Attached Kids

Supporting Children's Mental Health and Emotional Development

ADHD Part 2: Six Areas Kids Struggle With

Last week we started to talk about ADHD by sharing facts and information about what ADHD is (If you missed it, click here).  This week we go a step further to talk about what ADHD is actually doing to the brain, and how that impacts the behaviour of children with ADHD.

Executive Functions are processes in the brain that help us manage day to day activities like staying organized, completing tasks, and planning ahead. According to Psychologist Dr. Thomas Brown, ADHD impacts six Executive Functions of the brain. Each child with ADHD can be impacted differently – some may experience challenges with all six executive functions, some with only a few. 

Here are the six Executive Functions that may be impacted by ADHD and the symptoms you might see in your child:

1. Activation: This function refers to our ability to ‘get started’ on tasks. Children with ADHD can have a difficult time starting tasks – especially tasks that they don’t want to do, like homework, chores, or getting ready in the morning. They often experience excessive procrastination on these tasks and struggle to get started. 

2. Focus: This Executive Function controls our ability to focus on the most important thing in the room – like the person who is talking. Some children with ADHD have a difficult time focusing and are easily distracted by sounds, movement, smells, or really anything around them – including their own thoughts and feelings! For the brain with ADHD everything demands equal attention – so the teacher speaking demands as much attention as the person tapping their pencil on their desk, the bird that flew by the window, and thoughts about an argument that happened earlier that day. However, once a child is locked in and actually paying attention to one thing (which is usually the most interesting thing), it can be hard for them to move on to attend to the next thing – like switching from recess to math class, or play time to bed time. Switching focus from one task to the next can be a big challenge for some kids with ADHD!

3. Effort: This function of the brain helps us sustain our effort over longer periods of time. For some children with ADHD it can be difficult to give effort to a task over a long period of time. They tend to jump into a task with full effort and energy and have a hard time giving that effort for longer that short bursts. For example, a child with ADHD may race through homework questions for 5 minutes and then be ‘out of steam’ for their English assignment. Children with ADHD can also have a hard time winding down before bed – they struggle to turn their effort off at the end of the day. It may take longer for children with ADHD to become calm enough to fall asleep.

4. Emotion: Our Emotion Function helps us understand and regulate our emotions. Children with ADHD tend to have a harder time regulating their emotions – meaning that when they feel a feeling they really feel it!! Their emotions can take over and make it difficult for them to think about anything else. It can be harder for them to stay calm when angry or excited and harder to think before acting when they are experiencing a large emotion. 

5. Memory: This Executive Function helps us to remember things that happened a long time ago, a few minutes ago, and information we learned in the past that we need to use right now. Children with ADHD often have excellent long-term memories – they can remember a promise you made 5 years ago – but they tend to struggle with their short-term memory. They often have a harder time remembering what you just said, or remembering a list of things to do (ie, brush teeth, pj’s on, and get in bed…even if they have to do it everyday), and a harder time remembering where they put things. Children with ADHD also tend to have a more difficult time learning from their mistakes. They make the same mistakes over and over and can really struggle to put together cause and effect – to remember what happened last time they threw their toys and chose to act differently this time.  They can also struggle with pulling out information when they need it. They might know all of the math homework or the calm down strategies you’ve been working on, but have a hard time accessing that knowledge when they need it most. 

6. Action: I think when most of us think about ADHD we think about this category. This Executive Functions helps us control our actions and activity level. Children with ADHD can be more impulsive than other kids – ie interrupting others, acting before thinking, and having a hard time taking turns or waiting for their turn. They may be more hyperactive, struggling to keep their energy level calm enough to sit still or walk instead of run. They can also have difficulty with their pace of actions – either doing things too quickly or too slowly, or not realizing when their play is too rough. Within this category of Executive Functions we also see children with ADHD showing difficulty understanding social cues from others – like knowing when the other person wants you to stop tickling.

So those are the main functions of the brain that can be impacted by ADHD and what you might see in your child with ADHD. Stay tuned next week, where we will share strategies that you can do at home and at school to support your child through these symptoms and make life a little easier for you and your child.

Until next time,



References and Further Reading:

Thomas Brown, 2013. A new understanding of ADHD in children and adults: Executive Function Impairments

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