The Role of ADHD and Your Brain’s Executive Functions


What is executive function?

If do much reading about ADHD sooner or later you are going to come across the term “executive function” and wonder what in the heck is that?

Simply put, executive function is a term that psychologists and medical professionals use to describe the higher functions of our brain that help us control and self-manage ourselves.  Here’s one technical definition:  “The administrative portion of the brain that coordinates and regulates  organization, time management and perception, deferred gratification, prioritization, attention, impulse control and persistence at tasks.” So what does that really mean?

Executive function is most easily understood by looking at a few examples:

  • When you resist that piece of chocolate when you are on a diet, you are using the executive function of your brain to defer the pleasure of that yummy chocolate right now for your longer term goal of losing weight.
  • When you bite your tongue instead of telling someone off, your executive functions help you evaluate consequences (you might hurt their feelings or make them mad at you) and control the impulse to blurt out your opinion.
  • If you have a project in school that you really dislike but you know you need to accomplish in order to pass the class, executive functions help you make a plan to break down the project into bite sized pieces, stick with it when you are feeling frustrated or bored, and ask for help when you get stuck.
  • Getting ready to leave the house on time, you use executive functions to keep one eye on the clock and the other on the things you need to get into your backpack before you run out the door to catch the bus.

LD Online, a great source of information about learning disabilities and ADHD, identifies some of the major areas of executive functions:

  • making plans,
  • keeping track of time,
  • keeping track of more than one thing at once,
  • meaningfully including past knowledge in discussions,
  • engaging in group dynamics,
  • reflecting on our work and evaluating ideas,
  • changing our minds and making mid-course and corrections while thinking, reading and writing,
  • finishing work on time,
  • asking for help,
  • waiting to speak until we’re called on, and
  • seeking more information when we need it.

ADHD and Executive Functioning

The challenge with understanding how ADHD and executive functioning are interrelated is that EVERYONE can have executive function troubles at different times – it’s a matter of degree. When you have ADHD you are more often challenged by executive functions than people who don’t have it.

Let’s assume you have ADHD. When something is interesting to you, you are all over it. No executive function problems there, right? However, you’ve probably also found that difficult or uninteresting tasks can be very difficult to pay attention to – even when it’s something that is important such as remembering your girlfriend’s birthday or paying your water bill. Executive functions help reveal why ADHD isn’t simply a matter of will power or caring enough. As Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., Yale University School of Medicine says,

Most people, those who do not have ADHD, can usually make themselves pay attention to tasks, even tasks that are boring, when they recognize that they just have to do it. People with ADHD find it much more difficult to make themselves pay attention unless the task is one that has immediate interest value to them. The core of their problem is … being able to manage their mind to focus on tasks they need to do, even when those tasks are not immediately interesting.

An ADHD coach works with you to support and build your executive functions

The role of a coach is to address executive functioning challenges with structured support and accountability.  Their long term goal is to help you figure out strategies and accommodations to work with your ADHD so you can accomplish everything you care about and need to get done to achieve your goals.  Edge Coaches will help you with executive functions such as:

  1. scheduling,
  2. goal setting,
  3. confidence building,
  4. organizing,
  5. focusing,
  6. prioritizing, and
  7. persisting at tasks.

You can learn to work with your ADHD strengths – hyperfocusing on things that are interesting for example. And you can learn ways to stick with it to do those boring tasks (like filling out paperwork, showing up on time or passing a prerequisite class) so you can accomplish your dreams. What are you waiting for? exec

6 Ways to motivate your ADHD teen

Edge Foundation Blog > 6 ways to motivate your ADHD teen

6 ways to motivate your ADHD teen

Motivating the ADHD teenDoes this sound familiar?

You think ADHD coaching would be good for daughter to try but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with your suggestions.

You aren’t alone. It can be an uphill battle to get a teen or college student to try out something that their parent recommends. And coaching won’t help if your child is unwilling to partner with a coach. So what is a parent to do?

  • Don’t force! A coach should never be a punishment for a student who is not performing.
  • Motivate, not dictate. If a student is indifferent about something, parental pressure will often prejudice and polarize them.
  • Understand the benefits. Read our testimonials, check out the research that proves ADHD coaching is a highly effective interventionwatch a video to understand the process and benefits sufficiently so that you can motivate and encourage your child.
  • Talk to a coach. Many coaches specialize in working with parents to convince their child to participate in coaching.
  • Eye on the prize. As parents it’s easy to get caught up in what WE want for our kids and forget it is THEIR life. Help your son think about his goals and explain a coach will work with him to reach them.
  • Try a Free Session. Encourage your student to find out herself. Right now Edge is offering the first coaching session for free. (Offer expires 10/15/13). Remember, you can’t sign your child up for coaching — they have to be willing to try it.  But you can encourage them to at least give it a try!

Here is a tip to stay focused.


Ever tried to do two or more things at once?  Like doing homeworkand listening to your music?  Or listening to a talk and doodling your notes?  Did it work for you?

Those secondary “mindless” tasks (the doodling and the listening to the music) are what the Edge Foundation’s Executive Director, Sarah Wright, calls fidgeting.

A bored ADHD brain is a sluggish brain

“Everyone thinks of fidgeting as those restless movements we do when we’re bored, but really it’s more than that,” she explains.  “One of the things we know about an ADHD brain is that when it gets bored, it gets sluggish.  Literally.  In brain scans of people with ADHD doing boring repetitive tasks, we can see that pretty quickly the pre frontal cortex slows down.  One of the reasons stimulant medications are thought to work for ADHD is that they correct for this.  When compared to the general population, it is pretty clear people with ADHD just require a higher base level of stimulation to stay comfortably alert and focused.”

Fidgeting helps people with ADHD stay focused

Fidget to Focus is the book Sarah co-authored with Dr. Roland Rotz.  They make the case that instead of being a distraction, certain mindless tasks-like listening to music or doodling on paper or chewing gum or standing up at your desk-are really ways to help self-regulate and stay focused. Fidget to Focus was just featured in ADDitude magazine online.

She explains, “All adults self-regulate with sensory-motor activities.  When we get tired of sitting at our desks, we get up for a cup of coffee.  We switch on the radio in the car to keep us interested while driving.  We maybe splash some cold water on our faces to perk up.  Even as adults we need the right balance of sensory-motor stimulation to keep us in our comfort zone.

“Kids need more.  They need more frequent, more intense, and more variety of sensory-motor stimulation than adults does to stay in their comfort zone.  If you try to take those stimulating things away, they’ll just find something else.  And this is true for all kids, not just those with ADHD.  But because of the way the ADHD brain works, people with ADHD will essentially always need more stimulation than those without ADHD. It’s just a matter of degree.”

Three tips for self-regulating with fidgeting:

Sarah and her co-author emphasize three important points in Fidgeting to Focusthat you can start using today.

1.       The great thing about fidgeting is that it’s perfectly natural.  Everyone does it.  The trick is to do it intentionally.  If you do it right, you can manage your ADHD symptoms in a way that’s totally unnoticeable to everyone else.

2.       It’s important to fidget respectfully: doing it in a way that works for you but that doesn’t bother the people around you.  For example, clicking your pen repeatedly during a meeting might not be so cool, but fiddling with a paperclip under the table would be soundless and invisible.

3.       It’s important to realize that a good fidget shouldn’t compete with the primary tasks.  For instance, if you need your eyes for reading, listening to music will be a better fidget than watching the TV.  If you need to listen, doodling or pacing will be a better fidget than being plugged into your iPod.

And ADHD coach can help you figure out which fidget help you focus, and which ones are getting in  your way.  We’d love to hear from you.  What fidget works for you?

Editor’s Note:

University of Central Florida study confirms fidgeting helps kids with ADHD concentrate as reported in the Orlando Sentinal, May 25, 2009.

ADHD and homework

Stories from the Edge: ADHD and homework

Editor’s Note:  Stories from the Edge are real life accounts about how an ADHD coach works – as told by the student receiving the coaching.  This is the second installment from Kelsey Peterson who is a junior at Parson’s School of Design.  You can read her first post here.  We asked Kelsey to tell us what she’s working on this month with her coach.

One thing I’m struggling with this month that my coach is helping me with is balance with my homework.

Handling the reading load for my classes is challenging 

I am taking one design class and three lecture style classes. Even though the lecture classes are very interesting and I love going to them getting the reading done for them is hard. They all assign a lot of reading and I’m trying to schedule my weeks to block out time to do them. It’s easy for me to do my design homework and forget about the reading until the morning of that class or the night before.

Using a day planner to make time in my schedule for reading

My coach has been helping me look at my planner and assign blocks of time throughout the week to go to Starbucks or the library and read. It’s been going better but still hard to stick to my schedule at times. During the day my friends and I are all out going to class or hanging out in a similar neighborhood in Manhattan so it’s hard not to meet up and get a coffee with my friends in between classes instead of doing the reading. So I have been trying to balance time with my friends with homework.

Basically I came up with a game plan for one of my classes that meets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays we have a lecture and on Wednesdays a discussion class about the readings. So my new schedule is that I go to the lecture on Tuesday and do the reading right after so that the reading makes more sense to me and I’m still thinking about and digesting the lecture. This has been working really good and I’m still experimenting with the other classes and when the best time to get the reading for them is done.

When I look at my day planner with my coach I make sure to schedule things appropriately, for example I try hard to plan on doing my homework in the morning because I have mostly afternoon class and I like to hangout with my friends and my boyfriend after six. I don’t have time to hangout with my friends every evening but for the most part I’ve discovered what works best for me is to get up early and do as much as I can – and then after six have fun and relax.

What’s your biggest lie you tell yourself?