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Executive Function Disorder in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What is executive function disorder (EFD)?

Executive function refers to your child's ability to plan goals and complete tasks on time. EFD is often thought to be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but EFD is a separate disorder. The attention problems that are part of EFD involve processing and working memory disorders. Processing is the ability to understand and use information. Working memory is the ability to remember information long enough to work with it. For example, your child needs working memory to remember 2 numbers he or she has to add together.

What are the signs and symptoms of EFD?

  • Trouble knowing how much time a task will take to complete, or forgetting the steps of a task
  • Trouble imagining himself or herself finishing a task, starting on his or her own, or changing steps when he or she starts
  • Not wanting to keep working on a task, or becoming bored or cranky during a task
  • Misplacing homework, or forgetting to turn in homework or to bring books home that he or she needs for homework
  • Being late for the start of school or other events despite reminders
  • Losing permission slips, or losing track of his or her jacket or other clothing
  • Lashing out when he or she is angry or frustrated, or trouble controlling his or her emotions
  • Trouble sitting still, or constantly fidgeting

How is EFD diagnosed?

Your child may be given tests to check his or her memory, control, and ability to complete tasks. For example, he or she may be shown a card with the word green printed in red ink. He or she will be asked to name the color instead of reading the word. This will show his or her ability to ignore an impulse to say the word instead of the color. He or she may also be asked to complete a long series of steps. This will test his or her ability to stay interested long enough to finish and control his or her emotions if he or she becomes frustrated. He or she may be asked to repeat a series of numbers or words to test his or her working memory.

How is EFD managed?

  • Experts may work with your child. Learning experts can teach him or her how to plan tasks. They may teach him or her how to make a list of steps to complete, and then to mark each as complete. They can also help him or her learn to figure out how much time a task will take. This will help him or her plan enough time to finish the task. The experts can also teach him or her ways to stay organized and to remember to bring items to or from school. Other experts can help your child learn to control his or her emotions when he or she is frustrated.
  • An individualized education program (IEP) may be used through high school graduation. The IEP identifies your child's learning needs and helps his or her teachers understand how to help him or her learn. The IEP may help your child build skills he or she will need after high school. Your child may be able to use other accommodations in college to help him or her continue to succeed. For example, he or she may be able to take tests without being timed, or in a room with no distractions. This may help him or her focus on completing the test.

What can I do to help support my child?

  • Always encourage your child. Your child may need to be reminded several times to do something you want him or her to do. Your child may need to be reminded to start his or her homework and to put the completed work in his or her school bag. He or she may also need help figuring out how much time a task is going to take to complete. Be patient and repeat information as needed. Do not expect your child to remember what you told him or her. Your child may have trouble remembering all the steps if he or she has working memory problems.
  • Help your child reduce distractions. Create a quiet area for your child to work on homework or read. The area should not have a TV, radio, or electronic game device. If your child needs to use a computer for his or her homework, help your child stay focused on his or her work. Do not allow him or her to use the Internet unless it is part of an assignment or he or she needs information to complete the work.
  • Enroll your child in martial arts or a similar exercise program. Martial arts, such as karate, teach ways to strengthen focus and stay in control. Exercise can also help your child use extra energy that may be distracting him or her during a task.
  • Do not focus on grades. Praise improvement, such as a task your child finished. Focus on an assignment your child finished and turned in instead of the grade he or she received. It is okay to praise a good grade on a test or homework assignment, but do not make good grades the focus.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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