EF: The School Skill That May Matter More Than IQ

Most people can recall a kid from grade school who couldn't stay seated, who talked out of turn and fidgeted constantly, whose backpack overflowed with crumpled handouts and who always had to ask other kids what the homework assignment was. Those kids weren't bad kids, but they seemed to have absolutely no self-control, no internal disciplinarian to put a brake on their impulses, to keep their attention focused. Not surprisingly, they were almost always lousy students as well.

This kind of student has been tagged with a variety of labels over the years: antisocial personality, conduct disorder, stupid. But recent advances in psychology and brain science are now suggesting that a child's ability to inhibit distracting thoughts and stay focused may be a fundamental cognitive skill, one that plays a big part in academic success from preschool on. Indeed, this and closely related skills may be more important than traditional IQ in predicting a child's school performance.

The scientific name for this set of skills is "executive function," or EF. It's an emerging concept in student assessment and could eventually displace traditional measures of ability and achievement. EF comprises not only effortful control and cognitive focus but also working memory and mental flexibility—the ability to adjust to change, to think outside the box. These are the uniquely human skills that, taken together, allow us keep our more impulsive and distractible brain in check. New research shows that EF, more than IQ, leads to success in basic academics like arithmetic and grammar. It also suggests that we can pump up these EF skills with regular exercise, just as we do with muscles.

Psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been testing the EF concept in the classroom, with provocative results. In one recent study Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district (in the northeastern United States) to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.

The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: "OK, now clap." "Twirl now." This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain's ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it's the elementary school equivalent of saying "I really need stop thinking about next week's vacation and focus on this report."

Here's another example from the classroom. Children tell stories to one another, but kids being kids, they all want to be the storyteller; none wants to just sit and listen. But the reality is that only one can tell a story at a time, so the designated listeners hold a picture of an ear, a prop to remind them that they are waiting their turn to talk. This helps them learn to control their natural instinct to talk out of turn. Eventually the props and private chatter are not needed, but in the beginning they help cognitively immature children stretch their executive muscles.

Dramatic role playing is a cornerstone of the EF philosophy. The preschoolers, all four and five years old, actually design the play's action by themselves. For example: "Let's pretend you're the mommy and I'm the baby. I'll get sick, and you'll need to take me to the doctor." Then they act it out, solving problems along the way. The idea is that play of this kind promotes the internalization of rules and expectations and demands mental discipline to stay in character—all cognitive challenges. Importantly, these exercises are not tacked on as a separate teaching, but rather are integrated into every activity of the child's day, from reading to math.

This is a vast oversimplification of a curriculum that has taken years to develop and is grounded in rigorous scientific studies of children's brain development. One concern of EF proponents is that dramatic play and clapping games will seem frivolous, a distraction from drilling kids in fractions and irregular verbs. But Diamond's results say otherwise. As she reported at the recent convention of the Association for Psychological Science in Chicago, kids in both traditional and experimental classrooms were given a battery of EF tests following two years of preschool. The tests were very difficult cognitive challenges that require kids to inhibit their automatic responses. The EF-trained children outperformed the traditionally educated kids on every single test. In fact, the differences were so dramatic after one year that some school officials opted out of the experiment to give all the kids the benefit of EF training.

But there's more. Psychologist Clancy Blair of Pennsylvania State University has shown that preschoolers with sharper executive capability also outperform their more traditional peers in basic skills, especially mathematics, when they hit kindergarten. In other words, as counterintuitive as it seems, early exposure to dramatic play and cognitive games better prepares kids for mastery of traditional academics.

Kids are being expelled from school in startling numbers, even from preschool. Executive skills are disproportionately worse in children from deprived economic circumstances, and these skills may account for up to half of the gap in school readiness between white kids and African-American kids. These are precisely the kids whom the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education reforms were supposed to help, but under that law, play has been marginalized as a luxury at best and at worst as an impediment to basic skills training and test scores. These results argue that by neglecting basic brain function we may be leaving our kids behind in a much more destructive way—and depriving them of playfulness in the process.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.