Developing children’s cognitive skills

As we attempt to retool our educational system to prepare us for the 21st century, aided by oil revenues, we should note that our schools are still almost exclusively concerned – especially at the younger ages – with developing children’s cognitive skills. Now, there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, studies have shown consistently that there is an unequivocal and unambiguous correlation between cognitive ability and later success in life.
But, as one study pointed out, “there is convergent evidence that, independently of cognitive skills, children’s self-control, ie the ability to control their impulses and to delay gratification, is highly important for academic, economic, and health outcomes during adolescence and beyond.” Addressing a symposium on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, former President Desmond Hoyte, in a speech titled “Looking beyond the horizon”, pointed out that this was an even greater challenge for post-slave societies, such as Guyana is.
He noted that slaves had been forced to be “constantly preoccupied with the exigencies of the moment”, and asserted that this was “one of the most pernicious consequences of slavery.” He concluded: “And so, lacking a social motive, he developed no interest in, or aptitude for, making long term arrangements. Moreover, the colonial polity which succeeded the era of slavery did not provide the former slave and his descendants with significantly greater incentive or opportunity for cultivating these pursuits. Thus, there persists in our society, even to this day, a reluctance to focus too intently on the future.”
We must accept that this attitude remains one of the major fetters of our development, both in terms of our national and individual stunted growth needs. But, as Mr Hoyte pointed out, the attitude was socially constructed, and therefore it can also be socially deconstructed and replaced with attitudes that foster the willingness to plan and work for the future. While we might have rectified some (but certainly not all) of the debilitating premises of our post-slavery schooling that continued to hegemonise our minds into the last half a century, we have a far way to go.
Because we often find that, even with the willingness to develop cognitive skills, or in parents to promote such skills in their children, many are still stuck in living for the moment. And crucial to moving from the cramped and crabbed present into a liberating future of economic, academic and other measures of success is the ability of children to control their impulses and delay gratification, as the study cited above showed.
In most instances, successful individuals were able to bootstrap their way upwards through imitating the habits of other successful individuals and groups. But we do not have to allow the process to be based on “luck and chance”. The studies have shown that when youths are placed in self-control situations in a structured manner, and they are allowed to experience the potentially negative consequences of impulsive behaviour, they will increase their ability to delay gratification. The same goes for teaching them the benefits of a future time perspective. There are now programmes out there to impart future thinking.
While all children can benefit from this kind of training, with our scarce resources, it may be best to identify and begin with youths that exhibit low self-control, and therefore suffer the greatest risk of ending up as “failures”. As the authors of the study that prompted this refection suggest: “Because children from disadvantaged backgrounds often score low on self-control ability, and may also be those for which parents may least be able to promote these skills, interventions as part of the formal education may therefore serve distributional purposes.
Instead of redistributing (economic) outcomes later in life, such early interventions allow children from disadvantaged backgrounds to develop better self-control skills. In this way, it is possible to redistribute along the whole spectrum of life outcomes, including outcome categories that are otherwise hard to redistribute, like health, occupational skills, and education.”