I don’t want to bury the lede. The answer is: Yes, there is a difference between executive functions and organizational skills.
“Executive functions” are the brain activity (of your frontal lobe) in charge of “recruiting” brain areas or networks to accomplish tasks efficiently and effectively. For example, if you are planning to make a shopping list, your executive functions will recruit parts of your working memory to recall what you have in your cupboards, perhaps even to picture your cupboards, and then to write a list. In short, executive functions prompt multiple, varied actions.
Saying that a child has “difficulty with executive functions,” therefore, neglects to identify where he needs help. Would he benefit from support in setting up a backpack that doesn’t swallow papers like a black hole? Assistance in remembering to look at his planner before starting homework assignments? Setting up a backpack and looking at a planner are organizational skills — areas in which a child can receive targeted support. Identifying specific organizational difficulties enables parents and educators to implement concrete support mechanisms right away.
How do executive function skills differ from organizational skills?
The distinction between executive functions and specific organizational skills is important because some real-life manifestations matter more than others. If I’m a student who has a problem with prioritization, it’s not likely to be a functional problem if it only manifests itself when I’m changing for gym class, and I can’t prioritize whether to change my socks or my shirt first. Some prioritizing activities are, in fact, very important. As Rick Lavoie’s joke — “Ready! Fire! Aim!” — reveals, event sequence is more important in some contexts than in others. If we focus on the real-life implications of neurological issues, then we can provide targeted support that yields real, measurable results.
Click the following link to learn how you can support a child with EF and organizational difficulties.
Andersen, D. (Oct. 22, 2014). "How to Help Your Child Stay Organized.” Child Mind Institute, New York City.
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009) Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. Guildford Press: New York.
Gallagher, R., Abikoff, H.B., & Spira, E.G. (2014), Organizational Skills Training for Children with ADHD: An Empirically Supported Treatment. Guilford Press: New York.
Goldberg, D. (2005) The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond. Touchstone: New York.
McCloskey, G. (Nov. 13, 2014). “Executive Functions in the Classroom.” Learning and the Brain, New York City. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Executive Function: Organizing and Prioritizing Strategies for Academic Success. NCLD.