Of Executive Functions and Postsecondary Success

By Mamadou Ndiaye
January 17, 2014

How-Children-SucceedPaul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, is about the importance of character in preparing students for success in education, employment, and life. Specifically, he describes the critical role of developing executive functions for young people to succeed in college.

Executive functions, according to Mr. Tough, combine both emotional and cognitive impulse control that help students regulate their thought and emotions. He quotes a Harvard psychologist who describes executive functions as “a team of air traffic controllers overseeing the functions of the brain.”

What’s exciting about Mr. Tough’s findings is that executive functions, like other major functions in the brain, are malleable and can be strengthened well into adolescence and even adulthood. To those of us who have been in the field of designing pathways to reengage young people who have dropped out or are considerably behind in credits, this finding does not come as a big surprise. The most successful programs with this population of students specialize in building students’ executive functions by using high-touch counseling and support combined with accountability and a sense of ownership of one’s own learning.

Former dropouts turn into college students in a relatively short period of time—two to three years—with the support of these programs. I have seen it in cohorts of programs affiliated with YouthBuild USA or with the National Youth Employment Coalition, as well as in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in the Rio Grande Valley. All are implementing pathways to and through postsecondary education for formerly disconnected youth whose life circumstances put them at a tremendous disadvantage. And these students are—against all odds—progressing towards a secondary credential and entering postsecondary education in higher-than-average numbers. They are succeeding precisely because of renewed optimism and a can-do attitude enabled by an increased mastery of executive functions.

In the end, Mr. Tough’s book is an expression of a profound sense of optimism regarding the power of education to bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students. To me, his findings are yet another confirmation that with smart and strategically targeted investments in proven models, we can fundamentally change the trajectories of millions of young people who, through no fault of their own, risk being stuck in what seems to be a never-ending cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Click here for more information about the networks mentioned in this blog and models designed to help off-track or out-of-school students earn a postsecondary credential.

Mamadou Ndiaye is a senior project manager at JFF, which works with its partners to design and drive adoption of education and career pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for those struggling to succeed in today’s economy.

Photograph courtesy of amazon.com

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