Executive Dysfunction vs. Procrastination: Understanding the Difference in Students
When your student puts off their work, you may find yourself asking: are they simply procrastinating? Procrastination is tied closely to the behavioral condition called executive dysfunction—to the point where the two terms are often confused or misused.
In this article, we’ll define and differentiate executive dysfunction and procrastination.
What Is Executive Dysfunction?
To understand executive dysfunction, we must first define executive function. Executive function is the skill set that lets a person evaluate resources, formulate a plan and follow through with the plan to reach their intended goals.
Executive functioning skills is an umbrella term that represents almost a dozen discrete skills, including organization, time management, planning and prioritizing, sustained attention, Working memory, task initiation (getting started), emotional control, flexible thinking, goal directed persistence, metacognition (thinking about your thinking and self awareness), response inhibition (thinking before acting/texting/speaking), and stress tolerance.
Well-developed executive functions require a dance of all of these skills summarized as a self-regulatory process that connects cognition with action and behavior.
On the other hand, executive dysfunction, sometimes called executive function disorder (EFD), is a behavioral condition where a person has significant challenges calling on their executive function skills, making it difficult to plan ahead, stay focused, problem-solve, and more. However, executive functions are skills, which means they can be developed with instruction and practice.
Executive Dysfunction and ADHD
Executive dysfunction is still being studied, but it has a clear connection to other conditions, like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Students with ADHD have unique challenges, though, and thus may experience executive dysfunction to varying degrees. People who do not have ADHD can still experience executive dysfunction. To learn more about the relationship between ADHD and Executive Function, see our article, “ADHD & Executive Functioning – The Chicken or the Egg?”
According to ADDitude Magazine, “ADHD is a biologically based disorder and a developmental impairment of executive functions—the self-management system of the brain.” It can help educators and students alike to think of executive functions as little managers in the brain, organizing tasks and planning ahead.
What Is Procrastination?
Procrastination is the deliberate action of postponing doing a task, even though the consequences of the delay are known. For example, if a student has two weeks to complete a project assignment but does not get started on it until the day before, most parents and educators assume the student has procrastinated.
The key word here being deliberate, which means intentionally; in this case, if a student has procrastinated, he or she intentionally or deliberately waited to do the assignment. If procrastination is at play, most often the student is exhibiting a behavior. To learn more about the difference between a behavior or a skill, check out our article, ”Behavior and the Wizard of Oz: What’s Behind the Curtain?”
Scientific Reports defines procrastination as “a self-regulatory problem of voluntarily and destructively delaying intended and necessary or personally important tasks.” For students and young people, it can be especially difficult to identify how procrastination negatively impacts not only their grades but also their overall behavioral health.
Comparing Executive Dysfunction and Procrastination
Put simply, executive dysfunction is a condition where one has consistent difficulties with the cognitive and behavioral skills related to planning, managing, and executing tasks, while procrastination is the deliberate avoidance of completing a task. While it appears that procrastination is a common occurrence for a student struggling with executive dysfunction, it is important to distinguish that often skill deficits in task initiation or planning and prioritizing are instead present, rather than intentional procrastination.
In practice, it can be challenging to distinguish whether executive dysfunction or procrastination are present since they share a lot of overlap, thus they can be hard to untangle, particularly when they present so similarly in the classroom environment. Fortunately, well-developed executive function skills built on sound processes can both remedy the executive skill of task initiation and lead to timely work completion and reduced anxiety and stress.
Causes of Executive Dysfunction
Despite how commonly executive dysfunction occurs, we don’t know its true cause. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Experts don’t fully understand why executive dysfunction happens, or why it can take so many different forms.” It has been linked to a range of other factors and conditions, including ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, depression, degenerative brain diseases, and more.
However, almost all teens with or without a specific diagnosis struggle with executive function skills. These critical skills are developed through the teen years and are managed by the prefrontal cortex or the frontal lobe of the brain. The prefrontal cortex develops between the ages of 13 and 23 (and sometimes up through 25 for individuals with ADHD) which is why we observe teens struggling to connect their choices with outcomes. To read more about the Teen Brain, see this article from American Academic of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving and Decision Making.”
When a student is observed not completing a project over time, or waiting until the last minute to complete homework, if educators had the instructional tools to deliberately teach students how to plan, prioritize and break assignments into manageable parts, it would be easier to identify if executive dysfunction or procrastination habits occurred first for a student.
Exploring the origin of why a specific student is having such a hard time getting started on their work (the skill of task initiation) will inform the appropriate instructional strategy. From there, teachers can tailor instruction for the student or groups of students to help them develop skills to overcome their executive dysfunction and eliminate the habit of procrastination.
For many students, a lack of knowledge impairs them from starting. As adults, we are quick to assume that a student doesn’t do something because they don’t want to, not because they actually don’t know how to. If a student is confused about the outcome of the project or struggles with the subject material, they don’t know how to begin.
Students may not feel confident that they know enough about the task to do it, or they experience anxiety about how challenging they perceive it to be, so they simply do not start. As academic coaches, we often see written project handouts and assignment sheets that appear to be clear to the teacher, but when we review them with the student, they are missing key components for students to follow a step-by-step process.
In other situations, students are charged with completing tasks that are unenjoyable, boring, or cumbersome—maybe it’s their least favorite school subject or class. As adults, we may forget the lack of agency many students feel, since It’s easy to forget how having to complete unpreferable tasks is part of growing up.
As adolescents, students have not developed the self-discipline to push past these negative feelings and get started anyway. We often observe students prioritizing non-academic pursuits that they consider to be more fun or engaging. We could share thousands of examples but in the age of cell phones, but we think you get the idea.
Executive dysfunction is closely tied to ADHD, but whether it’s a cause or a symptom is still up for debate. It’s important to consider that students with ADHD or other conditions may concurrently experience symptoms beyond executive dysfunction that affect their classroom experience and behavior.
Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction in Students
Executive dysfunction can have the following symptoms (just to name a few):
- Inability to manage and control emotions
- Information processing challenges
- Trouble managing and organizing tasks and materials
- Inability to plan ahead for future events
- Trouble with follow-through on long-term actions
For example, a student may sit down to work on one homework assignment but completely miss that they have another assignment as well. They could forget about the upcoming test they have or let their fear prevent them from committing to studying.
Students with executive dysfunction may display an inability to self-regulate in terms of both cognition and behavior. Some of their peers may look at step-by-step directions and get started with ease, but that type of self-management isn’t possible for them due to their executive dysfunction.
6 Strategies to Address Executive Dysfunction
- Build behavioral momentum. Take the time to clearly communicate how it will be easier to start with one or two aspects of the task and go from there. The student will build confidence as they approach more difficult activities.
- Set sub-goals. Break down the assignment into smaller parts that are easier for the student to understand. These sub-goals can serve as checkpoints and make it easier to monitor progress.
- Explain the “why.” Inform the student about why the assignment must be done and give them an idea of the big picture. Resilient Educator explains, “Clearly communicating our expectations and explaining how they align with course competencies helps students see a purpose to their learning.”
- Implement a break system. Regular breaks can give students a bit of relief and allow them to regroup with fresh eyes rather than grinding away at the same assignment for hours.
- Be empathetic. Explain to the student that they may experience intrusive negative emotions when they aren’t succeeding at their executive functions, but that’s normal. Reframing for a more positive mindset can foster a healthier relationship with learning.
- Fade support. As students become more independent with a process, make sure to take a few steps back so they can begin working on their own.
3 Strategies to Address Procrastination
- Don’t label them. Once a student is called a procrastinator, they can adopt the label and decide there’s little they can do about it. Instead, focus on specific strategies to motivate the student.
- Show simple steps. Review the expectation of the assignment and the required steps, giving them more time to absorb the information and cement understanding.
- Create a schedule. Set aside a specific time block for homework or studying. A sense of routine can help remove some of the outside distractions that feed into procrastination.
Read more tips on how to stop procrastinating homework in this article.
How Academic Coaching Can Address Executive Dysfunction
What is the difference between an academic coach and a tutor? Often, when a student is struggling in class, a tutor is called. Tutors are experts on subject material, though, and not on the study habits and self-regulation skills that students with executive dysfunction experience. Instead of seeking a tutor, students with executive dysfunction can benefit more from an academic coach or executive function courses, like those we offer at Effective Students.
The popular Effective Student Method™ course teaches executive function skills to students through a step-by-step academic management style where they can see their progress. The course is appropriate for students from fourth grade to twelfth grade.
For students who would benefit from one-on-one support, our academic success coaches can deliver in-person or virtual sessions. Working alongside the students, academic coaches can model specific skills and monitor progress in real time. Individual instruction affords parent and school collaboration as needed.
Explore Academic Coaching for Executive Dysfunction and Procrastination
Executive dysfunction and habitual procrastination can be daunting to overcome. Fortunately , you don’t have to do it alone. At Effective Students, we created engaging courses and insightful programs that help students develop a powerful skill set of executive functions, leading to long term success.
Explore the Effective Student Method™ course and one-on-one coaching sessions from Effective Students. To find the right option for you, contact our team to learn more.