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What Is Executive Dysfunction?

Posted by Christine Sarikas | Dec 29, 2020 2:00:00 PM

General Education



Have you come across the terms "executive function" and "executive dysfunction" and are wondering if they describe the struggles you or a person close to you are facing? Executive dysfunction is a common issue (in fact, everyone struggles with it at some time or another), but it can be particularly severe in some people. However, the term itself is vague, and it can be difficult for people looking for more information to understand what executive dysfunction really means and how it can be treated. This guide will explain everything you need to know about executive dysfunction, including:

  • Executive dysfunction and executive function definitions
  • Symptoms of executive dysfunction
  • Causes of executive dysfunction
  • Treatment for executive dysfunction 


What Is Executive Function, and What Is Executive Dysfunction?

What is executive function? Your brain uses executive functioning to get tasks done. Executive functioning helps you manage your time, focus on the issue at hand, remember past information, stay organized, multitask, and more. Executive function skills begin developing around two years of age and are considered fully developed around age 30. Cell gives an executive function definition as, "an umbrella term for functions such as planning, working memory, impulse control, inhibition and mental flexibility, as well as for the initiation and monitoring of action."

There are seven executive functions of the brain:

  • Adaptable Thinking: Ability to problem solve and adapt to new situations
  • Planning: Prioritizing and being able to prepare for the future
  • Organization: Ability to arrange thoughts or materials in an orderly fashion
  • Self-Control: Ability to regulate emotions and refrain from emotional outbursts
  • Self-Monitoring: Ability to judge how well you'd perform a specific task and how long it would take
  • Time Management: Ability to complete tasks on time and create a schedule
  • Working Memory: Ability to retain information

Executive dysfunction (also called executive function disorder), on the other hand, is when people have difficulty performing executive functions. The Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development defines executive dysfunction as, "the problems that stem from impairment to cognitive processes located in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, known as executive functions. Impairment to this area may result in difficulties in advanced cognitive and behavioral abilities."

It's important to note that executive dysfunction is not an official medical diagnosis, and there is no set of symptoms that defines a person as having executive dysfunction. This means that the definition can be somewhat vague and can refer to both minor or severe symptoms. Also, everyone has executive dysfunction symptoms sometimes (such as when you decide to hit "snooze" on your alarm in the morning or watch YouTube videos when you know you should be sleeping). Therefore, the goal is not to have perfect executive function. Instead, the term "executive dysfunction" is typically applied when the issues become severe enough to affect the person's quality of life. If that's the case, the executive dysfunction issues will often lead to an actual diagnosis, such as ADHD.


What Are the Symptoms of Executive Dysfunction?

People who have executive dysfunction might struggle with time management, organization, remaining focused, and remembering information, particularly small details. Common signs of executive dysfunction include:

  • Trouble recalling information (such as what you meant to buy at a store)
  • Difficulty keeping room/office neat and organized
  • Struggling to maintain focus at school or work
  • Struggling to switch focus from one task to another
  • Forgetting to bring home important school or work materials
  • Difficulty planning complicated projects
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Forgetting what they just heard or read
  • Fixating on certain ideas
  • Resistance to last-minute change of plans
  • Frequently doing "fun" activities instead of work that needs to be completed
  • Losing items
  • Difficulty keeping emotions under control, especially when frustrated




What Can Cause Executive Function Problems?

It can often be difficult to determine the cause behind executive dysfunction because so many processes in the brain are responsible for executive functioning. However, sometimes a cause can be pinpointed, often one of the following reasons: 


Traumatic Brain Injury

A brain injury, especially one to the frontal lobes, can cause executive dysfunction in someone who previously had no executive functioning problems. This is most common in children and teenagers, since their brains are still developing and more prone to changes, but if the injury is severe enough, it can also cause executive dysfunction in adults.


Mental Disorder

The symptoms of executive dysfunction are very similar to those of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and many children with executive dysfunction are diagnosed with ADHD. Those with schizophrenia also often have executive dysfunction. How they are related is not fully understood, however, and people who have executive dysfunction should be automatically assumed to also have a mental disorder.



The link between genetics and executive dysfunction is still somewhat unclear, but studies have shown that people who suffer from executive dysfunction are more likely to have a parent with the same problem compared to those who don't have executive dysfunction.


Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder that typically affects older adults, often causes executive dysfunction problems due to basal ganglia damage and abnormal function of the globus pallidus in the brain as a result of the disease.


Sleep Deprivation

Even just a lack of a few hours of sleep can cause temporary executive dysfunction. Someone who didn't sleep well the night before might struggle to remain focused and keep their emotions in check. This is usually resolved when the sleep deficit is made up. Chronic sleep deprivation, especially in children, can create longer-term executive dysfunction issues as chronic sleep disruption has been shown to affect long-term ability to focus, manage emotions, and recall details.


How to Cope With Executive Dysfunction

Because executive dysfunction is not an official condition, there is no official test to take in order to be diagnosed. Instead, the person might be diagnosed with a different condition or not receive any official diagnosis at all. However, that doesn't mean executive dysfunction can't or shouldn't be treated. In fact, there are multiple treatments for executive dysfunction, and they can often be very effective.

If you believe you or a member of your family has executive dysfunction issues, your first step should be to set up an appointment with a medical professional. This will likely their primary care physician or pediatrician, if the person in question is a child. You might then be referred to a psychologist, neurologist, or a different specialist, who may conduct tests in different areas, such as organization, emotional control, motivation, and self-restraint. If it is determined that the executive dysfunction problems are severe enough to warrant treatment, they'll create a long-term treatment plan. The treatment plant might include cognitive behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy, exercise and/or physical therapy, and tutoring, among other things. If an official diagnosis is made, the patient may be started on medication. If the patient has a diagnosis and is a child, they may be able to receive an IEP and additional accommodations at school.

There are also simple steps you can take at home to help someone manage executive dysfunction:

  • Create and stick to a daily routine.
  • Use a calendar to keep track of important dates and encourage them to look at it daily.
  • Give advance warning when plans change.
  • Allow for frequent breaks.
  • Practice and promote time management skills.
  • Help break down large tasks into smaller steps.
  • Encourage them to verbally express their feelings when they feel frustrated.
  • Write out instructions so they can be referred back to.
  • Write the due date on top of each assignment.
  • Give positive reinforcement.

None of these executive function disorder strategies is a quick fix; improving executive function is a long-term process, and for many people, it'll last for the rest of their lives. However, with regular effort, great progress can be made, and many people who suffer from executive dysfunction go on to live independent, fulfilling lives.




Summary: What Is Executive Function? What Is Executive Dysfunction?

What is executive dysfunction, and what is executive dysfunction? A common executive function definition is that it's the term for the processes that help you get things done. Executive functions of the brain help you stay organized, manage your time, recall details, regulate your emotions, and control impulses. People who suffer from executive dysfunction struggle with one or more of the executive functions. Executive dysfunction isn't an official disorder, so there is no executive dysfunction test to take or diagnosis to receive. Rather, someone who struggles with executive dysfunction will be evaluated by medical professionals and may receive a different diagnosis, such as for ADHD. Executive dysfunction can have many causes, and sometimes the cause can be unclear. Treatment is available, and it's most effective the earlier it begins and the longer the patient sticks with it.


What's Next?

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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