There is a lot of confusion around executive function (EF)—and how it relates to Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD). Is ADHD an executive function disorder? Is every EF disorder also ADHD? What even are EF and ADHD? The answers depend on what we mean by “executive function” and how it presents in a learner’s life. Let’s examine the key relationships and differences between ADHD and executive dysfunction.

Webinar: The Similarities & Differences of ADHD & EF

Does EF Always Overlap with ADHD?

The term “executive functioning” was coined in the 1970s by Karl Pribram, whose research indicated that executive functioning is managed by the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that controls planning of complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and social behavior. Those who struggle with executive functions on a clinical level aren’t diagnosed with an executive dysfunction disorder—you won’t find executive function in the DSM-5. But a clinician can still detect EF weaknesses—especially those that create excessive, persistent, and severe symptoms that lead to harm or impairment.

Many people without an ADHD diagnosis struggle with their executive functioning, though not all who struggle with executive functioning qualify for an ADHD diagnosis. While executive dysfunction is often a symptom of ADHD, the opposite is not always the case. 

Key Ways EF and ADHD are Related

There are so many connections between ADHD and executive dysfunction. Learners who struggle with both may have difficulty:  

  • paying attention
  • maintaining self-control
  • managing emotions
  • avoiding distraction
  • holding information in working memory
  • switching easily from one activity to another
  • getting started on tasks
  • organizing time and materials
  • remembering things
  • keeping track of what’s going on
  • completing long-term projects
  • thinking before acting
  • taking turns
  • remembering assigned tasks.

One Key Difference Between ADHD & EF

ADHD can receive an official diagnosis while an executive function challenge cannot. However, trouble with executive function is not limited to symptoms in ADHD learners. EF refers to weaknesses in the brain’s self-management system. People can have trouble with executive function for many reasons—not just ADHD. In fact, the majority of kids with learning differences struggle with one or more of the eleven executive function skills. This means EF challenges are actually much more widespread than ADHD, even though we’re just starting to understand how prevalent these challenges really are.

Taking Action to Support Our Learners

Now that we have uncovered how the two conditions connect with one another, it is important for all of us to have access to evidence-based strategies to treat learners with executive functioning and ADHD difficulties. Awareness of ADHD and EF can help caregivers advocate for proper accommodations and treatment. Learners with ADHD or executive dysfunction can learn to use their interests, strengths and knowledge to improve their skills and advocate for their own learning needs. 

If you think someone you know may have challenges relating to ADHD or executive function, contact us and we’ll be happy to offer guidance. You can also call or text Learnfully at 650-459-5900

What people think ADHDers are good at vs what they are actually good at
The ADHD Strengths Iceberg

Additional Resources

My daughter received many diagnoses before the official diagnosis of autism. She was born before the rise in autism cases we’ve seen over the past decade or so. Being a girl, autism was rarely at the top of a physician’s list of considerations but dyspraxia was.

What is dyspraxia and how does it relate to autism?

Doctors thought she might have a hearing impairment, a speech disorder, poor vision, hypotonia, the list goes on and on. But the one diagnosis that stuck-–the one that made the most sense besides autism—was dyspraxia. 

Dyspraxia, sometimes referred to as developmental coordination disorder, affects fine and gross motor skills. Individuals with dyspraxia often have difficulty controlling their movements with precision. Gross motor activities like jumping are often difficult as are small motor tasks like writing or using scissors. 

According to a study published in Molecular Autism, Dyspraxia is more prevalent in people with autism. As autism is frequently associated with motor coordination difficulties, the link to dyspraxia may be the culprit.

From birth my daughter was what I can only describe as a  “floppy” child. Poor control of her arms and legs caused delays in all of her major milestones. Difficulty with fine motor skills made her unable to feed herself finger foods or fasten her own clothing. Her speech was also affected; she spoke loosely, words and sounds rolled out of her mouth. The small muscles needed to form precise sounds and chew food carefully didn’t seem to be working together the way they should.

How dyspraxia helped my daughter qualify for early intervention

As I waited for an autism diagnosis I knew would eventually come, her dyspraxia diagnosis was the one diagnosis that made the most sense. Dyspraxia was my jumping off point. I took this label, did my research and used it to qualify my daughter for occupational, physical, and speech therapy. Because her dyspraxic tendencies were apparent by the time she was 18 months old, my daughter qualified for insurance coverage and my 18 month old was soon in therapy three days a week.

To this day I believe the early, targeted therapy made a huge difference in my daughter’s long-term growth. She was born at a time when the importance of early intervention was not yet understood. If we had waited for someone to finally agree she had autism, even though she wasn’t a boy and had no Rainman-like characteristics, she would have never received the early therapies she desperately needed.

Researching and understanding dyspraxia, what it meant for my daughter’s movement and speech delays, what types of therapy were most effective and how we could help her at home, gave me a path forward in those early days of fumbling around for answers. A dyspraxia diagnosis comes with many challenges but for us, it was one more piece of the puzzle that began our autism journey. 

What to do if you think your child may have dyspraxia

  1. Talk to your pediatrician and ask for an evaluation for occupational therapy.
  2. Contact your school district, let them know about your concerns and ask that they evaluate your child for services.
  3. Contact Learnfully for specific educational methods proven to work with dyspraxic learners.

About the Author

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Jessica Watson is a mom to several kids with learning differences, including one with autism. As a homeschooling parent, a published author in this space and a marketing specialist, she has found a great balance between her personal life and her work with the neurodivergent community.

Just like there are with physical illnesses, many different types of therapy exist to support a child with a learning or other neural difference. A mental health consultation and therapy can be an essential guide to help you navigate your child’s holistic needs. Although there is no single universal treatment that works for all, there are many different approaches that can help your child and family make progress and cope with emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Treatment approaches vary from therapy, exercise, social support, education, and medication. Outlined below is a brief description of the available research-based interventions often used to meet the needs and preferences of the child receiving them: 

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talk-based therapy that focuses on thoughts and emotions that impact mood and behaviors, as well as integrating tangible ways for children to empower themselves. During CBT, the therapist will guide the child to learn how to replace negative thought patterns with positive and productive ones through role-playing, journaling, and talking about alternative strategies to handle difficult situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy will help your child discover new perspectives and tools on how to approach challenges and learn coping techniques cognitively. In addition to acquiring new coping skills, CBT allows your child to improve their self-image and gain problem-solving skills. 

This type of therapy can range from play, such as arts and crafts, meditation, to talking through stressful situations to reframe thoughts from negative to positive. For example, a student may think a challenging math problem is a reflection of their academic ability and that their potential is predetermined. Therapists can reframe their thinking, so challenges are seen as beneficial and opportunities to grow. 

​What is Parent-child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)? 

​Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is a short-term treatment that is designed to help families acquire specific skills that will strengthen their relationship with their child and build the parent’s ability to build confidence in directing the child’s behavior and re-establish positive feelings into interactions. A typical PCIT session has the parent(s) and children together participating in play, such as engaging with action figures or creative visualization, while a therapist observes through a two-way mirror and guides the parents’ discipline skills and interaction through an earpiece. Parents are subsequently coached one-on-one to further establish a specialized skill set that models what was practiced during the session. 

What is Speech-Language Pathology (SLP)?

Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) is a treatment that aims to improve speech and language skills ranging from voice and sound production, fluency, comprehension, expression, and early language skills. A speech-language pathologist diagnoses and treats communication and swallowing problems, such as stuttering, when the flow of speech is interspersed between pauses. For children, the therapy sessions often involve reading stories and play, including language-based board games that integrate making inferences, problem solving, and social routines. SLP can offer numerous benefits to the child and their ability to comprehend and express ideas and improve school readiness by enhancing their fluency. 

What is Exposure Therapy (ET)? 

Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavior therapy where the child is exposed to something that provokes feelings of anxiety. During ET, the child unlearns patterns of avoidance by working with the therapist to overcome fears and anxieties centered on the object or situation. ET works with the child and family to identify specific fears as well as techniques such as reasoning to assess the overestimation of the severity of the threat to gradually expose the child in controlled doses associated with the stimulus. Exposure therapy is an effective model for modifying the child’s thoughts and experiences from anxiety-provoking to establishing a feeling of neutrality and no sense of danger. ET is beneficial in treating anxiety disorders such as phobias and separation or social anxiety. 

What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)? 

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy integrates the science behind behavior and learning to 

increase and reinforce communication, social, learning, and fine motor skills. ABA therapy helps children by improving their social abilities such as completing tasks, implementing self-regulation, and teaching them the transferability of the skills to different challenges and environments. Treatment goals are established in collaboration with the therapist and are based on the age and behaviors being exhibited. 

Applied behavior analysis consists of two main components, including positive reinforcement and Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Model. Positive reinforcement refers to when the child reaches a goal behavior, established by the family and therapist before the sessions, and is rewarded by something of value to the child, such as a toy or book, whereas the ABC model works to understand what happens before a behavior occurs (antecedents), the behavior itself, and what happens after the behavior (consequences). The model helps children identify the harmful behavior, the triggers behind the behavior, and the effect it has on the child’s well-being and works to improve fundamental skills while decreasing unhealthy behaviors. 

What type of therapy is right for my child?

Overall, there are many types of interventions and treatment options available to support the child’s specific needs that will promote their holistic well-being. It is recommended to contact your child’s healthcare provider to explore what option or combination of options is best suited to address your child’s needs and then curate a personalized plan with your child’s therapist. Not sure who to ask for help? We can recommend who to contact based on your child’s current needs and other factors. Please contact us for assistance.

About the Author

Alexis Takagi is an Educational Specialist at Learnfully, Inc specializing in English and mathematical tutoring. She is a doctoral candidate studying social justice leadership in higher education at Santa Clara University’s School of Education and Counseling Psychology and currently researching how memorable messages (affirmations) about school impact academic retention and growth mindset.

Caregivers (and their children) have enough to worry about, and while they shouldn’t have to research the correct terminology to describe themselves, it’s important to represent learning disabilities and differences correctly. In this article, we break down terms practitioners use when discussing learning needs and challenges so you can feel comfortable when referring to loved ones.

What are Learning Disabilities?

A learning disability is a permanent disorder that affects the manner in which individuals with normal or often above average intelligence acquire, retain, and express information. Such difficulties in processing information can significantly interfere with academic or social development. Learning disabilities are commonly recognized in adults as difficulty in one or more of these areas: reading, comprehension, spelling, written expression, handwriting, mathematics, oral expression, and problem-solving. Adults with learning disabilities may also have perceptual difficulties. It is important to remember that no two students with learning disabilities have the same profile of strengths and weaknesses. Examples of diagnosable learning disabilities include, but are not limited to: 

  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyspraxia/Developmental Coordination Disorder
  • ADHD 

Children with specific learning disabilities (SLD) are eligible for special education services or accommodations at school under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA)

and an anti-discrimination law known as Section 504. The U.S. Department of Education issued a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter providing clarification to both parents and practitioners about ensuring a high-quality education for children with specific learning disabilities, including children with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia.

How Learning Disorders are different

But wait, didn’t we just say a disability is a disorder? So, what is a disorder then? Simply put, having a learning disorder means a child has difficulty in one or more areas of learning, even when overall intelligence or motivation is not affected. Some learning challenges are defined as a disorder by clinicians because the term can be used more broadly to describe anything that creates excessive persistent and severe (well beyond age and gender) symptoms that lead to harm, impairment and, as a result, suffering. Thus, all learning disabilities are disorders, but not all disorders are qualified as a medical diagnosis.

Ok, so what is a Learning Dysfunction?

Dysfunction is traditionally used to describe one’s lack of executive functioning abilities and is not commonly used to describe learning disabilities. Executive functioning—the cognitive skills such as working memory, emotional control and cognitive flexibility—is the precursor to all other learning pathways. If you are unable to cognitively function effectively and efficiently, then your daily operations and happenings can become chaotic and impact your ability to learn and function fully. 

These are all Learning Differences 

Diversity and variety is what makes life worth living. Every single brain is different and requires different strategies and care to fully thrive. At Learnfully, we utilize the term “differences” to explain the normality of variability among us. Neurodivergent and neurotypical brains all learn differently and these differences contribute to the greater good. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. Learning differences take into account individual learning motivators; learner aspirations, interests, experience and cultural background; and individual students’ strengths and needs.

“I think the concept of Neurodiversity has been world-changing, by giving us a new perspective on humanity.” – Sociologist and author Judy Singer 

Can you believe it’s already October? 

That means that the days are getting cooler and shorter. There is seemingly a pumpkin spice flavor for just about everything. And parents and kids have settled into their new school year routines. 

October also means that it is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month. As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about the month, “This is a time to understand how these disabilities impact students and their families, to reflect on the significant achievements that these students have made, and to renew our commitment to creating a stronger future for them.”

At Learnfully, we take it a step further: we believe this month is a time to recognize and celebrate our differences. We recently launched the LDA Toolkit page to help our community share a message of awareness, empathy, and understanding for all of our learners in need.

In the last few Octobers, though, it’s been hard to feel celebratory. In 2020, we were in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, gearing up for our first Covid winter. In 2021, we were still dealing with surges in variants and a cobbling together of remote and in-person learning. People with learning disabilities, who are generally more reliant on the rhythms of routine, were impacted more than others by the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

In the same breath, there were some silver linings. We became a more aware society. Mental health was no longer a taboo subject. People became more open about their vulnerabilities – including how they work best, learn best, process information, and function. Companies became more accommodating to the different needs of their employees. Parents who saw their children everyday in the virtual classroom, gained a greater understanding of their needs, how they learn, and how they interact with their teachers and classmates. These insights made us better parents, but also quicker to act when issues arise. We learned first-hand about the value of collaboration between parents and teachers—and now come informed about our child’s needs.

Now, we’re emerging on the other side of the pandemic. Children have returned to the classroom, even as hybrid and remote work remains prominent – which means parents are more present in their learners’ daily lives. For all these reasons, this October feels different from recent years. It feels like there is finally a twinkle of light at the end of the tunnel—finally an October worth celebrating.

The idea of designating a specific month as an “awareness month” implies that the wider public is generally unaware of a certain condition or issue. That the public is unaware of a problem.

But as we kickoff October and Learning Disability Awareness Month, the Learnfully team has a different perspective. We’re not trying to raise awareness of something negative, but rather call attention to something we see as a positive. We see this October a celebration: a celebration of diversity and of differences.

We believe all of us learn differently. But what is most important is that we are all able to learn fully.