How to Help the Impulsive Disorganized Child

Perhaps you've never thought of gifted children as impulsive or disorganized, but many gifted kids and those who are twice-exceptional, gifted with learning differences, often struggle with impulsivity and being disorganized. Dealing with executive functioning (EF) deficits can take its toll on family harmony. It is something you yourself may have dealt with early in life, but learned to compensate for by developing strategies without even realizing it.

When a child has difficulty with organizational issues, it can be devastating in school as well. In my experience, most school personnel were not prepared to deal with these deficits beyond suggesting the use of colored folders and showed little empathy for the situation with which we were dealing. Instead, words like ‘lazy’ and ‘lacks effort’ or ‘doesn’t care’ were bantered about as if to place blame squarely on our child. 

As parents, it is essential to have coping strategies in your ‘toolbox’. Recently, I reviewed* the book, The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties, for Prufrock Press on Amazon and was quite impressed with the strategies presented in it. 

It’s important for parents to understand what executive functioning (EF) is and how they can help their child to overcome deficits and become successful, independent adults. Here now is an interview I did with the authors, Dr. James Forgan and Mary Anne Richey.

Dr. James Forgan
Mary Anne Richey
GPS: What compelled you to write The Impulsive, Disorganized Child?

JF/MAR: We’ve both raised boys with EF difficulty and have applied many strategies in our daily lives we were very familiar with the challenges families face when raising a child with EF difficulty. In our private practices we work daily helping our clients with EF difficulty by providing coaching and assessment of executive functioning.

GPS: What is Executive Functioning (EF), what causes Executive Dysfunction, and how are EF difficulties evaluated?

JF/MAR: Generally speaking, executive functioning is an umbrella term for many different activities of the brain that orchestrate goal-directed action. It is considered the management system of the brain that helps children plan, organize, and implement on a regular and consistent schedule. Executive function includes a person’s ability to focus, decide what is important, set goals, use prior knowledge, initiate action, manage time, self-monitor performance, use self-restraint and remain flexible.

Executive dysfunction is considered to be present in a number of disorders—ADHD, autism, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dementia—to name a few. Difficulty with executive functioning is caused by faulty neural circuitry and can come from a variety of causes, including genetic or environmental factors. It is present in a number of disorders shown to have a high degree of heritability, meaning their characteristics can be passed down from parent to child in some form or another. If your child has executive functioning problems, you did not intentionally cause it.

"Parenting styles don’t directly cause executive dysfunction. However, experiences involving opportunities to learn new things, thereby creating new and strengthening existing neural connections, and structured, secure environments providing opportunities for problem-solving can enhance EF."

There are a variety of tests that evaluate specific executive skills, including the Stroop Task, the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, Auditory Attention, Inhibition, and the Trail-Making Test, which can provide some valuable information. One caveat is that the outcome may show deficits in the test scores but the scores don’t provide a clear picture of how a child would manage independently in the complexity of a busy school or home environment. An astute psychologist will provide the link of how the low scores may appear as behaviors in the classroom.

There are also rating scales designed to measure executive functioning. Some of the concerns that exist around the various rating scales, like the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function and the Barkley Functional Impairment Scale—Children and Adolescents, have to do with the subjectivity of the rater. A comprehensive evaluation would include the specific EF tests, rating scales, a psycho-educational evaluation, as well as observations and interviews of the student, parent(s), and teacher(s).

GPS: How can parents tell if their child has a problem with focusing and self-monitoring?

JF/MAR: Parents should trust their instinct. If the behaviors below describe your child, then your child may have a focusing and self-monitoring weakness.

The big question for most parents is not, “How can I teach my child to focus, behave, and/or remember?” This is one area in which you cannot do the work for him. You cannot get in his head and force focus; you can simply show him what it looks like and help him develop the skills bit by bit. This takes lots of repetition so try to keep a teaching perspective and not become too frustrated with your child.

GPS: What are some of the proven strategies outlined in your book for improving EF skills in kids?

JF/MAR: It is important to figure out what executive functioning deficits your child has and pick out the ones that seem to be causing your child the most difficulty. Try to identify the level of skill your child does have in those areas and then provide temporary supports or scaffolds. For example, if your child can never seem to get himself ready for school in the morning, provide a checklist with his responsibilities mounted in the bathroom.

It is very important to provide motivation for completing the items on the checklist with minimal or no reminders. Some children thrive on verbal praise, some like the opportunity to select what will be served for dinner, whereas others like to earn time for a preferred activity.

Some children require longer-term strategies, i.e., a system of support, a sustainable system that functions as a tool he or she can complete independently. Many older students use technology tools, such as calendars and reminders, to help then keep up with their responsibilities. Others prefer handwritten to-do lists to keep themselves organized. If a person has a weak auditory working memory, he would write down everything he needed to remember rather than relying on his memory. If a child is highly verbal but has poor organizational skills, he can develop a habit of talking his way through items needed for particular events.

"A caveat about organizational systems—it must work for the child and the way he mentally organizes material. As a parent, you could create a terrific system with expensive color-coded folders for each subject, but if your child can only keep up with one folder divided into sections, then your system will not help him."

GPS: Is it possible for a child with EF issues to lead a happy and successful life? 

JF/MAR: Absolutely! The world is filled with highly successful individuals with executive functioning difficulties who have figured out how to harness their strengths and use strategies to work around their deficits. It is important to help children develop realistic expectations for themselves and find satisfaction in using their talents and working around their deficits.

I hope this has helped you to better understand the role of executive functioning in your child’s life and that you can use some of the techniques found here. For a more extensive review, The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties can be found at Amazon or your favorite bookseller. My thanks to Dr. James Forgan and Mary Anne Richey for taking the time for this interview.

This post is a part of the New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week 2015 Blog Tour. For more blog posts on the tour, click on the link below!

New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week 2015 Blog Tour 

Other books by the authors:

Raising Boys with ADHD: Secrets for Parenting Healthy, Happy Sons (Amazon)

Graphics courtesy of Lisa Conrad.

Title graphic courtesy of Pixabay  CC0 Public Domain

*Disclaimer: I was provided an Advanced Reader Copy of the book for review by the publisher. 



  1. Thanks, Lisa. This is so helpful. You are a great resource for all of us who care about gifted kids.

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Paula! I appreciate all your work for the gifted community as well!

  2. Thank you very much indeed Lisa for an excellent post - a great interview and links to valuable resources to help with Executive Function challenge!

  3. Hi, Lisa. As you know, EF is an area that comes up again and again in discussions about gifted students, and I find that what may be considered "immaturity" in elementary students is later labeled as "laziness", "poor work ethic", and "apathy" in middle school. Often these terms are not accurate-- the student may appear to be these things, but mainly because of an inability to manage him/herself and the work to be done. I appreciate this information. I hope the book can provide some answers for parents and teachers!


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