Forget Delayed Gratification: What Kids Really Need Is Cognitive Control

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By now, we’ve all heard about the famous marshmallow test, in which 4-year-olds are told they can either have the juicy one in front of them now, or two later. The 40-year-old experiment, which has been replicated using a variety of enticements, purports to prove that children who can delay gratification will meet with the most success in life. But fighting off impulses is just one part of a much broader and more predictive mental skill, one that scientists call cognitive control or the ability to manage your attention.

Cognitive control plays a central role in mental skills ranging from plain concentration and focus (on your homework, not that text from your BFF) to calming down after you get upset (say, when you finally read that text). A study published in 2011 tracked 1,000 children in New Zealand after rigorously testing them in elementary school for cognitive control. By their early 30s, their ability to manage attention predicted their financial success and their health better than did their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

(MORE: The Key to Smarter Kids: Talk to Them)

The brain’s prefrontal circuitry for managing attention develops from birth onward into the 20s. Some children naturally have more cognitive control than others, and in all kids this essential skill is being compromised by the usual suspects: smartphones, TV, etc. But there are many ways that adults can help kids learn better cognitive control. For toddlers, playing games like Simon Says or musical chairs, in which they win by playing close attention, works this mental muscle. Reading a story, or engaging in any activity that requires sustained attention, does the same.

Then there are direct lessons in paying attention. I visited a second-grade classroom in East Harlem in New York City where students have a daily session of “breathing buddies.” The children take a favorite small stuffed animal, lie down on the floor and put the animal on their belly. Then they count one-two-three as they breath in and their belly rises, and the same as their belly falls on the out breath. Teachers there say this daily session makes the children more focused and calm through the rest of the school day.

(MORE: Can ‘Mindfulness’ Really Help You Focus?)

In the New Zealand study, those children whose cognitive control improved during their childhood years fared as well as children who had high levels all along. Brain studies of mental workouts in which you sustain a single, chosen focus show that the more you detach from what’s distracting you and refocus on what you should be paying attention to, the stronger this brain circuitry becomes.

Economist James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner, argues that teaching schoolchildren such skills would benefit society in several ways: less crime, a healthier populace and an upward shift in a nation’s economy. And since, unlike IQ, cognitive control can be enhanced by the right education, it’s time our schools taught real mental fitness: the ability to focus.