21st Century Skills: Why You Want Your Child to Improve Executive Functioning

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In the 21st century, a good early education is often the key to future academic and vocational success. Parents compete to get their children into the best preschools. Our educational system is teaching skills such as reading and math at younger and younger ages. Many new preschool educational apps cover content previously reserved for grade-school learning. However, it is not all about teaching academic skills. Many studies suggest that to insure academic success, it is more important to teach preschoolers executive functioning and problem-solving skills than to simply focus on math and reading alone. Other studies show that when children can improve executive functioning skills in preschool, they’ll go on to be better at reading and math in late elementary and middle school.

Some of the data goes back to Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Study” of the 1970’s, where 4-year-old children who showed Self-Control (one of the major executive functions) by not eating a marshmallow placed in front of them became far more successful and educated adults than their peers who could not inhibit such behavior. More recently, a number of other studies have demonstrated that programs such as Tools of the Mind, based on the work on the Russian psychologist Vygotsky, are incredibly powerful assets for the development of Self-Control, executive, and academic skills in children.

Ellen Galinsky’s book, Mind in the Making, describes how parents need to focus on teaching seven essential life skills, which are similar to executive functions, to prepare their children for the future. Other authors target executive skills in popular books such as Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, and Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. The common theme amongst these writers is that we need to pay far more attention to these life, thinking, and executive functioning skills in an environment dominated by standardized tests and teaching content.

The reasons are clear. The skills needed for success in the future will go far beyond the content conventionally taught in American schools. Success today and tomorrow will require what educators now refer to as “21st century skills.” Executive functions are a major component of 21st century skills, which are defined by the capacity to think flexibly and innovatively (creativity); the aptitude to communicate with colleagues both face-to-face and digitally (collaboration); and capability in Planning, self-management, Organization, Time Management, and critical-thinking skills. While mastering academic content is important for learning and good grades, improving executive-functioning skills may be an even more important component for success in the 21st century.

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