Executive Functioning Problems

Executive Function Disorder is an unofficial diagnosis that is widely used by psychologists and psychiatrists. It is characterized by behaviors such as poor task completion, problems in following directions, difficulties with Organization and Planning skills, and problems effectively setting goals and completing them. This “diagnosis” is often used when a child does not meet the clinical criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a specific learning disability, or a developmental disorder, but struggles with performing far below expectations in classroom and home settings.

Signs of Executive Functioning problems may include:

  • Difficulty completing work in a timely fashion, going slower than would be expected based upon intelligence.
  • Difficulty in producing written assignments even when expectations are well-understood.
  • Disorganization of academic and personal materials.
  • Difficulties in following even simple and routine home and classroom directions.
  • Forgetful about writing down, completing, or returning homework, even when clearly well-intentioned.

Executive Function Disorder and Alternative Learners

Many children who do not have symptoms severe enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Learning Disability, or Developmental Disorder may experience a variety of executive functioning difficulties. These problems significantly impact their performance in school, in social relationships and activities, and in completing age-appropriate tasks at home. Understanding that these problems are brain-based difficulties, facilitates making helpful accommodations in areas such as memory, processing of information, and organization. A variety of electronic gadgets and digital tools can be extremely helpful just in reducing the impact of Executive Function Disorder in children.

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Why are video games and other digital media helpful for children with executive functioning difficulties?

Children with executive functioning difficulties are often highly engaged by video games and other digital media, and tend to display less of the problems they experience in “real life” while involved with these technologies. More importantly, the deliberate use of video games and other digital media offers many ways to improve and exercise the executive functions that may be impaired in such a child. The following chart demonstrates how and why these technologies can be powerful tools for helping kids with executive functioning difficulties.

Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties: Video Games and Digital Media
May have difficulty setting goals or starting and completing tasks on their own. Many of the best video games involve goal setting and give hints on how to achieve goals. If not in the game, parents and peers can model how to work towards “beating” the game.
Tend to be forgetful, even with something they have learned or a task they have performed before. Puzzle and platform games often require repeated use of Working Memory skills.
Often experience a sense of disappointment from parents and teachers who are upset and confused about their inconsistencies. Many action video games encourage repetition without frustration through a lack of punishment for repeated failures and regular and immediate rewards for improvement.
Are frequently characterized as struggling with self management skills such as Focus, Organization, and Planning. Many digital tools such as productivity apps, smart phones, and social networks either support or practice crucial self management skills.

What Thinking Skills are impaired in children with executive functioning difficulties?

By definition, an Executive Functioning Disorder may impact any or all of the 8 Thinking Skills that we use at LearningWorks for Kids for describing executive functioning. Rather than a specific impairment in academic subjects, learning, or mood, Thinking Skills impairments in children with executive functioning problems revolve around self-management, goal setting, and problem solving.

  • FocusChildren with executive functioning difficulties have problems in getting started and  sustaining their attention and effort to a variety of tasks.
  • Working Memory: Difficulty in Working Memory impairs the capacity to follow directions and learn new activities both at home and school.
  • Self-Control: Difficulties in regulating feelings and behavior are often present. Moodiness, impulsivity, and unpredictable behavior are observed.
  • Time Management: Children may have difficulty managing their lives at age appropriate levels. Time management difficulties can manifest themselves as the 10-year-old who is unable to get ready for school in the morning independently, or as the teen who cannot manage more than two competing activities.
  • Planning: Children may experience difficulties in completing step-by-step procedures and may often struggle in setting any type of future goals.
  • Organization: Children may have problems with keeping track of their material and may frequently will lose things necessary at home or at school.
  • Self-Awareness: Children may have difficulty understanding the feelings and experiences of others and struggle to express themselves effectively.
  • FlexibilityChildren may have difficulty adapting to new situations. These children struggle to learn from their mistakes.

How can video games and other digital media improve Academic Skills for children with executive functioning difficulties?

First, it is important to understand the powerful relationship between strong executive functioning skills and academic performance. The research data overwhelming indicates that early training in executive functioning skills leads to far greater academic success than simple training in Academic Skills.

Video games and other digital media provide a multitude of opportunities for developing and practicing executive skills such as Planning, Working Memory, and Flexibility.  In addition, many types of digital media including personal organizers, productivity apps, and time management tools can support areas of executive functioning in which an individual is weak.

Here are a few strategies where video games and other digital media can support the executive skills that underlie academic success:

  • The use of Internet-based graphic organizers can be very useful for students who have problems organizing their writing.
  • Playing memory intensive video games and other brain training games have been demonstrated to improve Working Memory skills crucial for reading comprehension, completing math word problems, and note-taking.
  • Digital media tools such as blogs and video editing require planning and organization skills that are crucial for any type of academic presentation.

What are the potential problems associated with using video games and other digital media for children with executive functioning difficulties?

While video games and other digital media can be extremely helpful in improving children’s executive functions, there are a number of concerns about using these tools due to the inherent self-management difficulties that these children display.

As a result, we encourage parents to be very judicious about and to monitor the use of digital media for children who have executive functioning difficulties. Consult the table below to see what you should watch out for, and how you can go about avoiding these problems.

Cautions Solutions
These children may tend to be less emotionally mature, and they may respond differently to mature content than other children. Closely monitor the appropriateness of particular video games and technologies for children with executive functioning difficulties. Try playing some of the games your child plays and discussing any mature content.
Kids with executive functioning difficulties may have trouble making good decisions and exercising mature judgement online. Parents are encouraged to have an ongoing and open discussion about Internet safety and to monitor their children’s Internet use.
They may struggle to keep track of the amount of time they spend with digital media and may lose sight of other important goals such as completing school work. Teach goal setting and prioritization so that school, family, and other obligations come before digital media. Because these children struggle to set goals effectively, this may need to be done in conjunction with them.


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What are the non-digital treatments for children with executive functioning difficulties?

Treating executive functioning difficulties requires more than just the digital strategies that we can teach you. A number of traditional strategies work very well in conjunction with the methods described here at LearningWorks for Kids. Common interventions for children with executive functioning difficulties include behavioral, strategic, educational, and life-skill approaches. These include:

  • Strategies and techniques for learning such as previewing, modeling, and scaffolding.
  • Individual Education Plans (IEPs), 504 plans, and Response to Intervention plans (RTI) in the classroom.
  • Tutoring for specific academic concerns or study skills.

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