Executive Function Skills: The “X” Factor in Early Education


It has long been known by educators, clinicians, and parents that developmental disorders involving attention, such as ADHD, can have severe detrimental consequences for academic achievement. But it is now becoming more commonplace to recognize the impact of even relatively small individual differences in “executive function” skills on school readiness and success. What are these skills, how do we measure them, and perhaps most importantly, what can we do to help improve them in young children before they experience school failure and the ensuing gaps in achievement and opportunity?



What are Executive Function Skills?
Executive Function (EF) refers to a suite of neurocognitive skills that allow us to actively and intentionally control our attention to accomplish a goal, such as keeping a question in mind in order to formulate an answer. It is typically measured as three skills: cognitive flexibility (thinking about something in multiple ways—for example, considering someone else’s perspective on a situation, or a new way to solve a problem), working memory (holding information in mind, such as the rules of a game), and inhibitory control (ignoring distractions and refraining from impulsive behavior, such as stealing a toy or having an angry outburst). These are sometimes called domain-general skills because they cut across all domains of learning, such as literacy, numeracy, and science, rather than pertaining only to one field of study.

Several long-term studies have come out with findings suggesting that individual differences in EF in early childhood predict academic achievement, including school readiness, grades, SAT scores, and graduating from college. Beyond academics, EF predicts vital life outcomes such as a lower likelihood of drug abuse, obesity, mental health disorders, and criminal convictions, and conversely, better physical health, adherence to medication, promotions at work, stable relationships, and larger retirement savings. Importantly, EF predicts all these outcomes over and above IQ. Many teachers can tell you that it takes something more than IQ, reading or math ability to be successful in school and life. The evidence we have now suggests that EF can be viewed as that “X” factor, the previously unnamed variable that seems to make a world of difference for children’s futures.

How Are EF Skills Measured?
These neurocognitive skills are measured using a variety of tools, depending on the purpose and age of the individual. It used to be believed that no one under the age of 20 could be tested reliably on EF, but that was when clinicians were first discovering the results of brain lesions, strokes, and traumatic brain injury on attention and general thinking skills, and the tests were complex and highly verbal. A variety of measures were used in the early studies with children, including self-report, parent-report, observations by researchers in the children’s homes, and the now-classic “Marshmallow Test.” Developed by Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the 1960s, this test requires preschoolers to wait alone in a room while facing a tempting treat, such as a marshmallow, in order to receive a larger reward (e.g., two marshmallows) when the examiner returns (figure). It turns out that this seemingly simple test reflects a fairly stable characteristic of being more or less self-controlled in life, well beyond the preschool classroom.

Fortunately, researchers have designed tools to measure EF skills in young children that do not necessarily require a full neuropsychological battery or a 15-minute delay-of-gratification session, which can be impractical for school settings and not well tolerated by the youngest children we might want to assess, such as toddlers, who are just beginning to develop self-control over their behavior and emotions. Young children are notoriously poor at self-report and even well-meaning parents and teachers are prone to bias in questionnaires. Instead, we use reliable and validated procedures that measure children’s EF skills directly. An example is the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS), which is a brief (4-minute), standardized, tablet-based assessment designed for children age 2 years and up (figure). Presented as a fun, engaging game, the MEFS adaptively measures the proficiency of children’s EF skills, and scores are compared to national norms. Using measures like the MEFS, we have been able to chart the development of EF skills in finer detail (figure), and to examine changes in EF skills in relation to measures of children’s brain function (e.g., recording neural activity using an electroencephalogram). Unfortunately, we and many others consistently see lower performance on EF measures in children living in poverty. This finding has inspired a number of intervention efforts.

How Can We Help Children Build EF Skills?
Research by my lab and others has generated a list of “best practices” to promote EF skills in early childhood education settings (insert). What these practices all have in common is they foster “reflection,” that is, stepping outside of a situation and considering it from multiple angles, so that children can begin to see their options for how to behave or arrive at the correct solution to a problem.

Best Practices for Promoting EF
Create routines
Try mindfulness
Think out loud
Model reflection talk
Help “just enough” and not “too much”
Encourage pretend play
Bring back old-fashioned games
Keep it challenging

Sticking to routines for things like circle time, snack time, and clean up helps children know what comes next, and then you can ask them to reflect on what comes next, and why we do things in a certain order. Mindfulness (e.g., paying attention to your breathing for a few seconds, then increasing) helps children calm down, de-stress, and learn to hold their attention for longer periods of time. Thinking out loud about your own plans (e.g., “Next I’m going to get the supplies for our game”) and especially your own mistakes teaches children how to talk themselves through things (e.g., “Oops! I tried to use the key to my house to open the supply closet! I’m at school now, so I need to use this key.”) When they need assistance, let them know you are there for support, but try to resist the urge to interfere and just do it yourself. This can be painstaking, as it calls upon your own EF skills, too! Interestingly, research has shown that children display better EF skills when they are pretending – such as delaying gratification by imagining that a yummy treat is something unappetizing. Similarly, when pretending to be someone else, such as Batman, children show more cognitive flexibility and persistence though difficult tasks. As one of the 4-year-old participants in my research noted, “Batman never gets frustrated.” Old-fashioned games such as “Red Light, Green Light” and “Simon Says” also encourage reflection, because children must hold the rules in mind and play with the concept of opposites, while suppressing the wrong move! Lastly, like any new and effortful behavior, it is important to practice these skills again and again, yet maintain the challenge by increasing difficulty (e.g., adding a new rule) when children master an easier level.

As we’ve seen, EF skills form a vital foundation for school and life, even among healthy, typically developing children. They can be measured reliably down to 2 years of age using a brief tablet “game.” Despite strong stability of individual differences in the absence of intervention, EF skills are highly plastic and receptive to practices that promote reflection, in both teachers and students alike.

The following online resources contain useful information about EF and how to promote its healthy development: 
•    Harvard University Center on the Developing Child [https://bit.ly/1P5ENyX
•    About Kids Health [https://bit.ly/1QVSMb8]
•    The Washington State Department of Early Learning [https://bit.ly/1xE65F7
•    Vroom [https://bit.ly/1Nz8Dfw]
•    Sesame Street [https://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/blog/-/blogs/executive-functioning]

Stephanie M. Carlson is a Professor and Director of Research in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. She is also a Co-founder (with Philip Zelazo, PhD) of Reflection Sciences, an organization that provides professional development, assessment tools, and data analytics regarding executive function for educators, researchers, clinicians, and families.

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