Strategies for Managing Executive Functioning Challenges for Adults

How partners, employers, and loved ones can support people with executive functioning difficulties

Executive functions

Neurodivergent folks struggle with executive functions (EF). There are roughly five categories of EFs, and each person will struggle in different areas.

In this article, I will provide concrete examples of how each EF might look at home or at work, as well as strategies for supporting ourselves and our loved ones in these areas.

Please note: These strategies are intended as supports or accommodations that employers, partners, or loved ones can make in order to make room for different ways of doing and being.

Accepting and appreciating differences will allow neurodivergent strengths and unique abilities to shine, rather than expecting neurodivergent people to force themselves to do things the neurotypical way.

Image created by author

The five executive functioning categories are as follows:

  1. Cognitive flexibility
  2. Organization
  3. Working memory
  4. Inhibition
  5. Emotional regulation

Cognitive Rigidity

Cognitive flexibility — the opposite of rigidity — describes one’s ability to adapt to change. People with executive functioning difficulties often struggle with this.

What this looks like at home or at work:

  • Inflexible cognitive style, difficulty adjusting and adapting to change.
  • Difficulty with transitions, especially when switching from a preferred activity to a less-favoured activity.
  • Becoming anxious or upset with unexpected changes in routine.
  • Black-and-white thinking, rigid with rules or expectations.

Story time

I remember this impacting me as a newly-graduated youth worker at my first job in residential care (group home). Cognitive rigidity impacts me every day, I’m sure, but this memory stands out.

I had recently signed a full-time contract with an agency that ran two group homes. Just as I was finally getting acquainted with the youth, my co-workers, and the program itself, I was told I was moving to the other house.

The other house was nearly the exact same distance from my apartment, and was actually a nicer house to work in — however, I had already wrapped my brain around working at the first house and had a really hard time adapting and changing course.

So much so, I was already asking to be moved back to the first house before I even got used to the second one, simply based on the fact that was where I was “supposed” to be working.

Turns out that was a mistake and I definitely should have stayed at the second place, but my cognitive rigidity would not allow me to consider the possible benefits of the move, only the “injustice” of being uprooted and having to adjust to somewhere new.


Strategies to help

  • Provide as much advance warning as possible before changes and transitions —visual schedules, calendars, or setting timers and reminders on devices may help.
  • Don’t dismiss, minimize, or invalidate someone’s experience just because you don’t understand it.
  • Respond with empathy and patience when a change in routine is upsetting.
  • Be as consistent as possible to help keep things predictable.
  • Pick your battles! If someone is used to something being a particular way, or had their mind set on something, and it’s reasonable to accommodate, there’s no harm in doing so.
Image created by author

Lead by example

While it’s important for us to develop and improve our mental flexibility, we cannot force it upon ourselves or anyone else — trying to do so is, in fact, quite the opposite of being flexible.

In order for someone to learn flexibility, we must first be flexible for them. Meet them where they are, and then work together to compromise and work out strategies which best meet everyone’s needs.

If we’re inflexible and unwilling to compromise when it’s reasonable to do so, it’s unfair to expect our partners or loved ones to be the only ones making efforts to accommodate the needs of others.

The flip side

Cognitive rigidity isn’t all bad, it can also be a cognitive strength. The ability to hyperfocus, or dive deep into a subject or project, can be highly productive and enjoyable.


Organization

People with executive functioning difficulties may struggle with organizing tasks and materials, estimating time, prioritizing tasks, and getting started on work-like tasks.

What this looks like at home or at work:

  • Messy room or office with books, paperwork, clothes, etc. in disorganized piles or on the floor.
  • Often uses something, then leaves it where it was and forgets to put it away.
  • Forgets to put things back where they belong, then can’t find them later.
  • Difficulties with planning things out.
  • Difficulty getting started on a big project that feels overwhelming.
  • Easily loses track of time.
  • Has difficulty estimating how long something will take to complete — often underestimates how long something will take, and then ends up rushed to get ready on time.
  • Often rushing to get to work or appointments on time, or frequently late.

Strategies to help

  • Use visual reminders and visual schedules to help with structure and predictability.
  • Have a family calendar and daily routines posted somewhere visible where everyone can see and refer to them.
  • Provide a visual reference (such as a photo) as a reminder of what something can or will look like when it’s organized and tidy.
  • Schedule in time for organizing and tidying. Keeping on top of it is the best way because messes can become overwhelming quickly.
  • Employers can provide organization tools at the office.
  • Try to make boring or unpleasant tasks as fun as possible. For example, listen to up-beat music while doing the dishes or cleaning your room.
  • Use timers, wall clocks, or digital clocks to help keep track of passing time.
  • If you frequently underestimate how long a particular routine or task takes, it may help to actually time yourself going at your usual pace, so you have actual data demonstrating how long it really takes.
  • If feasible, smart speakers or similar technology can help with scheduled reminders and routines.
  • Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable steps — it doesn’t all have to be completed at once, and it’s okay to take breaks along the way — checklists can help.
Image created by author

Working Memory

Working memory allows us to hold information in mind while mentally working with it. People who struggle with short-term memory may seem to lack comprehension, but it is usually more a matter of difficulty showing what we know.

What this looks like at home or at work:

  • Remembers complex concepts and understands big-picture ideas, but has difficulty remembering minute details or specific bits of information.
  • Gets side-tracked easily when following multi-step directions, often forgets what the next step was and has to ask for instructions to be repeated.
  • Gets distracted easily and forgets what they were supposed to be doing.

When I’m cooking I have to set timers or I will definitely burn something. I get impatient waiting for food to be ready, so I start doing something else while I’m waiting. I become engrossed in whatever I’m doing and completely forget I was in the middle of cooking a meal!

Strategies to help

  • Provide notes, visual aids, and visual reminders — use timers where helpful.
  • Break complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.
  • Practice repeating out loud, or quietly to yourself, when you have to remember something important.
Image created by author

Impulsivity

Impulsivity, or disinhibition, can be one of the more difficult executive functioning challenges. It’s very important to remember that impulsivity is not a choice someone is making, our impulsive behaviour results from our neurological differences.

What this looks like at home or at work:

  • Speaking louder than necessary, not being aware of one’s volume or tone of voice, or frequently interrupting others.
  • Difficulty waiting, impatient.
  • As soon as they have an assignment, they want to rush off and get started — they are eager to complete their projects and do them well, but have a hard time slowing down and assessing before diving in.
  • May make jokes at inappropriate times, or blurt something out without considering the company they’re in (i.e. “reading the room”).
  • Gets carried away and does or says things they later regret.
  • May struggle with emotional impulsivity — big, intense feelings that seem to arise very suddenly, and seem like an overreaction to the situation.
  • Acts without thinking, then can’t explain the reasoning for their behaviour (because there was none — hence the term impulsivity).

Impulsive behaviour is defined as:

behaviour characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences of an action, particularly one that involves taking risks.” 

— American Psychological Association

Impulsivity is a struggle with self-control. It stems from complex neurological differences in development, particularly in the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for self-management.

Impulse control is not simply about “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, it’s a matter of developmental maturity. There are well-documented neurological differences in divergent brains like ours.

Strategies to help

  • Patience. Understand the person is struggling, not behaving impulsively on purpose. While, as adults, we are responsible for our behaviour and its impact on others, we are not responsible for our neurological wiring.
  • They likely already recognize they are different and aren’t able to regulate themselves as well as others, so berating them won’t help —I can promise you, we already feel badly about this.
  • Create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance at home or in the workplace. Their skills will improve when they feel supported enough to practice them and it’s safe to make mistakes.
  • Feeling anxious will only increase the likelihood of impulsive behaviour. We make more mistakes when we feel self-conscious, worried, or scared about what others think of us.
Created by author

The flip side

Impulsivity isn’t all bad — in fact, neurodivergent traits are neither good nor bad, they’re simply different from the majority. Impulsivity can lead to spontaneity, creativity, and bold decision-making.


Emotional Regulation

Emotion regulation encompasses the following abilities:

  • Inhibiting unhelpful behaviour affiliated with strong emotion.
  • Self-soothing physiological arousal induced by strong affect.
  • Refocusing attention away from the triggering event.
  • Organizing for coordinated action and service for an external goal.

Many people with executive functioning difficulties will struggle with emotional self-regulation.

What this looks like at home or at work:

  • Experiences big and intense feelings.
  • Seems to “overreact” to things.
  • May seem to go from calm to explosive very quickly.
  • Tends to lack self-awareness about what caused their dysregulation, and with the physical sensations in their body associated with their emotions.
  • May become overwhelmed easily.
  • Seems to take a long time to calm down after becoming upset.

Strategies to help:

  • Focus on fostering an open, supportive, and non-judgemental relationship.
  • It takes time and practice to learn what strategies and supports work best, including what helps us calm down when we’re upset.
  • Learn to notice and identify the physical sensations (called interoception) you experience when you are beginning to feel dysregulated.
  • Create a quiet, private area of your home where anyone can go to decompress if they begin to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or in need of a quiet moment to self-regulate.
  • Employers can offer a quiet room in the office where people can go for their breaks if they find the lunchroom too loud or busy.
  • Allow employees to take shorter, more frequent breaks if this helps their productivity.
  • Don’t micro-manage employees. If they are doing their job well, they may have figured out a system that works well for them.

Co-regulation

  • Co-regulation happens when we remain calm, validate another person’s experiences and feelings, and offer a comforting presence.
  • When we co-regulate with our loved ones, we show them we will continue to care for and support them, even when they are not at their best.

Overall executive functions

A very important way adults can help us improve our overall executive functioning is something you may not expect: PLAY.

The importance of play

The more time we spend participating in less-structured activities, the better our executive functioning.

The most consistent positive findings, and most commonly measured outcomes associated with physical activity, have been with executive functions, particularly inhibition and working memory.

Outdoor play is particularly beneficial in developing and improving our executive functioning.


Play for adults

  • Sports
  • Sex
  • Going for a hike or walk
  • Escape rooms
  • Adult “arcades” with a multitude of activities designed for older teens and adults
  • Board and card games
  • Backyard games like badminton, soccer, croquet, tennis, lawn darts, bocci ball, playing catch, etc.
  • Camping
  • Anything you find fun!

Neurology is not a choice

None of these difficulties are simply “mind over matter”, nor having better self-discipline, they’re all a matter of developmental maturity. None of us can just “try harder” to not be Autistic, ADHD, or have a learning disability; we can’t will away our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

We cannot overcome our symptoms or neurological differences through increased effort.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB


Related Stories

How Executive Dysfunction Impacts Daily Life

Stop Micro-Managing Students And Employees

Simple Yet Effective Ways To Get Sh!t Done


Little self-promotion

If you’re interested in learning more about executive functions (EFs) and additional tips and tools for managing EF challenges, I am hosting a live webinar on Wednesday, January 25, 2023.

When you join medium, as a member you’ll have access to unlimited reads for only $5 per month. If you use my referral link, I’ll earn a small commission, and you’ll earn my undying gratitude.

If you’d prefer give a one-time tip, you can support my writing on Ko-Fi — also, it’s free to follow me on Facebook!


References

Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson L., Provan L. S., Snyder H. R., Munakata Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/.2014.00593

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135–168. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011–143750

Hinshaw, S. P. (2003). Impulsivity, emotion regulation, and developmental psychopathology: Specificity versus generality of linkages. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1008(1), 149–159. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1301.016

Howie, E. K., Pate, R. (2012). Physical activity and academic achievement in children: A historical perspective. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 1(3), 160–169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2012.09.003

Luvmour, J., & Luvmour, B. (2019). Relationship Based Education: Relationships and partnerships in educational environments.

Nigg, J. (2017). Getting ahead of ADHD: What next-generation science says about treatments that work— and how you can make them work for your child. The Guilford Press.

Rosiek, M.A., Etnier, J.L., Willoughby, M.T. (2022). A Comparison of the Effects of Outdoor Physical Activity and Indoor Classroom-Based Activities on Measures of Executive Function in Preschoolers. IJEC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13158-022-00318-x

Sahlberg, P., & Doyle, W. (2019). Let the Children Play: how more play will save our schools and help children thrive. Oxford Press.

Veraksa, A., Bukhalenkova, D., Smirnova, E. (2020). The Relationship between Different Components of Role Play and Executive Function Development at Preschool Age. International Research in Early Childhood Education, 10(2), 16–29. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1313300

White, R. E. (2013). The Power of Play: A research summary on play and learning. The Minnesota Children’s Museum. https://hands-on-international.net/wp-content/uploads/MCMResearchSummary.pdf

Whitebread, D., Neale, D., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Solis, L.,Hopkins, E., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. (2017). The role of play in children’s development: a review of the evidence. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.18500.73606

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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