By Angela Currie, Ph.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist, NESCA
Director of Training and New Hampshire Operations
When clients come for neuropsychological assessment, a domain of skills that is commonly assessed is executive function. Executive function is a complex set of cognitive and self-management skills that allow for efficient, goal-oriented problem solving and task completion. These skills do not speak to how smart someone is, or whether or not they will achieve a goal. Instead, they speak to the ease with which one works toward their goal – Is their path a nice straight road from beginning to end? Or was it a zig-zagging route filled with stops and starts, redos, and confusion?
Executive function is a broad domain containing many different skills, such as planning, working memory, self-monitoring, impulse control, and organization. This last skill – organization – is one that can be commonly misunderstood. That is likely because people often focus on behavioral organization, meaning whether someone keeps their things in order. While a tidy bedroom and neat locker make it easier to find things, there are other aspects of organization that can have a much greater impact on learning, task completion, and daily functioning. From a neuropsychological standpoint, there are three aspects of organization that should be of focus, including:
- Behavioral Organization. As noted above, this is the aspect of organization with which people are most familiar. It can be thought of as your “organization of stuff” skills. At home, this may be keeping an organized bedroom, putting things away when done, and knowing how to find things when you need them. At school, this may involve keeping a neat locker or desk, having color-coded binders for your classes, or turning in assignments once you’ve completed them. Individuals who struggle in this area may often lose their belongings, fail to turn in completed tasks, or frustrate their parents with their messy rooms.
- Organization of Information. This is the organizational skill that is often of most focus within neuropsychological assessment. This is a cognitive aspect of organization, meaning others cannot necessarily observe when someone struggles in this area. This aspect of organization speaks to one’s ability to process information in a manner that appreciates both the details and how they integrate into a “big picture.” This skill is very important for learning, allowing you to consolidate information into memory in a manner that is connected and organized, which makes it much easier to remember and retrieve later on. Think of this as the filing cabinet of the brain. Organization of information and ideas is also important for reading comprehension as well as written expression, including prioritizing ideas and pulling them together in a cohesive manner. Individuals who struggle in this area may be overly detail-focused, missing main ideas or struggling with abstraction. They may also become easily overwhelmed by information, not knowing what is most relevant, which may result in difficulty planning, executing, and drafting writing assignments.
- Organization of Time. A.K.A. – time management. This organizational skill requires you to both recognize the end goal while also being able to break the task into smaller steps that can be accomplished over a short or long span of time. It requires a recognition of how long each step may take and how to balance such requirements within life’s other time constraints. Individuals who struggle in this area may appear to procrastinate, though the true challenge may lay in difficulty estimating time or understanding how to break things down and create the road map from “here to there.” This is often a person who may be misunderstood as lacking motivation, given their difficulty initiating and completing tasks, though their lack of execution actually stems from difficulties organizing information and time.
Quite often, individuals with organizational challenges do not struggle in all three of the above areas. A child may appear fastidiously organized, with an impeccably organized room and diligent notes; however, they may be relying on this excessive behavioral organization as a means for compensating for hidden challenges with informational organization. They may not know what is most important, so they study excessively for tests or over-include information in their essays. To the observer, they look astute; however, they are cognitively over-extending themselves. As already noted, organizational challenges may also present as the “unmotivated” student, as long-standing difficulty knowing how to break down tasks and manage time may have resulted in helplessness. This is why neuropsychological assessment is often an important tool for understanding and supporting these students – as the underlying challenges may not be behaviorally observable. Positively, executive function skills can be taught to address any of the above concerns, but interventions will always be most effective when the areas of need are clear.
About the Author
To book an evaluation with Dr. Currie or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Londonderry, NH, Plainville, MA, and Newton, MA serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (603) 818-8526.