Don’t Forget Teens

James Heckman has done an extraordinary service by bringing psychological research on early interventions to the attention of a broad audience. His review of the scientific evidence is compelling and makes the case that parental training and educational enrichment in the early years have critical and lasting effects on children. Further, he makes the extremely important point that these effects are mediated not by changes in IQ, but rather by changes in non-cognitive factors, such as motivation, persistence, and resilience.

Arguing that allocating funds for early education programs is preferable to funding programs that deal with the aftermath of poor early environments, Heckman introduces the idea of the equity-efficiency tradeoff: although the latter programs are equitable, the return on investment is low and they are thus not economically efficient.

I strongly support early interventions, but Heckman’s comparisons can be misleading. First, he compares early programs that foster non-cognitive skills to later remedial programs such as adult literacy programs or public job training programs, which address mostly specific cognitive or job skills. All along he has argued for the importance and the malleability of non-cognitive skills, so wouldn’t the proper comparison be adolescent and adult programs that focus on non-cognitive skills?

Second, and even more important, he compares the very costly early interventions to very costly later interventions. What if there were interventions for adolescents that addressed non-cognitive factors and were both inexpensive and effective?

In fact, there are. My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year. Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen have spearheaded interventions that address adolescents’ sense of their social and academic belonging in school, enhancing students’ motivation and resilience, and leading to a substantial and enduring decrease in the racial achievement gap. None of these treatments required more than eight short sessions, and most required less.

Interventions for adolescents can be inexpensive and efficient.

Heckman alludes to these kinds of interventions briefly when he points out that “remediation in the adolescent years targeted toward non-cognitive skills can repair some of the damage of adverse early environments,” but then implies that such remediation would fail the equity-efficiency test. Although I wouldn’t claim that these short non-cognitive interventions in adolescence can obliterate a problematic childhood, they do go a long way toward closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged adolescents. And they work well for students with no prior enrichment; indeed, they often work best for those who are faring worst. This means that later interventions targeted at non-cognitive factors can achieve impressive gains with remarkable efficiency.

The success of the adolescent interventions derives from their laser-like focus on particular non-cognitive factors and the beliefs that underlie them—knowledge stemming from psychological theory. Such psychological precision needs to be brought to all aspects of early interventions. For example, my colleagues and I recently tested a hypothesis derived from psychological theory and showed that the type of praise a mother directs at her baby predicts the child’s desire for challenging tasks five years later. The early interventions Heckman discusses, although groundbreaking, have been massive and non-specific. For example, the Abecedarian Project was a year-round, full-day intervention that started at around four months of age and continued through age five. Other interventions involved lengthy home visits. For early interventions to become feasible on a large scale, we need to make them more efficient—we need to isolate their critical components and focus on them.

Early interventions are of tremendous importance for the future of our society, but so are focused, psychologically potent interventions with older children and adolescents. Our goal should be to use psychological research to make all of our interventions as efficient and potent as possible so that we do not have to decide who will be the haves and who will be the have-nots.