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What is Executive Dysfunction?

What is Executive Dysfunction?

Here’s Everything You Need to Know


What is executive dysfunction or  executive functioning disorder (EFD)? Like that of a business executive or CEO, executive functioning allows a person to coordinate their resources to achieve a goal. Hence, executive dysfunction or executive functioning disorder occurs when a person’s executive functioning skills are weakened.

Cognitive control is a type of executive functioning. It entails high-level cognition such as planning, prioritizing, and impulse control.  Several learning problems and cognitive disabilities can hinder one’s ability to develop executive functioning skills. Individual with dementia or Alzheimer’s, for example, will have difficulty keeping track of current events or information. Students with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may find it difficult to organize their thoughts and control their impulses, which affects their school performance.

Executive dysfunction is a common co-occurring symptom of various conditions, including:

  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)
  • Mood disorders
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Neuroinflammatory disorders (e.g. multiple sclerosis)
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


What is Executive Dysfunction and Its Common Symptoms?


Executive functioning issues are prevalent among children with ADHD, and many of these issues persist into adulthood.

Self-awareness, inhibition, nonverbal working memory, verbal working memory, emotional self-regulation, self-motivation, planning, and problem-solving are the seven executive functions that develop sequentially over time. Self-awareness emerges at the age of two, and planning and problem-solving are completely formed in a neurotypical brain by the age of thirty. Individuals with ADHD, on the other hand, lag behind their peers by as much as 40 percent in developing one executive function after another.

As students transition to 6th and 9th grade, when school structures and timetables change substantially and academic demands increase significantly, executive dysfunction becomes impossible to overlook. Some parents and teachers frequently wonder why children are unable to work independently on a task and simply assume that they will eventually “pick up” the essential abilities. 

Your child may have an executive function deficit if he or she has problems getting started on a task, can only remember two or three things at a time, struggles with problem-solving, or feels overwhelmed at school. It’s critical to begin assisting children with ADHD/EFD as soon as possible, as well as to recognize the issues that these conditions cause.

The following are some of the most common indications and symptoms of EFD in children:

  • Forgetting about assignments and homework
  • Difficulty starting homework 
  • Difficulty calculating how long a task would take 
  • Being quickly sidetracked 
  • Difficulty keeping track of personal items or belongings
  • Inability to recall names and other important information
  • Difficulties with listening and following directions 
  • Difficulty remembering and following multistep instructions 
  • Roles in multi-part groups, such as sports teams, are difficult to comprehend
  • Transitioning between tasks is a challenge.

Parents who are aware of these indicators may have their child evaluated by a specialist to prevent further difficulties in school and beyond. 


Executive Dysfunction Symptoms at Home


Symptoms of executive dysfunction or EFD can manifest in a variety of ways. Look for the following indicators at home to see if your child is showing signs of EFD:

  • Your child completes tasks only with close supervision and structure, such as sitting down with them to work on projects or assignments. When encouraged to work independently, the child struggles to start or finish tasks.
  • When giving a series of instructions (brush teeth, put on pajamas, prepare the bed, etc.), your child often gets distracted and forgets what was supposed to be done next.
  • Your child’s room is often cluttered and disorganized.
  • Your child often forgets what he or she wants to say.
  • Your child struggles to tell a story or relay an event, often leaving out important parts.
  • Your child has trouble engaging in team sports.


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Executive Dysfunction Symptoms at School


Because of their working memory issues, many children with executive dysfunction suffer in school. The following signs may indicate that executive dysfunction is impacting your child’ s ability to learn:

  • Daydreaming and often distracted in class.
  • Your teacher often alerts you that your child fails to complete classwork.
  • Struggles with speaking activities in class, such as recitations and debates.
  • Often forgets names of playmates or classmates.
  • Disorganized school materials and backpack and often misplaces or loses track of his or her things.
  • Completes tasks only with close guidance from a teacher or help from a classmate.
  • Struggles to remember steps in solving math or word problems.


Executive Functioning Throughout One’s Life


The executive function appears to arise during the first few years of life and continues to grow throughout middle childhood and adolescence. The ability to suppress (or delay) one’s behavior is one of the most basic markers of executive function. Early infancy demonstrates the ability to suppress simple activities, such as delaying the consumption of a favorite food item.

Motor imitation occurs around the ages of three or four years old, and more complicated inhibitory abilities do not emerge until several years later. In typical development, children’s ability to inhibit behavior improves significantly between the ages of five to eight, especially with tasks that require them to rely on storing and manipulating information for short periods without the use of visual aids or reminders (often referred to as working memory).

Working memory improves progressively during the preschool years, with significant improvement by the time the child reaches six and half years of age. Working memory development is inversely proportional to task complexity, with easier memory abilities (such as facial recognition) being mastered by age four and more complicated skills (such as spatial memory) appearing by age 14.

Unlike the developmental trajectory of inhibition, which shows significant improvements in early childhood followed by more modest improvements as the child grows older, the developmental trajectory of working memory appears to improve steadily from preschool to adolescence.

Similarly, as people get older, their capacity to switch between mental states, rule sets, or tasks (also known as “set-shifting”) improves. Furthermore, some preschoolers demonstrate the ability to adjust their behavioral responses in favor of a different response (e.g., making subtle changes to the way they are sorting objects). The ability to shift attention between tasks, also known as cognitive flexibility, improves with age, with individuals achieving their full potential during adolescence.


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Craig Selinger

Owner at Themba Tutors
Craig Selinger, CEO of Themba Tutors (serving Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Bronx, Westchester, Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut), is a NY State licensed speech-language pathologist, executive functioning coach, and learning specialist with over 18 years of experience working professionally with over a thousand families. His expertise includes language-based learning issues, e.g. reading, writing, speaking, and listening, executive functioning, ADHD/ADD, and learning disabilities. Check out his interviews with top-notch professionals in the field on Spotify.
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