The gift that keeps on giving: Promoting executive control in youth

If a genie were to bestow a wish upon you, you should cash it in for better working memory; a point recently reiterated at the annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science, this year in San Fransisco, CA, a symposium titled “Working Memory: the Connected Intelligence.”  Working Memory is one term that fits under the heading of “executive control.” “Executive control,” in the circles I run in anyway, doesn’t refer to antics that happen in board rooms. Rather, the term refers to the human capacity to focus and direct attention.

This capacity develops slowly throughout childhood because the part of the brain that supports it does too (develops gradually, that is). I’ve discussed this point before, in my post titled “Looking for the Silver Lining.” Here I’m picking it up again.

While home sick the other day, I spent some time reading research papers on executive control, it’s development, and importance. I read that certain experiences – like yoga practice, Tae Kwon Do, and even particular video games – can boost the executive control of young children. Now that’s some fun stuff to wrap my head around!

In fact, I was delighted to come across these findings, because I’ve wrapped my head around these ideas for quite some time. For years now I’ve suggested to college students that when they become teachers (i.e., many of them do), they would be well advised to help their students improve in emotion regulation (emotion regulation being another skill that falls under the heading of executive control and refers to the way in which we control our attention when emotionally stressed), by doing deep breathing and yoga type exercises. What a relief to find some solid empirical validation for my educated speculations.

Back to the papers I read the other day, one by cognitive developmental neuroscientist Adele Diamond, nicely summarizes what’s known to-date about programs and activities that can increase children’s executive control (see list of “fun stuff” above). Another paper by Michael Kane and colleague Jennifer McVay, Cognitive Psychologists at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, summarizes the costs of a poorly coordinated executive control system and the benefits of a healthy one. In a nutshell, the “take-aways” from these papers is that:

1. Academically, healthy executive control is linked with

  • The ability to keep your mind focused during challenging work (poor control, more mind-wandering and the reverse)
  • Better reading comprehension (poor control, poor comprehension and vice versa)

2. Socially, healthy executive control is linked with

  • Positive friendships
  • Pro-social behavior

3. Later in life, healthy executive control is linked with

  • College students’ ability to stay focused on cognitively challenging tasks
  • Successful completion of daily activities
  • Ability to achieve goals

What a list! Our kids deserve the attention it takes from us to help them boost their own attentional abilities. Executive functioning enables problem solving, reasoning, synthesis, analysis, and even creativity – all things that reflect what I call intelligent behaviors. Indeed, as recently promoted and popularized by authors Paul Tough and Ellen Galinsky, these skills predict both school success and social success.

Speaking of school, Diamond further reports that models for boosting executive control in school exist already. Curricula like Montessori and “Tools of the Mind” boost executive control in preschool aged children. However, little research exists examining whether particular kinds of curricula will boost the executive control of older school aged children. As well, Diamond further reports that extra-curricular activities like Tae Kwon Do and Yoga appear to boost executive control in older school aged children, but researchers haven’t assessed this in young, preschool aged children.

The commonality across these platforms (curricular and extra-curricular) lies in what the activities require/stimulate: The activities:

  • Promote self-regulation and thus boost children’s sense of autonomy (an important element of healthy motivation, I discuss here)
  • Are fun! Kids enjoy their engagement.
  • Challenge children to keep their attention focused on the task at hand
  • Increase the level of challenge progressively with skill attainment
  • Stimulate children’s sense of self-vs. other-awareness

So what I am wondering about, as I type this and mull over the details of what I’ve been reading, is what’s left to know.

1. Do Yoga and Tae Kwon Do have the same benefits for little ones?

2. What other extra-curricular activities might serve the same purpose of boosting executive control (Diamond asks this question as well)? Can the same case be made for:

  • Visual & Graphic Arts
  • Performing Arts such as Dance and Drama
  • Musical Arts

3. Do you know of examples of elementary, middle, or high school curricula that mirror the principles Montessori and “Tools” classrooms are based on?

Public education should be a “gift that keeps on giving” but this sentiment is slowly slipping away from us, in the high-stakes-testing environment we’re finding ourselves in in the US. Rather than teaching to the test, we should be teaching students to handle tests so they can show what they know. And there’s a rich source of research out there to aide us with this.

Despite the state of affairs in many schools today though, there are little things we can do to help boost our kids’ executive control, working memory, and the like. For example,

  • Play “What’s in Johnny’s Pocket” or “I’m Going to Paris” on car trips. Challenging yourself to hold more and more information in mind expands working memory.
  • Play “Simon Says.” Kids love it, and it challenges their ability to focus their attention and direct their behavior.

Or why not make up your own memory or regulation games? My daughter and I do this all the time, and we love it. As she’s gotten older, we’ve increased the rules to keep it challenging. What a gift indeed – quality time together that pays back dividends. What do you say?


note: this essay was first posted in Oct 2012, and updated in May 2014.


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