In this post I’d like to touch on a few points that psychotherapists Marcie and Daniel Yeager make in their 2012 book entitled Executive Function & Child Development.
What is Executive Function or what are EF skills? Executive Function comprises a number of higher order cognitive skills such as delaying gratification, staying on task, appropriately focusing attention by filtering out extraneous information, planning, and others. I say “others” because as the Yeagers correctly point out experts have not provided us with one generally agreed-upon list of EF skills. However, the skills I just mentioned typically fall on most lists of EF skills.
The Yeagers point out that Executive Function is usually associated with the development of the so-called upper brain, home to such brain centers as the prefrontal cortex or PFC. Cognitive scientists tell us that the PFC is not fully developed until the late teen years or even as late as the early 20s (see the addendum below in the next post). From this we should expect not to see much if any Executive Function in early teens or children. Well, this is where the EF story gets interesting.
In their book the Yeagers pull extensively from work by developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Walter Mischel. Mischel spent his entire career (starting in the 1960s) studying the EF skill delaying gratification. Mischel is best known for developing what he called The Marshmallow Test. The Yeagers have a nice description of the Marshmallow Test in their book. Or I would highly recommend Mischel’s 2014 book entitled The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. (I’d be remis if I did not mention that I talk about Mischel’s work in my 2018 book entitled A Question of Attachment—clearly a shameless plug.) I will not describe the experimental design of the Marshmallow Test here. Please consult the resources above. Let’s look at the startling results.
What Mischel found was that kids, age four to six, who were found to be “high delayers” (i.e., waited longer to eat a marshmallow treat) typically went on to be successful in a number of areas of adult life such as 1) increased levels of academic achievement (as compared to “low delayers”), 2) higher reported levels of relationship satisfaction (especially in marriage), 3) higher levels of career satisfaction and achievement, and 4) adequate amounts of funds in retirement accounts.(1) Yes, Mischel followed the kids he assessed in the 1960s as they went through life in a series of what scientists call longitudinal studies. I find it stunning that a simple assessment given to kids that focuses on delaying eating a marshmallow treat (i.e., delaying gratification) can robustly predict success later in life. The point here is that kids as young as four are already developing EF skills like delaying gratification. But wait, what about that prefrontal cortex that doesn’t fully come online until as late as 21 or 22? Consider this analogy.
Think of the PFC as an orchestra leader and the various EF skills as members of an orchestra. Now, the PFC is a bit of a prima donna and insists that orchestra members begin to assemble before he or she (or other) will make an entrance. A point that the Yeagers make is that it is not uncommon for certain Executive Function to actually be a concerted effort between several EF skills. I would argue that spatial cognition—our ability to cognitively map and navigate the environment that surrounds us—requires at a minimum the EF skills of mental modeling, perspective taking, and working memory. My point here—and one the Yeagers imply—is that we develop EF skills starting at an early age and it’s the developing prefrontal cortex that allows us to bringing a suite of EF skills to bear on a complex problem like spatial cognition or running what-if scenarios (more on this in the addendum below).
If I can take certain liberties here, I think what Mischel found was that if a child is observed to be a high delayer, this observation implies that he or she (or other) is blessed with a positive and supportive environment in which to not only develop EF skills but to have those skills “orchestrated” later by the PFC. I should point out that the Yeagers describe a number of interventions (using four case examples) that could be used to help kids develop or improve EF skills. What ties all of these interventions together is the idea of creating a supportive environment (the Yeagers use the term scaffolding as well) in which EF skills could develop. I would suggest that parenting, teaching, and mentoring are all about creating a supportive environment in which EF skills (and EF skill orchestration) could take place and flourish.
So far the topics of Executive Function and EF skills seem rather, how shall I say, ho-hum. The major point that the Yeagers make is that the school environment by design demands that children develop and use EF skills. When EF skills are lacking in a school environment we (parents, teachers, counselors, school administrators, etc.) observe the following types of student behavior (pulling from the Yeager’s book here): 1) difficulty with self-regulation, 2) difficulty with working memory, 3) difficulty with impulsivity, and 4) an inability to “translate [instructions] into internally represented information” (quoting the Yeagers). With respect to the last deficiency the Yeagers tell us that when a child’s “internal cueing and feedback system is weak” he or she (or other) “ends up responding to cues from the environment instead.” In other words, early on Executive Function is centrally about developing the ability to take information in from the environment, model that information, and then be able to cognitively inspect, manipulate, and otherwise place value on that information. As the Yeagers correctly point out, when this cognitive modeling system is not adequately developed, the result is a person who is dependent on cues from the outside world. Certain EF deficiencies render children (and many adults) slaves to the outside world while their inner, dare I say imaginative worlds languish.(2) EF deficiencies are serious business. The Yeagers do an admirable job describing ways in which parents, educators, counselors, etc., can help to reduce these EF deficiencies. And I applaud the Yeager’s efforts to reframe behaviors such as being lazy, being unfocused, being noncompliant, being defiant, etc., as Executive Function deficiencies as opposed to the common frame often used: willful character flaws.(3)
I know, still ho-hum. But allow me to list a few issues now plaguing our Western society: road rage, teen-involved shootings (some of which have resulted in numerous casualties), the opioid epidemic,(4) and racial tensions. As I write this article ABC News is reporting that “Charges were filed against three white boaters who allegedly assaulted a Black ferry co-captain, sparking a racially charged melee at Riverfront Park in Montgomery, Alabama, on Saturday night that was captured on bystander videos that went viral.” What if I were to suggest that what we are looking at here is a breakdown of EF at the societal level? OK, do not take my word for it.
In a 2012 book that I highly recommend entitled Executive Functions: What They Are, How They Work, And Why They Evolved, Executive Function and ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) expert Russell Barkley suggests that we are now experiencing an EF crisis. (I should note that the Yeagers pull extensively from Barkley’s work.) Very much like the classroom environment, society demands that adults develop and use EF skills. Let me close by quickly mentioning a few things that might be hampering the development of EF on a societal level.
By far the largest impediment to the development of EF has to be trauma. And we just went through one of the most intense three years of trauma in the form of the pandemic. It may be years if not decades before researchers unravel exactly how the pandemic influenced the development of EF in kids. I’m sure the pandemic had a large influence on EF in adults. I do not wish to be glib here but for civility to flourish in society, EF must be in abundance. Where goes EF, so too society. Sadly, I’m not seeing very much attention being placed on EF and EF development (the Yeager’s book along with Barkley’s book notable exceptions).
Social media, screen devices, the breakdown of the nuclear family and neighborhoods, the Internet, financial insecurity, and kids’ inability to gain access to mentors and mentoring programs all have the potential to impede EF development. These are topics that public intellectuals such as Sherry Turkle, Robert Putnam, Nicholas Carr, and Jeremy Rifkin have taken on. Did screen device developers set out to erode EF? I do not think so. Did the developers of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) set out to destroy EF?(5) Probably not. But that’s what’s happening.
With each school shooting public officials throw up their hands and say that they have no idea what’s going on. OK, why not start by looking at what’s going on with Executive Function in our society? Why not? Grab a copy of Barkley’s book. As Barkley puts it, we seem to be “overlooking the bidirectional influence of EF and culture.” Heck, grab a copy of the Yeager’s book. The information is there. And public intellectuals such as Turkle, Carr, Putnam, and Rifkin have been writing about the decline of EF (although they haven’t used that frame necessarily) for years now. The time is now to do something before things get any worse (if that is even possible). The very core of civility is at stake. It’s not hyperbole to say that where goes EF so too critical thinking. So many pundits out there today are “all about critical thinking,” but I do not see these same pundits “all about EF,” and they should be. Still ho-hum? Our very society is on the line. Just saying.
(1) Planning for one’s future retirement requires that one place value on the future. Turns out that valuing the future is an EF skill, along with mental time travel in general, that many researchers point to.
(2) The Yeagers spend a lot of time on how imaginative play is a central path toward the development of EF skills. I would suggest that time spent alone inside with screen devices closes off the play path toward robust EF.
(3) I would suggest that the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) would be an example here.
(4) As the Yeagers point out, if we are focused on the outer world and its objects, then typically we look to the outer world for self-soothing. This may explain in part why so many people today are turning to opioids for self-soothing.
(5) I’m pulling this from Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In his book Carr mentions that, starting in the 1990s, progressive educators embraced HTML arguing that it was a way toward releasing student’s brains from the tyranny of the single author, who often was a white male. Putting aside the ideological battle here, who’s in charge of assessing whether a move toward HTML might have blowback in the form of EF erosion?