A group of educational and cognitive scientists now say that mental exercises of a certain kind can teach children to become more self-possessed at earlier ages, reducing stress levels at home and improving their experience in school. Researchers can test this ability, which they call executive function, and they say it is more strongly associated with school success than I.Q.“We know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20s, and some people will ask, ‘Why are you trying to improve prefrontal abilities when the biological substrate is not there yet?’ ” said Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive science at the
Executive function involves three important skills: 1) the ability to resist distractions or delay gratification to finish a job (i.e. to finish the book report before turning on the television), 2) the second is working memory, the capacity to hold multiple numbers or ideas in the mind, — for example, to do simple addition or subtraction without pencil and paper, 3) the third is cognitive flexibility, the presence of mind to adapt when demands change (i.e. when recess is canceled, say, and there’s a pop quiz in math)
Researchers can rate these abilities with some precision by giving young children several straightforward mental tests. In one, youngsters sit in front of a computer and when a red heart appears on the left side of the screen, they strike a key on the left, and when it appears on the right screen they strike a key on the right. Most of them do well on this. But when scientists change the rules, and have the children strike a key on the right when the symbol appears on the left, and vice versa, the test gets harder. The number of errors they commit, and the time it takes the children to answer, are considered measures of their ability to regulate themselves. Other similar kinds of tests can track improvements in working memory and intellectual flexibility. Researchers have designed school-based curriculums intended to improve each of these abilities. In a study published in 2007, researchers compared one of these programs — called Tools of the Mind — to a standard literacy curriculum, in several preschools in the Northeast. The Tools program features a variety of exercises, including a counting activity in which children pair off.
“The activities are specifically designed to promote self-regulation, and they are embedded in the teaching,” said Deborah J. Leong, an educational psychologist and professor emerita at Metropolitan State College of Denver, who designed the Tools program with Elena Bodrova, principal researcher at McREL, an educational research group in