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Executive functioning & ND

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is the set of processing skills that help us to plan and organise what we do across every day. One task can involve many parts such as planning, starting a task, keeping focus, finishing, and transitioning to new tasks. This all comes from our executive function skills. Our executive functioning skills significantly impact our learning skills, how we interact with others and how we regulate and control our thoughts.

This simple video below explains what executive functioning is.

Executive functioning & ND

Executive functioning skills often develop differently in neurodivergent children and young people. This can lead to highly focused, rule based thinking patterns as well as very creative, different ways of thinking. Challenges can be experienced in day-to-day planning, organisation, and regulating emotions, particularly in a world typically created for neurotypical brains. If these challenges are significant and consistent, the individual may then experience dysregulation and distress. These challenges are sometimes described as ‘executive dysfunction’.

Illustration of young person reading

Executive function differences can impact on both tasks we NEED to do, and tasks we WANT to do, e.g., hobbies, areas of interests. This further supports that these differences are not a choice, and even when someone really wants to complete a task in a certain way, this can be incredibly challenging at times.

More detail on what executive function is and why we need it is explained in this video. This video talks specifically about ADHD, but these executive functioning differences are often seen across neurodivergent children and young people as a whole.

(This video contains helpful information about executive function. However, we do not endorse any commercial advertising included in this video)

How executive functioning might look in neurodivergent children/young people

Spoon Theory

No matter how many strategies there are to support you, some days are just tricker than others. Getting things done can be really challenging when your executive functioning works differently to typical expectations. And that is OK.

Some people describe executive functioning as a ‘pool of resources’ which will inevitably run out and need refilling. For neurodivergent individuals, this pool may need refilling more often, as these skills can require more work.

The Spoon Theory can help explain this; each individual only has so many ‘spoons’ (metaphorically speaking) that they can use, until they run out and need refiling. Everyone will have a different amount of spoons, based on their individual strengths and needs. This will also vary day to day, depending on different environmental and internal factors.

Once you have run out of spoons or resources, you need time and rest to gain more resources and spoons back again before you can do anything else. Tasks which involve lots of executive functioning can take up a lot of your spoons!

This video explains the cutlery metaphor of the Spoon Theory:

Some strategies and support systems can help you use less spoons at times. However, these may not always be enough and it is important to be aware of your own limits and to self-advocate for downtime and regular rest.

Top Tip!

Using ‘energy level’ or ‘energy accounting’ resources can help to think about whether you/your child has any spoons or energy left. Sometimes a visual picture of an energy metre or battery can help us to understand how our energy levels fluctuate during the day. We can use this to help remind us when we might be out of spoons and need time away from demands, activities or socialising.

See an example resource from Twinkl here. Although this resource refers to autism specifically, this can help all neurodivergent individuals.

Used with the kind permission of Twinkl Educational Publishing. © Twinkl Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Find more lovely resources like these at

Executive function refers to a set of skills which are often used together. These require teaching and modelling, practice, and repetition to develop.
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Education Endowment Foundation

Executive function support strategies

Links and resources you might find useful

Activities to support executive function in the classroom

The ADHD Foundation Charity provide a range of recommendations to support with executive function challenges. This is a page particularly focused on activities to support executive function.

Go to ADHD Foundation website

Self-Regulation and Executive Function

The Education Endowment (EEF) Foundation charity support schools, nurseries and colleges to improve teaching and learning for 2-19 year olds through better use of evidence. They explain more about executive functioning and self regulation here.

Go to EEF website

How to ADHD

‘How to ADHD’ is a YouTube channel focusing on ADHD but there is also some helpful information about executive functioning that applies to all ND too.

Go to YouTube channel