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Executive Functions and ADHDers’ School Performance

Why do people with ADHD often struggle with school? Inattention doesn’t help, and hyperactivity probably won’t do you any favors. But the potential impact of ADHD symptoms on school performance runs deeper than that.

A huge part of ADHD has to do with executive functions. These are about your brain’s ability to self-regulate, and your ability to manage your brain and tell it what to do.

BlackboardOne group of executive functions that was the subject of a recent study has to do with what can be called goal-directed executive functions – that is, executive functions that are relevant to setting and following through on goals.

These include a range of behaviors, such as initiating actions, inhibiting unwanted responses, planning ahead, and keeping relevant items in memory. When you think about it, there is quite a lot self-monitoring and self-maintenance that the brain potentially has to do to establish a goal and stay on track!

In a survey of 50 high school students, the authors of the study found that these “goal-directed executive functions” tend to be impaired in ADHD, and that they’re associated with lower school performance – which makes sense, of course, since school environments require a lot of goal-directed behavior. In other words, the high school students with ADHD tended to have deficits in these areas, and those deficits were reflected in the students’ GPAs.

I think it’s important to highlight that the effect ADHD symptoms have in educational settings is much broader than not being able to pay attention in class. There’s a whole range of behaviors having to do with self-regulation, and with how people process goals and rewards, that throw a wrench into ADHDers’ academic experience.

Given that, the researchers who did this study suggest that interventions targeting these executive functions might help students with ADHD. But it’s not entirely clearly right now what those interventions would be. In the meantime, those of us with ADHD, whether we’re in school or not, should be aware of how these deficits show up in our own lives – and how they make certain environments challenging for us and other environments better fits!

Image: Flickr/Camilla Rosa

Executive Functions and ADHDers’ School Performance

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Executive Functions and ADHDers’ School Performance. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Dec 2019
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