Most kids have trouble self-motivating from time to time, and many also have trouble finishing tasks that they start. However, sometimes what looks like “laziness” or reluctance to work may actually be a problem called executive dysfunction.
According to the National Institutes of Health, executive functions are “a family of top-down mental processes needed when you have to concentrate and pay attention.” Executive dysfunction results from problems in the frontal lobe of the brain, which is the part that governs planning, initiating, and completing tasks.
When the frontal lobe functions atypically, resulting in issues with self-control, mental flexibility, working memory, or any combination of those three, that is called executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction can exist by itself, be part of a greater system of neurological differences such as ADHD or autism, or be a symptom of mental illnesses like depression or anxiety.
How do you know if your child is having problems with executive function? For starters, kids with executive function issues may have difficulty connecting instruction and action, even outside of school. This can result in unintentional disobedience. A child with executive functioning issues who is told not to touch a hot plate cannot make the connection between the words “Don’t touch that” and the physical action of touching the plate.
People of all ages with executive functioning problems may have trouble self-motivating, even to do fun activities with family or friends. They may be unable to complete self-care tasks like brushing teeth, showering, or keeping their space clean without someone nagging them, even long after their peers are able to do these things unprompted. Poor executive function can result in memory problems or frequently misplacing things. Moving from one task to another may be stressful for people with executive dysfunction, especially if they are given little warning.
If your child displays a combination of these symptoms, then they may have problems with executive function. It’s important to remember that executive dysfunction is the inability to plan, initiate, and follow through, not a lack of desire to do those things. Executive dysfunction is not your fault or your child’s fault, and a child with executive functioning problems is not bad or lazy. They simply need more support and different skills to help them complete tasks.
A psychologist, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), or psychiatrist who is trained to work with children will know how to teach your child the skills they need. Some ways to begin working on executive function with your child include making checklists, setting specific time limits, and exploring new learning strategies like using rhyme or movement. Checklists should break down tasks as much as possible--for example, getting dressed for the day could start with “get out of bed”, “choose shirt and pants”, “get out of pajamas”, et cetera.
Like all kids, children with executive functioning issues need lots of love and encouragement. Try to remember that your child is likely trying their best. Letting them know you appreciate their efforts can go a long way.