adhd & executive functioning relationship

ADHD & Executive Functioning

adhd & executive functioning relationship

The relationship between executive functioning and ADHD can be messy and confusing. As a parent, you may be wondering, Is my child struggling because of ADHD or executive functioning difficulties or perhaps, both?  

ADHD is a diagnosis found in the DSM -V and according to the CDC, “People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity–impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development”.  

According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University,“Executive function and self-regulation skills are like an air traffic control system in the brain—they help us manage information, make decisions, and plan ahead.  

Clearly, there is lots of overlap—put another way, perhaps this is a question best likened to the relationship between the chicken and the egg. 

“Friends That Walk Together”

Have you ever heard the term ‘comorbidity’ used to describe a student with overlapping conditions? Comorbidity is a technical term occasionally used to describe two conditions which appear simultaneously in a person. At Effective Students™, we say these two friends often “walk together”.  

Understanding the nexus and relationship between the two conditions determines what is an appropriate intervention.  For instance, it’s important to assess the following:

  • Is a student struggling due to the absence of a skill?
  • Is a student struggling due to the presence of a behavior?
  • Is a student having a hard time executing because they don’t know where to begin?
  • Is a student struggling because they lack focus?

These key questions determine where, when and how to intervene.  Unlocking the full academic potential of a student experiencing overlapping conditions often starts with asking the right questions.

Becoming an Effective Student

Being an Effective Student requires demonstrating skills across several key domains, which is why a roadmap is critical.  We often hear, my student lacks study skills, which may be true.  They also can’t study information they cannot locate. If they have ADHD, on their way to locating the information to ‘study’, they might find a ….video game. And if they find a video game…. Well you’ve read the book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff. Need I say more? In our house, we call this ‘squirrel’.  If you don’t believe me, watch a squirrel, they’re always distracted – but I digress.

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Are they self-aware enough to realize that they’re missing assignments or social cues? 
  • Is their testing performance negatively impacted by a lack of impulse control?
  • Do they learn the value of academic grit when persevering on a difficult assignment?
  • Do they even know how to begin so they can succeed? 

Effective interventions must address one before another to ensure we don’t coddle a behavior or consequate a lack of skills.  Using a standard, neutral target of effective practice such as a curriculum, is important to identify which is in play and where to start.  

Academic Coaches: Determining Individual Learning Methods

On the learning journey, a good academic coach will ensure the student becomes ‘aware’, while remaining relatable.  Awareness is the first step to making more intentional choices and ultimately, self determination.  Ei voila! Maturity!  If it were only that easy.

One last critical component is to determine a student’s learning method.  If a student is kinesthetic or experiential, it will not matter how many times they are told, they must experience outcomes to make different choices.  If they are highly verbal and are only given experiences without a dialogue, they will not understand and become discouraged.  Presenting the obstacle with just enough instruction, encouragement and challenge builds confidence and competence in a student.   

With the right instruction and tools, students can become their own decision makers and drivers of their own learning and success.  

Is the Effective Student Method right for you? Schedule a 15 minute consult here to learn more.

Why having ADHD is like driving a Maserati

Kids with ADHD are often plagued by ‘going too fast’, a condition which impacts them academically and often socially.  When they ‘go too fast’, students get poor grades because they miss parts of questions, jump ahead steps in math problems, or struggle socially because they overlook social cues from teachers or peers.  While students with ADHD are quite bright and creative, they can experience setbacks on their way to completing graded work.

Recently, I was working with a studentwe’ll call him Joe.  Joe has a Maserati.  Under the hood, there is lots of (brain) power propelling Joe forward. Despite his best efforts to keep up in a competitive school, Joe regularly underperforms on nearly every test and quiz.  Joe had been taught to ‘review’ as a study skill (reviewing is not a skill but that will be covered in another blog).  After spending a few sessions with  Joe, we came to the conclusion that he had two problems: 

  1. Joe didn’t like hard work because he had a pretty good engine under the hood and up until middle school, he didn’t have to work hard.
  2. Joe was driving his Maserati through tests on mountain roads at about 70 MPH—not a recipe for success.

Giving Joe more time on tests wasn’t going to help him slow down, nor was testing Joe in a quiet place.  Joe had to learn two things: 

  1. There are no shortcutsno substitute for the hard work of learning.  
  2. HOW he was driving his Maserati was harming him.  

I had to use this car analogy with one of my own children when he was in grade school.  It was explained to him that he had two cars upstairs, a red one and a green one.  The red car is the Maserati, the green one is an F150.   Often the Maserati would speed ahead, leaving the F150 behind.  The heavy lifter, the F150, the great tower was not able to do his job well because the Maserati was too far out in front.  However, if the F150 and the Maserati drove together as partners, the best outcomes would occur.   

If a student has both ADHD and a processing speed delay, he/she has a Maserati and an F150.  It was once explained to me by the director of admissions at a private school that you may not initially get the right answer out of this student, but if you waited a little longer, you’d get a better answer.  

So what happened to Joe?  Once he was shown that he was wrecking his beautiful Maserati, repeatedly, he was willing to try a different approach.  The outcome was achieving 98/100 on a math quiz and 97/100 on a history quiz.  Joe’s on his way up the racing circuit.  He’s not a Formula 1 driver just yet, but he’s now experienced what it takes to get results, building a strong foundation for academic success.   

Not everyone learns to drive their Maserati so quicklybut they can with good instruction.

adhd and school performance

Why Students with ADHD Need Fewer “Strategies”

If you have a student with ADHD, he/she may have been recommended for a Study Strategies class.  

Oftentimes, Study Strategies classes function like a ‘study hall’ and are simply an opportunity for students to complete homework assignments.  Study strategies are given as suggestions or ideas for students to ‘try’ to see if they work.  In other words, for students and parents who are learning how to study with ADHD, Study Strategies classes may not always provide the best solution.

As a parent of children with ADHD and a successful academic coach of students with ADHD, students with this condition DO NOT NEED another idea or suggestion.  In truth, these individuals have more wonderful ideas in a moment than they know how to process.

Students with ADHD, just like any highly talented athlete or musician, benefit from training in a process that simplifies the complex and enables them to focus on what’s important.  Students need practice in that process, encouragement to follow through, accountability when they don’t, and awareness of how they’re performing overall.   

“What should I ask if my student is recommended for a Study Strategies class?” 

Great question!

Studies Strategies classes are a great time for the training to occur but for the class to be effective and not just a ‘study hall’ here are some question to ask: 

  • What curriculum do you use? 
  • How is the class time structured?
  • How will you determine a weakness in my student? 
  • What is he/she expected to learn in your class? 
  • How will you measure his/her progress other than their grades? 
  • How will you teach my child to become independent with a process rather than dependent on you as the teacher? 

ADHD and difficulties in Executive Functioning often to hand in hand.  The official term for this is comorbidity (but a nicer way to say this) is these two conditions ‘walk together’ or co-exist.  Executive functioning  is the ability to organize, plan, problem solve and execute.   

Students with ADHD often struggle in these key areas,  which can translate to incomplete schoolwork, mismanaging materials and time, and not sufficiently studying for tests and planning long-term projects.  Giving students more time to attend to these tasks doesn’t necessarily mean they know HOW to do them—a good Study Strategies class will teach them how through curriculum and progress evaluation in terms of the skills they acquire.  

As the saying goes, 

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish,  feed him for a lifetime. 


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