To be a flourishing adult (and a happy, joyous teenager!) children need to acquire executive functions, or “the deliberate, goal-directed control of behavior” as Peter David Zelazo, Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, defines them. Duckworth and Seligman, two leading researchers in the field, summarized the importance of executive functions shown in one of their studies as follows:
“Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held even when controlling for first-marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ. These findings suggest a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline.”
Adele Diamond, Professor for Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia and a leading researcher in the field, identifies core executive functions, such as inhibitory control (self-control/self-discipline and selective attention/screening out of distractions), working memory, and cognitive flexibility (which includes creativity), as well as higher-order executive functions, such as problem solving, reasoning, and planning. (This source provides a good introductory reading on executive functions; this source links to many of the original research.)
The question then is, how do children learn these critical skills? What type of schooling helps children develop self-discipline, strong attention skills, cognitive flexibility, and planning skills?
If you visualize a typical traditional classroom, the opportunities to practice these skills are quite limited. When 30 or 35 children sit at desks with one teacher up front, when everyone needs to do the same work, at the same time, when the adult sets the agenda and the testing schedule sets the speed at which work needs to be accomplished—how do children get to plan, to practice flexibility, and to deeply immerse themselves into something?
In contrast, the mixed-age Montessori classroom is a perfect environment for practicing executive functions. Here are just two aspects (there are many more our team would love to point out when you visit one of our schools or observe in one of our Montessori Elementary classrooms):