At a conference earlier this year, I joined a crowd of speech and language pathologists laughing at a video parody of Cookie Monster, usually panting and lusting after his favorite treat, as he suddenly stopped himself and sang, “Me want it, but me wait.”
The spoof of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” is part of Sesame Street’s year-long curriculum on executive function, which has been defined as the CEO of the human brain; in children, its translates into the ability to make decisions and regulate behavior. “…self-regulation is often a better predictor of a child’s academic success in reading and math than a child’s IQ,” the creators of the television show write.
And Cookie Monster has emerged as the movement’s poster child, showing the utmost “restraint and resolve” to not succumb to his love of cookies. (This is hardly the muppet’s first makeover; in years past, he was forgoing cookies to be more health conscious.)
With nearly 2 million views, the video is earning fans among the people obsessed with the stuff of executive function. Of late, there are many. Experts on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, for example, have been redefining the disorder based on impairments in executive functioning. Of more mainstream concern is the lack of executive function skills taught in schools, amid greater focus on testing. My fellow parents often complain that they have to sit alongside children and keep them focused on their homework. But shouldn’t school be teaching them to self-monitor?
That is the beauty of the new, improved Cookie Monster. He teaches children, even the very young, that they can keep themselves in check. It is the same reason I encourage my son to use a Time Timer. He knows that if he sets his timer for 15 minutes and realizes that he’s only done one math problem when the timer rings, then clearly it is time to re-evaluate the process of homework, including the time of day he does it, where he does it, what tools he uses, and of course, the amount of work that he gets. Unfortunately, most tests only evaluate whether he can answer questions—not how came to be able to answer those questions.
But the workplace gets this. Consider some of the most common phrases you see in in job advertisements. Here are some I pulled out from one for an administrative/marketing assistant.:
- Ability to effectively juggle, prioritize and complete conflicting and simultaneous projects.
- Strong organizational skills and attention to detail
- Strong follow-up
Interestingly enough, the similar words appear for a director of marketing position. (I’ve bolded the executive function buzzwords.)
- Solid strategic marketing acumen
- Dexterity to forge winning relationships
- Strong project management orientation, including the ability to work with cross-functional organization
- Strong project management and organization skills
- Strong interpersonal skills
- Ability to effectively coordinate multiple responsibilities simultaneously
No one is born with an ability to function like an executive, and executive functioning is an evolving process. Preschoolers will likely not demonstrate these skills as they generally just wait and respond to happenings. However, as children get older, they learn more about themselves and what they need to do in order to prepare themselves for a task and how to execute it. By age 12, children should possess many of these skills and continue to hone them into adulthood. If they don’t, they face grave disappointment as adults in a world constantly correcting them, often to such a great extent that the negative feedback is debilitating. “This self-evaluation, self-reflection, planning and strategizing process is something that everybody does to some extent but when you don’t do it, it can cause all kinds of grief,” Dr. Sheldon Horowitz, the director of learning disabled resources at the National Center for Learning Disabilitiessaid in an interview with Quartz. (In October, his organization published an e-book, Executive Function 101, which has been downloaded 27,000 times.)
Horowitz explains the downside of a generation growing up without knowing how to make a decision, take a risk, or fight temptation:
You don’t stand there with your hands at your sides, waiting for someone to come to the rescue. Kids who don’t develop those kinds of repair strategies are the kinds of kids who grow up to be workers who are constantly waiting to be told, ‘Well what do I do next?’ They’re the ones who aren’t the risk-takers.
To be sure, Horowitz says parents can help children develop these critical skills by playing strategy games and placing importance on evaluating and discussing the tactics used. He also advised that children be given a chance to plan events, such as a family picnic or a weekend outing. “It allows them to be an executive. It allows them to make the decisions,” he says. “It allows them to reflect of what they’re going to need and what they’re going to do and whether or not it’s going to work out.”
If, as New York Times reported over the weekend, the next frontier of ADHD diagnoses are actually adults, there are even more reasons to hope we’re teaching executive function earlier. It is not difficult to imagine that more managers will have common complaints such as their hires not completing work on time, not asking for help at the right time, needing more organizational skills, etc.
I know executive functioning isn’t as simple as singing, “But Me Wait.” Still, Cookie Monster is bringing much-needed skills and vocabulary into our households, and hopefully, eventually, into our schools and offices. It’s crucial that children begin to understand that practicing good executive skills now will expand their choices for the future, choices that are so much more rewarding than video games, television, or, yes, even cookies.