Executive Function (EF) – the key to success.

I have been reading Walter Mischel’s excellent book “The Marshmallow Test”. The book explains Mischel’s work around the topic of self-control.  The title comes from an experiment to see if preschool kids were able to delay gratification – by having a choice between “one marshmallow now” or “two marshmallows later” (after say 10 minutes).  This test, or variations of it (- there were rewards other than marshmallows…) measured the child’s self-control or willpower.  It turns out that the test is a predictor of how the kids can control their behaviour, how they do at school, how they interact with others; and even into adulthood: their careers, relationships and their health (..connected to the ability to make healthy choices).   The original researchers in California and New York were able to track the progress of the kids for 40 years or more.

Basically, the book highlights the ability of participants to use their thinking brain – their “cool brain” – to avoid being highjacked by their emotional or “hot” brain.  This “self-control or willpower” is referred to as Executive Function or EF. The successful younger kids often used distraction or their imagination to “cool” the reward… or even tactics like reciting rules such as “I will wait for the two marshmallows” over and over.

Yet Mischel’s research also shows how all of us can develop our EF through training and practice – and at any time in our lives.  You see, our brains always have the ability to make and to remake connections – this is called “neural plasticity” – and this neural plasticity can be put to work to improve our EF.

For example, EF is shown to be improved by cognitive therapies including mindfulness… as we become more objective and aware of our responses and have better agency over our emotions, our unconscious reactions and our impulses.  This makes sense – mindfulness is all about non-judgemental awareness and becoming able to make appropriate responses.

So, for all of us it is never too late to improved our EF.  Good news!

The book also pointed me in the direction of a trial in British Columbia by Adele Diamond and her colleagues who carried out the first randomised controlled test to investigate the impact of some education games and exercises called “Tools of the mind”  (see https://toolsofthemind.org/  ) which were designed to improve the EF of five-yearolds – thereby making them more able to avoid distraction, to be able to focus on their work and to adopt a growth mindset.  The results were so good that some of participating schools asked for the experiment to be halted so that they could provide the same programme to the control groups kids.  This work is described in a paper titled “Randomised control trial of Tools of the Mind: Marked benefits to kindergarten children and their teachers” (here) ..

Diamond and her colleagues state: “This study replicated that Tools [of the Mind] improve reading and shows for the first time that it improves writing (far exceeding levels the school districts had seen before), self-control and attention-regulation in the real world (e.g., time on task without supervision).”

Within an eight months of commencing the trial three times more children on the programme than in control classes were reading at the grade one level …. and three times more children on the programme than in control classes were able to write a full sentence they themselves composed or multiple consecutive ones. Wow!

“This study found that Tools [of the Mind] not only improve academic outcomes in reading and writing, but also shows for the first time that Tools improves EFs in the classroom (…being able to stay on task and quickly resume work after a break), markedly reduces teacher burnout and children being ostracized or excluded, and increases the joy students and teachers experience in school.”

Even better than making a great start in their education – these kids will carry this improved EF throughout their whole lives. The icing on the cake is that these kids will see themselves as achieving and will develop a positive self-image that will help them to achieve more and to reduce the possibility of mental health problems.

Isn’t it time we paid more attention to teaching our kids how to use their brains – and teaching us adults too?

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