Updated: May 24
Although it is called attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it is not really a condition where one simply can’t pay attention or is overactive. Rather, the neurocognitive difficulties that impact an individual with ADHD can affect several different areas including:
Reasoning, problem solving, ability to use logical analysis
Controlling behavior/motor output
These skills are often collectively referred to as “Executive Functioning” and are the brain's ability to self regulate in order to complete goals over time.
Many people think that someone with ADHD has an overactive brain. They can’t focus, they’re hyper, easily distracted, and may seem “all over the place”. But actually, the opposite is true! With ADHD, the brain is actually underactive!
Studies show that in the frontal lobe, the brain is lacking certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that our brain cells use to communicate. This then leads the brain to be under active or sleepy, causing problems with being able to regulate well.
ADHD is a neurobiological brain difference. The structure of the brain is different, leading to differences in how the brain functions. It is not being lazy, not trying, or not caring!
When a person is doing something more stimulating, interesting, or motivating to them, the brain actually receives an influx of chemicals that then allows it to regulate better! This is why people can go on social media or watch Youtube for hours without distraction, but can’t sit still or focus through homework or a conference call! Or for adults, it is easier to focus on hobbies or hands-on activities than less preferred tasks (although no one really wants to do the dishes!).
If you imagined that the brain was a team, with all players working together, then the executive functioning skills are like the coach. With ADHD, it is almost as if the coach doesn’t consistently show up to practice! If the coach isn’t there, the team can still play, they can still win games, but they are less efficient. Players will be in the wrong spot, the right plays won’t be called, and the approach to the game is likely disorganized!
However, when the coach does come to practice (doing something interesting or stimulating), this team (the ADHD brain) might even be able to focus better or be more productive than anyone else! This is the superpower of the ADHD brain, the ability to hyper focus, think outside the box, solve problems, be creative, and work under pressure.
With this in mind, one way to support ADHD is to put the coach in the environment, rather than counting on the coach to show up for the brain! There are many strategies and techniques that can be used to support the executive functioning challenges that ADHD presents. Here are just a few of our favorites:
Use strengths and interests as motivation
Use the Premack principle: First this…then that
Take frequent, scheduled breaks. Fatigue is a big time waster
Set timers for tasks, such as switching laundry
Use a planner, calendar or schedule to keep track of activities, tasks, and deadlines
Create a daily routine and implement as much structure as possible
Use ONE list and check off things as they are complete (many people with ADHD make multiple lists and then don’t check them!)
Set up rewards to motivate yourself (once I finish cleaning my room, I’ll make an iced coffee)
For younger children, use picture schedules and check off tasks as completed (check out SchKIDules, visual schedules)
Do the task when you think of it (you don’t have to brush your teeth in the morning)
If you are stuck and can’t get started, start really small (I’ll just do one problem)
Break big tasks into small parts (instead of “clean your room,” say, “please put your stuffed animals in the toy box”)
When giving instructions, make sure the person is looking at you and you have their attention. Ask them to repeat back what was said
If someone is upset, given them time to cool off before talking about the problem
When facing a problem, make a list of all possible solutions, even silly ones. Then rank them and pick the best one
Recruit a friend or family member for support and accountability. Tell them what you are going to accomplish and ask them to check in with you throughout the task. Invite a friend over to watch TV while you fold laundry!
Set alarms to go off at regular intervals to remind you to get back on task
Exercise vigorously before beginning a task that requires a lot of focus
If you procrastinate, don’t beat yourself up. Know that you need the pressure of a deadline to get things done. Ask coworkers, teachers, or professors to hold interim deadlines for assignments so that you can complete the task in small parts to prevent overwhelm
When breaking a routine, like going to the store instead of home after work, put it in your GPS so you don’t forget, even if you know how to get there
There are lots of ways to support the brain’s executive functioning skills! Some of these may work for you or your child and some won’t, there is a lot of trial and error in figuring out strategies that are a good fit for your particular strengths and weaknesses!
Interested in more tips like these? Check out our Executive Skills Training Program!