The world’s most famous cookie addict might not seem like a worthy spokesperson for self-control, but it turns out he might be. A forthcoming study finds short videos of Cookie Monster exercising some restraint in giving into his vice can help kids mirror the behavior.

Cognitive systems like executive function and self-control have become hot-button issues for researchers in recent years. ADHD diagnosis rates are climbing, and parents and school officials share some concerns over today’s kids’ ability to sit still. Without the stern voice in their heads telling them to be patient, be quiet, and listen, some kids grow up never learning to flex that muscle in their brain.

“Being able to delay gratification basically helps you work toward desirable long-term goals that are more challenging and less appealing than doing something in the short-term,” Dr. Deborah Linebarger, lead investigator and professor of education at the University of Iowa, told Medical Daily. “This specific set of skills has been linked beyond academic achievement.”

Hoping to understand how a popular figure like Cookie Monster, despite his propensity to binge, could help kids exercise some restraint in their own lives, Linebarger recruited 59 children from six child-care centers in and around a small city in the Midwest. They watched one of two videos: Cookie Monster singing a remixed version of Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” entitled “Me Want It (But Me Wait),” or an unrelated video of a boy named Murray traveling with his pet lamb. Kids were then given related DVDs to watch at home for the next three weeks.

Preschoolers who watched the Cookie Monster video demonstrated a few improvements in executive function over the control group. They were able to wait four minutes longer before eating a marshmallow; they shouted out fewer names they recognized, owing to a sense of impulse control; and they could recall longer strings of numbers than their peers. For Linebarger, this abstract activity of watching a blue monster sing his own praises actually translates well into the classroom.

“A formal school situation requires that children control impulses, follow directions, transit smoothly between activities, and focus on relevant task information,” she said. “These skills also predict other academic skills including reading, math, and science.”

Set For Life

Executive functions refer to the set of commands your brain doles out to keep you grounded in the real world. These include your reasoning ability, problem-solving skills, working memory, your ability to go between multiple tasks of a different nature (known as task flexibility), and your planning skills. Many of these abilities stem from a healthy frontal lobe, and they stay with people forever.

Deficiencies in these areas are common in kids with ADHD and other difficulties with attention. The areas of their brains that should be telling them to stop bouncing between activities are weak, and a great deal of research exists suggesting ways to help strengthen them. One way is exercise. A study published early this September found morning exercise before school calms kids’ symptoms — bolstering the idea that hyperactive kids may simply need a little more time to burn off their energy.

But Linebarger’s recent study suggests a broader appeal to executive functions. Kids who learn to delay gratification and prize short-term sacrifice over immediate reward generally turn out better. Prior research has found greater use of these skills predicts higher SAT scores, career achievement, financial success, and long-term physical health. In the last 30 years, obesity has tripled among children and quadrupled among adolescents. Waiting to eat cookies may in fact be the most important skill kids learn.

Programs like Sesame Street play a critical role in grooming kids to use their executive functions, Linebarger argues. They are at once engaging and informative, and generally kids don’t know they’re learning as they watch. They also work great as on-ramps for a lifetime of success.

“If you’re struggling to sit still and concentrate, then reading is really challenging,” Linebarger told Medical Daily. “But if you can develop some of these skills when you’re in preschool, when you transition into a formal sitting you’ll be able to sit still longer and find more successes in academic domains.”