A. Slow getting started on tasks
Children with ADHD often have difficulty initiating tasks and getting started on assignments. You might find them staring at a computer screen or a worksheet, unable to get started. While this may look like lapses in attention, children with ADHD often don’t know what their first step is. They may be thinking of all the steps together and feel overwhelmed. At home, this can also affect their ability to get started on chores or homework. Helping a child get started on the first step, will often lead to quicker completion times overall.
B. Difficulty with sequencing multi-step assignments
For a child with these difficulties, when asked to build a small city on poster board, they may see the first step as bringing down their Hot Wheel cars for the city. Children with difficulties related to ADHD often have trouble understanding how to properly sequence steps in the correct order. As a result, they may start in the middle of a task (e.g., building the city) and miss important first steps (e.g., writing down the steps, making a plan, listing needed materials.) These children will need explicit help with the sequential steps needed for activities for school or home.
A common question is how can individuals with ADHD be so focused on things of interest to them (e.g. video games) but lack focus for classwork or less engaging topics. The truth is, it’s easier for all of us to pay attention to our favorite TV show or movie, compared to an informational lecture on a topic we don’t care about. But for individuals with ADHD they can develop a hyper focus, in which they can focus exclusively on one activity and tune out all other activities. During this time, they are not easily distracted, don’t lose focus, and appear highly attentive. You will also notice they may struggle to transition away from that task and have emotional outbursts when required to transition away. These children need time to reduce their hyper-focus, to have a more successful transition away.
D. Spending way too much time on a task, then getting frustrated that the task takes too long
Children with ADHD can be inefficient problems solvers. In addition, they may end up completing tasks in a novel, less efficient way. This process can make the task more interesting to them and keep their focus. However, these strategies often result in the task taking longer than needed. Children who are struggling with ADHD can become overly frustrated with the length of these tasks, even though teachers and parents realize it didn’t have to take them that long. When children do this, they aren’t trying to be difficult. They are often trying to make it more interesting, in order to keep hold their attention, or they simply don’t know the most effective approach. Helping a child be more efficient in their approach can reduce frustration. Children also may need a break when they become frustrated, before returning with more guidance around an efficient process.
E. Becoming quickly frustrated and upset about seemingly minor events
We often think of impulse control problems as someone blurting out answers without raising their hand. But impulse control skills also stop our emotional responses before they become overwhelming. If you’ve ever become way too upset about forgetting to bring your coffee on your drive to work, you know what it’s like to let your emotions run wild. Individuals with ADHD have a hard time reigning in hurt feelings or disappointment before it becomes overwhelming. It may seem overly dramatic to us, or intentional, but anger management is an executive functioning skill. It will be important to rule out more clinical implications of these behaviors (e.g., anxiety or depression) before making a determination that executive functioning skills are impaired. However, understanding the link between executive control and emotional control will go a long way in helping us support our children.
The classic hyperactive and inattentive symptoms of ADHD are incomplete without a more holistic understanding of the way children can experience executive dysfunction. These are just some of the associated behaviors, but they are often overlooked when thinking about ADHD. Understanding how these behaviors are related, and not simply indicative of “acting out” or “misbehaving,” can help us create strong strategies when working with our children. This allows us to use our executive functioning, to plan the best approaches and help our children be successful in school and in life.