Understanding the Mental Skills Affected by ADD and ADHDIt can be tough having ADD/ ADHD, especially if you are a child.  ADD and ADHD are actually two names for the same condition.

This article discusses the types of mental abilities affected by ADHD, give examples of academic tasks that use these mental abilities, and provide examples of strategies to improve each of the skills.  If you know how your child’s mental abilities are affected by ADHD, you can predict what kind of tasks he will have difficulty with and provide support in those areas.

The key to understanding ADHD is realizing that the symptoms go far beyond “difficulty paying attention” and often affect many aspects of a person’s life.  Each person’s symptoms are different and each person is affected to a greater or lesser degree.  One thing is certain, however, ADHD affects learning, relationships, self-esteem and, ultimately, your child’s career.

What do kids with ADHD experience in school?

Students with ADHD can have a very hard time with academics.  They may have difficulty managing their thoughts, emotions, memory, motivation, and attention.  For example, they may find it very hard to listen and remember what the teacher says.  They may have trouble getting the ideas organized in their mind and understanding how all of the pieces fit together.  They may have trouble with sequences; young children may have trouble learning the alphabet, or the order of the months.

Executive Skills Are Affected by ADHD

Psychologists refer to the mental abilities affected by ADHD as executive skills because we use these abilities to manage and direct our lives.  Executive skills allow us to plan and organize our behavior, make well-thought-out decisions, overrule immediate desires in favor of longer-term goals, take conscious control of emotions, and monitor our thoughts in order to work more efficiently and effectively.  The following listing and brief description of executive skills illustrates the range of abilities needed to effectively manage our lives.  Following each skill description are suggestions for improving that skill.

Planning and prioritizing

This is the ability to make plans or develop strategies to achieve a goal. In order to effectively plan and prioritize, students must make decisions about what is important and what they should pay attention to.  This involves making a complicated set of related decisions about what to focus on, what to ignore, and the order in which to complete each task.  For example, when students are planning their homework routine for the evening, they need to decide which tasks are the most important, how long to spend on each one, and the order to complete them so they get the most benefit from their study session.  Another example is completing a book report or an essay.  Tasks that require multiple steps and cannot be completed in one sitting can be particularly challenging to students who have ADHD.

To improve your child’s ability to plan and prioritize, try these activities:

Encourage your child to put things in written form by making lists of helpful study strategies for each subject, or nightly to do lists.

From an early age, involve your child in discussions about the importance of things in his/her world.  For example, around the dinner table, get your child’s opinion on what is the most important quality in a friend, what is the best party venue, etc.

Time management

This is the ability to realize that “time” is an important concept, the ability to accurately estimate how much time a task will take, understand how to apportion one’s time, and the capacity to stay within time limits to meet deadlines.  This skill comes into play every day.  A great example is efficiently taking a test; a student needs to stay within time limits, not spending too much time on any test item.  Another common example is realizing the need to begin a large project early so there will be enough time instead of waiting until the last minute.  It is easy to see the extent to which time management depends upon the ability to plan and prioritize!

To improve your child’s time management, try this:

Pick an activity your child enjoys, such as coloring a picture, or playing a board game, and ask him/her to guess how long it will take to do that task.  Keep track of the actual time and compare to the guess.

In the academic area, encourage your child to evaluate each assignment or test prep session on a four-point scale of 15 minutes or less, 15-30 minutes, 30-60 minutes, or a “long term, multi-session task”.  Have your child write the “guesses” down and keep track of the actual time used for each task.  Help your child evaluate the accuracy of the guesses and learn how to make better guesses on future assignments.  (Adjust the time limits for your child’s grade level or abilities, if necessary.)


Many life tasks and school tasks require the ability to arrange ideas or objects in a certain system, such as grouping like items or ideas into the same category, understanding a sequence of events, or identifying cause and effect relationships.  Organization is necessary for a student to properly write an essay, for example.  The paragraphs need to be put in the best order to convey the message, and each detail must be in the correct paragraph.  Objects can be arranged in terms of their physical qualities such as size or shape, or based on their use, such as separating school clothes from dress clothes.

Try these activities to develop organizational skills in reading:

To encourage reading comprehension and organization, have your young child put the events of the story in order.

Younger children can use a simple comprehension template that consists of the character’s name and category (Harry Potter, a young orphan), problem (fights evil, unearthly forces), and solution (to save his life and defend his friends and school).

Older students can use outlines or concept maps to visually depict the relationships in the text.

Working Memory

This is the ability to remember information while using that information to perform complex tasks.  When your child does math problems in her head without writing anything down or looking at the numbers, she is using working memory skills.  One of the most difficult working memory tasks is taking notes from lectures.

To encourage working memory:

Silly sentences:  have your child develop a simple sentence (without writing it down) and recite it backwards.  For older kids, have your child repeat the sentence backwards, substituting a name of a candy for every noun! Or have your child list the names of 7 friends and then say them to you in alphabetical order.


When your child uses this extremely important executive skill, he is able to evaluate his performance or behavior in order to determine if his approach is effective.  This skill helps him keep on track to achieve his goals by giving him information about how close he is to the goal and what adjustments he should make to be successful.  For example, a student uses metacognition when he compares his unsatisfactory grade on a test to the limited amount of time devoted to studying and decides that he needs to study more for the next test.  Another example of metacognition is your child’s realization that he/she is anxious during tests.

To improve metacognition:

Introduce your child early to the process of asking him/herself questions to monitor performance.  For example, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this making sense?” “What is the next step?” “Can I do this a better way?”


The ability to adapt responses and plans when necessary in order to achieve goals.  Flexible people don’t get locked into one way of looking a something; they adapt.  Students use this executive skill every time they stop using ineffective methods and try something else, for example, when they actually follow through and study more for the next test, or “learn from their mistakes” and try a different strategy.

Improving flexibility:

Flexibility and metacognition are closely related skills.  Student who know what the options are and have a realistic view of the present situation are more likely to pick a different approach when things break down.  I have also found that being inflexible is closely tied to feelings of insecurity.  Parents can help their kids feel “safe” about trying new things, and this will increase their willingness to change and adapt in the future.  Some ways to help your child feel safer are to explain the benefits of the new approach, to offer to help them get started, and to be sure kids have clear, step-by-step directions for the new task.  Remember, change takes time and small steps really do add up!

It’s important to understand how your child’s mental skills are affected by ADHD so that the proper support can be provided.  Students with ADHD often have a difficulty time in school and greatly benefit from a structured program of support to improve the mental abilities affected by ADHD.  People with ADHD have mild to severe problems in the areas of managing their attention, memory, thinking, motivation and emotions.

Response Inhibition

This is the power to resist the urge to say or to do something, for example, the ability to stop oneself from interrupting or criticizing.  It also involves the ability to think before acting.  Students use response inhibition every time they decide to study for a test instead of taking the night off to watch TV.  When kids become skillful in using response inhibition, they are able to carefully select a strategy to improve the situation.

Improving response inhibition in the area of test anxiety:

Kids find it much easier to stop themselves from doing something if they have a clear alternative behavior to use instead.  First, help your child find some techniques that remind him to relax, such as wearing a special wrist band, or using a special pencil.  This is the trigger that will alert your child to using the negative-thought-stopping techniques you teach him.  One of my favorite negative-thought-stopping techniques is repeating the sentence, “I knew this when I studied, so I know it now.”  This helps kids reconnect with self-confidence and calms the negative, anxious messages in their heads.

Self-regulation of Affect

The ability to deal with emotions so that they don’t get in the way of completing tasks or achieving goals.  One example is keeping test anxiety under control.  Another example of controlling emotions is overcoming boredom or irritation to keep working on an important task.

Regulating affect to conquer boredom:

Kids need to remind themselves of the “bigger picture” which is that being good in school gives their life meaning and purpose and leads to accomplishing their future goals.  Talk about the future with your child!  Help him/her make plans, dream big and connect school with this amazing future!  If the amazing future is clear and vibrant in his/her mind, it’s much easier for him/her to find value in academic tasks.

Also, help your child find true excitement and value in school subjects.  Have exciting talks about the material, go to museums, read assignments together and help your child see the relevance of what he/she is studying.

Task Initiation

The ability to start a task at the appropriate time without delaying or procrastinating.  Students with ADHD often have difficulty getting started on homework tasks even though they desire good grades because they have trouble making themselves begin a task.  This may be related to the next executive skill, disengaging attention.

Increasing task initiation:

Tasks are easier to start when there are clear directions and your child is feeling confident that he/she knows how to proceed.  It is also important for the tasks to be relevant, so helping your child find value and future potential in school tasks makes it easier to get going, and to keep going.

For complicated tasks, help your child make a list of all the steps needed.  Have him/her check off each step as it’s completed.  Check in frequently to offer support, answer questions, and praise his willingness to stick with it.

Disengaging Attention

The ability to stop directing attention towards one thing and begin directing it towards something else.  For example, many people with ADHD have trouble managing their bedtimes; they sometimes have trouble stopping a fun activity in order to go to bed.

To encourage the ability to disengage attention:

Kids who understand the “big picture” of why activities are important and clearly see the advantages and disadvantages of a situation have greater success in shifting from one activity to another.  Also, some kids who are anxious find it hard to shift gears because of feelings of worry or anxiety.

If your child has trouble stopping activities before bedtime, and you suspect he/she may feel anxious about going to bed, build relaxation activities into the nightly routine.  Be sure to include some quiet activity for 30 minutes before bed, such as listening to relaxing music, reading, or being read to.  I would suggest that older kids be required to shut off cell phones, IPods, and other electronics (except quiet music) and give themselves a chance to “wind down” before the lights go out.

Goal-directed Persistence

The ability to follow through for as long as it takes in order to complete tasks and achieve goals. A student using goal-directed persistence keeps studying until he believes he knows the material.  Goal-directed persistence is evident when a student keeps working on long term projects such as term papers or stays focused on practicing and building the skills necessary to be good at sports, school subjects, or artistic activities.

Improving goal-directed persistence:

During homework sessions, set a timer for a reasonable amount of time, such as 10-30 minutes depending on your child’s age.  Let your child take a 2-3 minute break when the timer rings.  Re-set the timer as many times as necessary until all the homework is done.  Each week, increase the length of time by one or 2 minutes, slowly building your child’s ability to focus.

Encourage your child to set a personal goal to beat his/her longest time.  Help your child verbalize the goal “today I will…”

Help your child set goals, have clear preferences and options and have strong passion about the future and it will be easier for him/her to stick with long-term or “boring” activities.

Sustained Attention

The capacity to pay attention to a task for an extended time, particularly if the task is not interesting.  Studying for a reasonable period of time before taking a break is a good example of sustained attention.  Listening to a teacher’s lecture from start to finish is another example.

Strategies for developing sustained attention:

Teach your child to use good listening statements to stay on track:

“I concentrate when people talk and keep my mind from thinking about other things.”
“I listen for main ideas.”
“I listen for ideas that are new to me.”
“I remember what I heard.”
Regulation of Processing Speed

The ability to make a conscious decision about how slowly or quickly to perform a task based upon its importance to you.  This is the ability to make yourself go slowly and carefully when you want to do exceptional work, and to go more quickly on tasks that aren’t so important.

To encourage your child to take charge of his/her processing speed:

I use the “Best Job / Good Job / Just Good Enough Job” strategy.  I teach kids to decide whether a task deserves their best, most careful effort, just a good, strong effort, or merely a quick, satisfactory effort.  I teach them to determine this based upon how important the task is to them (bringing in prioritization skills).  The Best Job tasks should take the longest to complete.

It’s easy to see from this discussion of executive skills why ADHD affects multiple areas of a person’s life.  People dealing with ADHD can find it hard to stay on track to meet their goals.  When they see themselves falling short of the ideal performance they desire, they can become depressed and find it hard to stay positive.  But there are many effective strategies for improving the executive skills affected by ADHD.