Executive Functions, Life Skills, Self-Control, and Grit

In a previous article, I wrote about how psychologists differ in their definitions of executive functions. Some focus on aspects of working memory and planning, while others view the core executive-functioning features as related to self-control and self-regulation. Another perspective views executive functions as a brain-based array of self-management skills:  managing one’s emotions (affective control), time (time management), stuff (organization), activities (planning), and behavior (response inhibition). Many popular authors have also written about the importance of executive-functioning skills for kids growing up in the twenty-first century. But rather than labeling these skills as executive functions, they use different terminology to describe a similar set of competencies that are needed to succeed in today’s fast-paced, quickly changing world.

In her book Mind in the Making:  The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, Ellen Galinsky points out how executive functions and “life skills” such as focus, perspective taking, self-control, and critical thinking help children effectively tap into their abilities and use what they know. She posits that these skills can best be improved by using fun, everyday activities to help children identify the skills they need, reflect on how the skills can help them, and find ways to apply them to the real world. She also discusses ways that digital tools such as computer games and e-readers can help to hone executive skills. Galinsky’s approach, like mine, is characterized by using activities that kids already use and like.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman also address the power of executive-functioning skills[4] in their excellent book about childhood, NurtureShock:  Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong. They cite a number of studies indicating that learning the “soft skills” of cognitive control and self-discipline through a preschool program called “Tools of the Mind” is more important than being “smart.” The emphasis on intentional use of children’s play for teaching executive-functioning skills is consistent with many of the strategies that I discuss throughout this book. Bronson and Merryman also describe how some digital tools can help kids consider the future, plan their day, think critically, and develop executive-functioning skills.

Paul Tough also cites studies that use the Tools of the Mind program with preschoolers in his fascinating book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough refers to studies that describe “non-cognitive factors” such as “the ability to delay gratification, an inclination to persist at a boring or unrewarding task, curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity as being core skills for improving behavior and social skills.  He describes many of these qualities as character strengths and identifies one core skill, that of “grit,” as related to success across a variety of situations. Grit, defined in his book as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission,” is a powerful predictor of future success.

I have been using the “Grit Scale” (developed through the research of Angela Duckworth) in my work with children with learning and attention problems and find that it is often related to task persistence and the willingness to spend hours on homework. Duckworth, the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, studied more than 1200 freshman cadets entering The Military Academy at West Point and found that responses to a simple 12-item questionnaire that measured grit successfully predicted which cadets would meet the many challenges at West Point, as well as which cadets would drop out of the program.

Research on executive functions also shows that it is very powerful to start teaching these skills to preschoolers. Children who learn executive-functioning skills at a young age tend to have fewer behavioral problems than their peers, do better in social relationships, have more skills at managing their emotions, and do better in math and reading in middle school. The Tools of the Mind program is only one method to teach executive-functioning skills. Some of the research with preschoolers shows how computer and board-game training effectively teaches self-control and supports this book’s emphasis on combining technology with parental involvement for developing executive-functioning skills.

The power of executive functions, and in particular the executive function of self-control, has been documented in a series of follow-ups to a famous study conducted by Walter Mischel in 1972. You might be familiar with what is described as the “Marshmallow Study.” In this study, f4- to 6-year-old children were given a choice between an immediate small reward (typically a single marshmallow, though cookies were sometimes used) and two rewards if they could wait a few minutes for the evaluator to return to the room. The study was compelling at the time, with the results suggesting that the capacity to delay gratification was related to low impulsivity and high self-control across many settings. Even more fascinating are the recent 40-year follow-up studies that tracked the lives of those who were able to wait for a second marshmallow.  The subjects who displayed self-control as preschoolers had higher SAT scores, lower rates of substance abuse in adolescence, less incidence of obesity, and fewer divorces compared to their peers who could not delay gratification when they were preschoolers.

I strongly recommend that parents who want to help their kids develop executive-functioning skills check out these books. While they use different terminology, the books capture the core features of the executive function of self-management:  the capacity to identify a problem, flexibly develop solutions, and follow through with the necessary effort to complete a task.

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