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Hard work sign with heavy hammerA lots been said about the need for children to buck up and show a little grit.

Angela Duckworth has a TED Talk on the topic. Paul Tough has a best seller (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character). David Brooks has even weighed in (NY Times OpEd, September 28, 2012).

They make a good point. Children’s ability to focus and persevere does improve their chances for academic and social competence.

But here’s the problem. The neural pathways required to exercise these habits of the mind or executive functions are co-created with parents in the earliest months and years of childhood. Children cannot acquire them on their own. They need the attention and support of adults who possess the character traits Duckworth, Tough and others wish to see in children.

Children at risk for the poorest academic and social outcomes often live in environments where caregivers are unable to model the skills needed to develop strong executive function. They themselves may struggle with poor problem-solving abilities or self-regulatory behaviors. Hence, the intergenerational transfer of poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness.

But Jack Shonkoff and his colleagues at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child think there’s a way to break the cycle.

It lies in the slow development of the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain responsible for executive function. It reaches maturity between the ages of 25-30. Until then it remains quite malleable.

Dr. Shonkoff recommends making use of this prolonged plasticity by providing parents, childcare providers, and preschool teachers with strategies they can use to improve their own executive functioning. As their skills improve, they are better able to model appropriate behavior for the children in their care.

Watch this video to learn more about Dr. Shonkoff’s approach:

Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change.

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