Executive Functions & ADHD

The executive functions are like the management system of the brain and include such things as self control, working memory, planning and organising.

It’s role is like the conductor in an orchestra. The conductor, keeps the timing, tells each musician when and how to play, having some rise loud, others to stop.

Although each member of the orchestra is highly skilled, without the guidance of the conductor they are not able to work together to create beautiful and complex symphonies.

There are 3 core executive functions

Inhibitory Control – the ability to control our attention, behaviour, thoughts and emotions.

Working Memory – the ability to holding information in your mind and work with it. This includes verbal and non-verbal working memory.

Cognitive Flexibility – the ability to be flexible enough to adjust to changed demand or priorities.

sNo one is born with executive functioning skills, they develop over time as the brain develops.

This is why teenagers are still prone to make impulsive and illplanned choices…


When we look at the list of executive functions we can quite easily see the symptoms of ADHD and the areas that are often challenging.

The executive functions communicate with neurotransmitters

Dopamine is one of the primary neurotransmitters that the executive functions need to operate.

The chemical messenger is released into the synapse and received by the receptors.  Any unused neurotransmitters are then taken up by the reuptake transporter to be used by the brain at another time.

It was initially thought that ADHD was caused by low-level dopamine. However, further studies have shown that the ADHD brain has an excessively efficient dopamine removal system.  


This is why stimulant medication is the first line treatment for ADHD. The medication slows down the reuptake transporters and allows the neurotransmitters to remain in the synapse longer.

The neurotransmitters then have a greater chance of being received by the receptor.

There are also other neurotransmitters involved with ADHD. Noradrenaline and Serotonin are often at a lower than optimal levels.
Non-stimulant medication targets Noradrenaline.
SSRi slow the reuptake of Serotonin
SNRi slow the reuptake of Serotonin and Noradrenaline

So in summary when thinking about ADHD we are essentially talking about weak  executive function.

 In children there is about a 30% lag in development of executive functions (2-3 years)

So an 8 year old executive functions are running at about a 5 year old level. For parents, it can be beneficial to consider this when thinking about the expectations they have for their child.   With the parents I have worked with as a Parent Coach, this understanding has been helpful. It can allow them to recognise they may need to provide more scaffolding or support. It also helps to ‘normalise’ their child’s development. This can then ease frustration and concern when their child is not able to complete tasks that others of their age seem to manage.

The Adult ADHD Brain may only get to 70-80% executive function capacity.

Contrary to some outdated and uneducated beliefs, ADHD is a lifelong neurological condition. Many factors can impact the level of functionality achieved by brain at maturity including the severity the of ADHD itself.

ADHD presents differently in each person and therefore the executive functions are also impacted in different ways and at different levels.

Stress and poor sleep greatly impacts the executive functions, this is the case for all brains. It has a more profound impact on those with ADHD that already have challenges in this area.  External life pressures, health, comorbid conditions and general support all play a factor in how ADHD impacts the adult with ADHD.

While I noted that medication is the first-line treatment for ADHD a holistic approach is also needed. Understanding ADHD and how it presents for the individual is imperative for then putting in place systems, strategies, routines and support. Reducing the body’s stress both externally and internally is a priority including good sleep hygiene and in many cases sleep support medication.

As a ADHD Coach my role is to work with clients to work with their executive function challenges. ADHD is the explanation then the next step is to work out systems and strategies to move forward.

"Getting an ADHD Diagnosis for my daughter and adjusting our parenting style has been life-changing for my family. It has been amazing how a few changes made such a difference to calmness and happiness of our whole family."

Hi, my name is Rachel, ADHD Coach & Parent Coach and creator of the visual routine system Mission Magnets.

I created my very first set of routine magnets as a way to stop MY morning routine of nagging and yelling at my children. It was also after my youngest daughter's ADHD diagnosis when another world was opened to me and I finally realized why despite all my efforts parenting had seemed so challenging.

This led me on journey of researching child behavior, psychology and brain development with a special interest in ADHD and Emotional Regulation.

With a passion for learning and a desire to help other parents not to feel like they were failing. I went on to became a Positive Discipline Parent Educator with an additional accreditation in ‘Keeping the Joy in Relationships”.

Then continued my training to become a Life Coach. I have completed ICF (International Coaching Federation) approved training and submissions to the board and are waiting on the review process to obtain my ACC credential.

Recognising that the people I mainly support are impacted by ADHD and with my existing knowledge base and experience regarding ADHD.  I decided to specialise in this area and became an ADHD Coach. I am currenting training with Dr. Alan R Graham, PhD at Mentor Coach, USA on a pathway to be certified by the PAAC (Professional Association of ADHD Coaches).

While my journey began working with parents I have found I am currently working with Adults that have ADHD prodominently.