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Executive Functioning and Self-Discipline


Executive functioning has become a popular term to help parents and educators come to terms with their continual failure to get children to perform to standard levels of performance or proficiency, either their own defined standards or global standards, despite the highest per pupil spending in the world. With all this money pouring into education, and an ability to slot only so many children into ELL or Special Education buckets, or to diagnose only so many students with behavioral problems or ADHD, or to blame only so many moms and dads for poor parenting skills, it makes sense to lean on executive functioning as an excuse for our collective failure to try to fix or replace a flawed system.

“Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.”

~ National Center for Learning Disabilities

Sadly, it seems that much of the problem has nothing to do with children, or not in the way we want to believe, at least. While it is true that many kids are failing to meet (arbitrarily determined) grade based standards, educators, politicians and tax payers seem to want to gloss over the fact that not all children are born on the same day, meaning not all children in a given grade are the same age, nor do all children develop at the same rate (cognitively, emotionally or physically). When we treat children as though they should all be at the same place at the same time, and we ignore the oppressive institution that is schooling (e.g., full of barked orders, emotional abuse, soul crushing curricula, segregation from society), we set them up for failure on more than just tests. As neuropsychologist Penny Prather explains, having children attempt to perform tasks before they are developmentally ready for them may actually prevent the necessary skills from developing, making it look like the child has a deficit as opposed to the adults in the room pushing the notion of failure.

Another example of blaming the child for the failures of the schooling system comes through talk of self-discipline within children. Alfie Kohn, fortunately, is a researcher and writer with a platform that he uses to help push back against the notion that self-discipline is the solution to our education problems, along with many other terribly destructive theories on how to make schooling successful (by which they mean less bad). In his essay “Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within,” he tears apart this notion through three buckets of rejection: psychological, philosophical and political. I’ll only cover psychological, although I encourage others to read the entire essay (in the political bucket Kohn leans too heavily on the false left-right American political paradigm as he does in too many of his essays, but his argument is still solid).

In the psychological bucket Kohn highlights that high levels of self-discipline, while liked by teachers and many parents may actually be really bad for children and that a lack of discipline, or impulsivity, may actually be really good for children. Kohn argues persuasively that impulsivity can lead to greater joy in life and that self-discipline can take away that joy, as well as take away any motivation for learning other than avoiding the angst that comes with not having something done. However, he goes further to point out that even if kids internalize self-discipline (doing it because s/he “should”), it can still be more destructive than constructive, leading them to perform to external standards, but of little benefit to real learning or personal growth.

In the sidebar Kohn also references a popular Stanford experiment that allowed children to eat a marshmallow at any time they wanted to, or if they waited long enough to receive two marshmallows (a similar experiment was also presented at TED by Joachim de Posada in 2009). The argument that is pushed forth when people reference that experiment is that in the long run, those children who had the self-discipline to resist eating the marshmallow performed better at life (SAT scores, included). While this may be true (and yes, self-discipline most certainly does help employees in certain fields such as investment banking or the military), it is not certain that self-discipline is what ultimately leads to happiness or success. It may lead to better performance in schools where standards are set and self-disciplined children can neurotically do what it takes to make their teachers happy, but perhaps children who seek immediate satisfaction lead better lives in certain contexts. It is those individuals that one might assume may be the artists, the innovators, the entrepreneurs and the people who live in the now, instead of always deferring for a better tomorrow that never comes.


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8 Responses to " Executive Functioning and Self-Discipline "

  1. Craig says:

    Antonio ROCKS!!!

    I wish something like this had existed when my son was young. He’s about to graduate HS now, but at least he didn’t go to public schools – we chose Fusion Academy instead. It’s very pricey but our campus was worth it.

    Unschooling has been known since Ivan Ilich and John Holt but in our perverted system, never caught on. Good luck with your great endeavor!

  2. Charles Polk says:

    Ok, I get it, homeschooling is better…or is it? If it’s better, why do most developed countries still use the public school paradigm to educate their children. Take Finland for example. Finland provides a public school system that produces excellent results. There are no private schools to speak of in Finland and homeschooling is almost non-existent. In Finland, teaching is a highly regarded profession, in fact Fins rate teaching as the most prestigious profession, followed by medicine. When asked what they want to do with their lives, 25% of children in Finnish High schools say they want to be teachers but only 6% of that number will be be able to enter the profession because Finnish teaching academies only accept applicants from the top 30% of graduating college students. In the US, teaching is treated as a “fall back career” and most teachers are drawn from the bottom third of college graduates. Finnish teachers are allowed wide latitude in designing their lesson plans and curricula for their students. The Finnish state does have some loose standards that indicate where students should be at any given grade level, but nothing as procrustean as what most teachers deal with in this country. Students may not even be graded for the first few years they are in school. In short, the fins have a great public school system despite not paying their teachers as well as the US does, largely because they give the teaching profession a high degree of prestige that has always been sadly lacking in this country.

    • Antonio Buehler says:

      Unfortunately Finland doesn’t get excellent results. They just get results that are less bad than the United States. Them not being as bad as us is no reason to ignore the fundamental flaw of a system where kids are treated as incompetent people.

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  6. Garfield says:

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