Why Kids Need Cognitive Control

Do you remember the famous marshmallow experiment from the 1960s? Researchers placed a single marshmallow in front of a group of small children.  “You can eat this now,” they were told, “but if you wait just a minute until I return I will give you TWO marshmallows.” Years down the road, children who waited patiently had higher test scores and were at lower risk of substance addiction and obesity, leading researchers to herald the importance of delayed gratification.

In last week’s TIME magazine, psychologist Daniel Goleman – author of Emotional Intelligence – highlighted a recent study that helps put the marshmallow test into perspective. In his article, “Forget Delayed Gratification: What Kids Really Need Is Cognitive Control,” he notes that delayed gratification is just one dimension of a larger skill set he calls cognitive control: the mental skills that help you manage your attention, focus on a task, and calm down after feeling upset. According to the article:

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.

Here’s the good news.  While some children show a more natural propensity toward cognitive control than others, all children can increase their capacity for focus with sustained training. The area of the brain responsible for attention begins to develop at birth and continues to grow into one’s 20s. Reading books, playing games that require attention to detail, and other activities that require sustained focus from the participant help young brains grow in the right direction.  In fact, Goleman notes:

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.

In many ways, this research simply reinforces our observations as parents and educators:  curling up with a good book, sticking with a math problem, building a complex Lego structure, practicing that musical piece over and over again are all brain-healthy activities. Providing opportunities and structure for this type of cognitive growth is a wonderful gift we can give our kids.

P.S. To read Goleman’s full article, go to: http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/07/forget-delayed-gratification-what-kids-really-need-is-cognitive-control/



  • Reblogged this on Family Answers Fast and commented:
    I actually did the “delay of gratification marshmallow test” with my first two children when they were young. My first-born daughter held out for 2 marshmallows and likely went off to read a good book while she waited. Her younger brother snatched his 1 marshmallow and enjoyed it thoroughly then likely ran off to master his fast ball pitch. Both now, at ages 21 and 18, have good cognitive control, each mastering their thoughts in their own way and time. Dr. Mike Kris writes this great blog post which includes current research that reflects our experience.

  • Excellent blog post, Mike! Thank you for doing a fine job of updating me on where “delay of gratification” stands and fits in with cognitive control. I’m grateful to reblog, too. Now I’m craving a s’more 🙂

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