While the mental skills we use to pursue a goal are associated with academic achievement, there's little evidence -- at least yet -- that they cause it.

Share story

Research has long shown that kids who struggle to pay attention, plan ahead and control their impulses don’t do well in school.

So improving those mental skills would lead to higher test scores, right?

The idea has generated a lot of interest among educators, researchers and companies promoting programs aimed at improving “executive function” skills, which we all use whenever we pursue a goal.

But buyers beware: There’s not much evidence that improving those skills yields higher test scores in reading and math, according to a meta-analysis published this month in Review of Educational Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Robin Jacob of the University of Michigan and Julia Parkinson of the American Institutes for Research analyzed 67 studies exploring the link between executive function and academic achievement. All were published within the last 15 years with more than half after 2010.

Most of the studies focused on kids who were between the ages of 3 and 5 or between 6 and 11. The review did not include research on children with documented disabilities, and it used English and math test scores as its only measure of academic achievement.

While many of the studies showed a consistent correlation between executive function skills and test scores, only a handful tried to determine if better skills caused better test scores. The results were mixed and unconvincing.

“Although the link between the two may well be causal, the link should be more clearly established before programs designed to improve executive function in school-age children are taken to scale,” the study’s authors wrote.

So what would be convincing?

More randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which students are randomly assigned to a program aimed at boosting their executive function, then compared with a second group of similar students that doesn’t get the same training.

Such trials can be complex and costly, so they’re typically used on ideas that already have shown promise in less demanding studies.

But research into the relationship between executive function and academic achievement is far enough along to warrant  them,  Jacob said in an email.

“I do think that this is an area that is ripe for RCTs and I hope that this article will encourage more of them,” Jacob said.