Understanding Executive Function Disorder

The condition is frustrating for students, but it can be addressed.


Are you chronically late, take forever to process new information, take disorganization to a whole new level, and can never find what you need at that moment, but inevitably find while searching whatever it was you were looking for last week? 

If you don’t put something on your calendar will you, with 100 percent certainty, forget all about it?  Are you easily distracted, have trouble prioritizing, and, if procrastination was an Olympic event, would you be its Michael Phelps?  If you answered “yes” to this rant then congratulations, you have an Executive Function Disorder (EFD).

Executive function skills are housed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the last portion of the brain to fully develop, usually in the early-to-mid 20’s. Most people fall into a certain range of normative behaviors. It’s like spelling — while some people are really good at it, others not so much. Then there are those who have such awful Executive Function skills that just getting through the day is as mentally exhausting as reasoning with Rush Limbaugh. 

Executive Function Deficits are commonly associated with ADHD, Conduct Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, anxiety and depression. In fact, ADHD is almost always present in those with EFD. Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma attached to those afflicted with EFD. Many people who have strong Executive Function skills truly believe those who don’t are simply lazy, as if the behaviors are purposeful. It’s like saying to someone who has asthma, “Just breathe already!” accompanied by an eye roll.  

For students, EFD can be devastating because the very skills necessary to be a successful student are those they lack. These students have a particularly difficult time picking topics, getting started on assignments, adding elaboration to writing projects, sequencing, prioritizing assignments, planning out long-term projects, meeting deadlines, organizing materials, sustaining attention, and attending to details. Often, they will reach a point where they are so overwhelmed they will shut down completely, and do nothing except maybe play video games, watch TV, or go on Facebook. 

Silly mistakes on math tests, forgetting to do their homework or doing homework and forgetting to turn it in, failing math and science tests because they forgot formulas, and a strong dislike for reading are all common characteristics for kids with EFD. These kids are often fixtures in detention because they are typically late for school or class, and are subjected to constant lectures for lack of motivation from parents and teachers. It should not come as a shock that these kids have lower self-esteem and self-confidence, and think they are not as smart as their peers.  

You may wonder if it’s possible for someone with EFD to effectively manage the challenges to become a successful student. The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” There are an enormous number of (almost) fail-proof strategies to help students with AFD effectively navigate their way through school. However, I believe the most important place to start is by showing sensitivity to those who live with these deficits. Although many with EDF cope by pretending they are in on the joke when their friends and family affectionately tease them, l can tell you from experience, it is far from amusing to them.  

It’s exasperating to deal with someone with EFD. I get it. But the next time you are tempted to tell someone they will be late to their own funeral, exaggerate exasperation when they once again lose their flash drive or laugh at them when they can’t remember their own cell number, show a little compassion. No matter how innocent the intentions, it’s never fun to be the butt of the joke. 

Next week I will share some of the aforementioned (almost) fail-proof strategies to help those students beaten down by EDF to get up and punch it in the face.

Sue Schaefer, M.ED., M.A.T., founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an Academic Coach, Student Advocate, and certified teacher. You may visit her website at www.academiccoachingct.com, email her at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com and follow her on Twitter @sueschaefer1


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