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What are executive functions?

Executive functions are skills that we all use every day to organize our lives and get things done. Executive functions include setting goals and priorities, making and following plans, remembering information, managing time, organizing possessions, and staying on top of tasks. 

Some children have difficulty with executive functions. Even though they may be very intelligent, these kids struggle with things like staying organized and keeping up in school. 

Executive functioning issues are most common in children with ADHD. Kids without ADHD can struggle with executive functioning as well. 

What are the symptoms of executive function issues?

If a child struggles with executive functions, they will have trouble with organization, schoolwork, and time management. Signs include: 

Organization issues: 

  • Often losing or forgetting important items  
  • Seeming unable to keep their room, desk or locker clean 

Time management issues: 

  • Often being late due to disorganization or poor planning  
  • Trouble moving from one activity to the next  

Challenges in school with: 

  • Memorizing facts 
  • Keeping track of important information 
  • Organizing ideas in writing 
  • Solving multi-step problems  
  • Finishing and turning in homework 

How are executive function issues diagnosed?

A neuropsychological evaluation is the best way to diagnose an executive function problem. The professional will speak to parents, teachers and other adults in the child’s life. They will also observe and test the child.  

It is helpful for a learning specialist at the child’s school to observe them in class first to help decide if an evaluation is necessary. 

How are executive function problems treated?

Executive function weaknesses are treated with the help of teachers, psychologists and learning specialists.  

The school psychologist and the child’s teacher should work together to create a plan to support the child. The plan should focus on the child’s strengths and also give them help where needed. 

A learning specialist can help children learn systems to build executive function skills. Kids can learn to use checklists, planners and other organizational and time management tools. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 18, 2023.