instructions require your child to take a lot of information and sift through the important pieces. Concise language is less overwhelming because your child has to process less information.

Prioritise sleep – try different strategies to improve sleep including meditation, turning off technology an hour before bed, checking room temperature and lighting, etc. If necessary see a medical professional. Addressing sleep issues can be a game changer for some kids.

Advocate for accommodations – at home it is easier to keep multi-tasking to a minimum, but at school you will need to advocate for accommodations that address the need to multitask, like copying information off the white board.

Remove distractions – turn off the TV if your child is reading, let them use ear defenders if the house is noisy, etc. The more stimuli around us, the harder we have to work at ignoring it.

References

  1. Executive Functions
  2. The Relationship between Children’s Sensory Processing and Executive Functions: An Exploratory Study
  3. The Important Role of Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation in ADHD© Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.
  4. What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Uncertainty Impairs Executive Function
  5. Tough Choices: How Making Decisions Tires Your Brain
  6. Multiple Task Interference is Greater in Children With ADHD
  7. Assessing multitasking in children with ADHD using a modified Six Elements Test
  8. Six Strategies You May Not Be Using To Reduce Cognitive Load
  9. Impact of Sleep Restriction on Neurobehavioral Functioning of Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  10. Supporting children with neurodiversity

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