Executive Functioning Strategies for Children with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Executive functioning skills are instrumental in helping us stay organized, get things done, and regulate our emotions. These skills represent our brain’s central executive and are responsible for the management of our decisions, behaviors, and emotions, especially when we are planning and working toward achieving a specific goal. All children and adults with ADHD have weaknesses in at least some domains of executive functioning. For many parents and teachers, conceptualizing ADHD symptoms within an executive functioning framework can be helpful, especially for children with the predominantly inattentive presentation of ADHD. Dr. Thomas Brown, a leading expert on executive functioning skills and ADHD, breaks executive functions down into six separate, interconnected clusters: 

  1. Analyzing and Activating: Taking a big picture overview of the job that needs to be completed, organizing thoughts and materials, prioritizing tasks, and initiating work.
  2. Focus: Focusing attention on the project or task, staying focused, and shifting attention back to the task in the face of distractions.  
  3. Effort: Continuing to put in effort until the task is completed and working at a pace that isn’t too fast and careless or too slow and unproductive. 
  4. Emotion: Managing frustration when things get tough. 
  5. Memory: Remembering and recalling the steps and information that are needed to reach a goal and using “working memory” to make mental calculations along the way. 
  6. Action: Monitoring progress and adjusting actions and plans as needed until the goal is reached. 

Children with ADHD benefit from the use of tools and strategies that minimize the impact of executive functioning weaknesses and strengthen executive functioning skills over time. For a comprehensive overview of the most effective strategies and tools, check out Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, PhD. To get you started, here are three simple executive functioning tools you can start using with your child today: 

  • Checklists: Checklists are a remarkably simple yet effective tool for children and adults with weak executive functioning. They can be useful for breaking down the steps of routines and complex tasks, organizing and prioritizing thoughts and materials, and serving as reminders throughout the day. Checklists are most effective when children and parents review them together. For checklists that are used repeatedly, it’s best to post them somewhere in your home so you and your child can look them over every day.  
  • Timers: The use of timers, especially visual countdown timers like the Time Timer, can help children become more aware of the passage of time. They are also very useful for breaking down homework into smaller chunks and for boosting motivation and focus. If you’re using timers during homework time, choose an appropriate number of minutes (depending on your child’s age and ability) before taking a quick break. After that break, your child can jump back in for another timed stretch of work. You can also boost motivation and focus by establishing “beat the clock” challenges. For example, challenge your child to complete five math problems in five minutes (reminding them that accuracy counts), and congratulate them when they succeed.
  • Physical Activity: A growing body of research shows that physical activity improves executive functioning skills in children with and without ADHD. Getting the recommended amount of exercise every day boosts executive functioning skills, and when the exercise is completed outdoors, the impact is even more significant. In addition, studies have shown that when children with ADHD exercise immediately before completing schoolwork, they demonstrate improved focus, accuracy and motivation. Look for ways to incorporate more physical activity into your child’s daily routine, and whenever possible, have your child be physically active before they sit down to complete homework or school projects. 


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.