Ready, Set, Learn
Researchers explore connections between executive function and school readiness
Executive function may sound like the stuff of the boardroom, but its most important role may reside in the elementary classroom. Its absence is obvious in story time when a kindergartener cannot sit still or during instruction as a student blurts out comments when others are speaking. For some students, underdeveloped executive function can contribute to challenges with problem-solving or with transitioning between learning tasks.
Known as the CEO of the brain, executive function is an umbrella term for a set of skills surrounding goal-directed behavior and self-control—the purposeful control of thoughts, actions, and emotions. Put in everyday terms, executive function often involves mindfully doing the opposite of what you’re naturally inclined to do, explains Stephanie Carlson, an associate professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD). That might mean acting shocked when someone throws you a surprise party, even though you already knew about it, or being gracious when receiving a gift you really don’t like.
For children, executive function governs the connection between knowing what to do (or not do) and actually controlling their behavior. Young people develop the relevant skills from late infancy through early adulthood. The preschool years are an especially critical time for children to hone their executive function ability, researchers report. And those who lack executive function skills face an uphill battle in school readiness and achievement—often failing to thrive because they can’t sit still, listen to teachers, and focus on learning.
“Children make the most striking advances in the preschool period. It really improves drastically,” notes Carlson, who runs the Carlson Child Development Lab, which uses behavioral, neuro-imaging, and cross-cultural methods for examining children’s social and cognitive development. “If we can help 3- to 4-year-olds get up to speed in executive function, they will be on a more level playing field with their peers when they start school.”
Getting ready for school
Creating new ways to assess executive function in children and identify lagging development has long been the focus of both Carlson and Philip Zelazo, the Nancy M. and John E. Lindahl Professor in ICD and head of the Zelazo Lab. Each of the two professors came to the institute in 2007, when they established the Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab.
Collectively Carlson and Zelazo have bolstered the college’s research and expertise in child cognitive development, especially related to the emergence of executive function. Zelazo is credited with a foundational approach for assessing goal-directed behavior in children, as well as connecting neuroscience with cognitive development. Carlson is creating a standardized set of assessment tools for executive function skills, which can be difficult to identify. Early childhood educators, schools, and other child development specialists could use the tools to screen for school readiness.
The study of executive function and its effect on school readiness is critically important, Zelazo says. It’s becoming recognized as “an important predictor of many real-world developmental outcomes, like school achievement or behavioral problems. In many cases it’s a more important predictor than intelligence,” he says. “For early school performance, being able to sit still and pay attention to the teacher are more important determinates of success than being smart.”
It’s crucial to intervene with children during their preschool years so they can prepare for school, says Scott McConnell, a professor of educational psychology and affiliate of the Center for Early Education and Development. School readiness means different things to different people, McConnell says, but overall it’s multidimensional, covering intellectual, social, and behavioral skills, including executive function and self-regulation, that equip children to learn.
McConnell helped start the 500 Under 5 program, now part of the Northside Achievement Zone, which helps children in two North Minneapolis neighborhoods prepare for school. The program utilizes community resources for early childhood education and assessments that help caregivers understand skills in which the child may need help, as well as tools they can use at home—especially in the areas of language and literacy.
“We describe it as an effort to knit together existing community resources and improve and expand where needed,” McConnell says. “Then families have an array of services available from birth through kindergarten that are likely to promote their development in ways that help their school readiness.”
Though McConnell believes it’s never too late to help a struggling child, steering youth onto a path of success is more likely if the intervention comes earlier. “If children arrive at kindergarten without essential skills, it gets harder to intervene,” he says. “There are skilled teachers that can be helpful to kids if they are identified early on. But these are not things that kids just grow out of.”
Those early school years are vitally important because research shows that students who don’t acquire age-appropriate reading skills in kindergarten through second grade tend to perform below their classmates as they proceed in school. In fact, struggling readers in third grade tend to perform more poorly than their peers on into high school, McConnell adds. The earlier teachers, parents, and early childhood professionals assess young children and their executive function abilities, the quicker they can help them obtain these necessary skills and get ready for school.
Training executive function
During a career focused on psychology, brain development, and neural function, Zelazo has broken significant ground on the understanding of executive function and when and how it develops. One important consequence of forming executive function skills is the ability to engage in goal-directed problem-solving. Those with strong executive function can plan successfully, keep their mission in mind, and act on it when the time is right, even when the environment or instructions change.
Zelazo developed a now widely used test to determine how well children apply executive function to goal-directed problem-solving at different ages. Called the Dimensional Change Card Sort, the cognitive test asks children first to sort a stack of picture cards by color—a picture of a red rabbit in one pile and a picture of a blue boat into another, for example. Then, midway through the test, the assessor will change the task and ask the child to sort the pictures by shape instead.
A typical 3-year-old will have trouble switching their thinking and continue to sort by the original rule, even if he or she can repeat the instructions back correctly. A 4- or 5-year-old typically can adjust and follow the new rules. Zelazo chalks up the improvement to developmental leaps in self-reflection that usually occur around age 4. These leaps help children recognize that they know two different ways to sort the cards, which in turn allows them to decide deliberately which rules to use.
Zelazo pairs this cognitive research with studies of the brain itself to predict whether a child will do well on executive function assessments. He uses electroencephalography to study executive function, tracking changes in electrical activity on the scalp from brain activity. His other neuro-imaging techniques locate brain correlates of executive function by monitoring changes in blood flow as children of different ages engage in executive function tasks.
Part of Zelazo’s research involves training children in the process of reflection and rule use. After some training, he measures their performance and records their neural activity to see whether they improved compared to tasks in which they were not trained. “So far our work has been really encouraging in that it does seem possible to facilitate the development of executive function,” he says. “It could be the case, though this hasn’t been studied yet, that this period of development when executive function and the relevant brain regions are undergoing very rapid changes, that there is a window of opportunity for intervention.”
Carlson and her team are working on an assessment tool that educators could eventually use for gauging school readiness. Based on Zelazo’s Dimensional Change Card Sort, children complete a task and keep doing increasingly difficult sorts. Participants continue moving up to higher levels until they get stumped. “It’s like an IQ test in that it establishes the child’s ceiling level,” says Carlson.
Carlson also explores the positive link between pretend play and executive function. She has found that children with proclivities toward make believe tend to have high executive function skills. In a correlational study involving 100 children, Carlson’s researchers ran a battery of tests on 3- and 4-year-olds coupled with pretend play measures. The children who were fantasy-oriented scored highly on their executive function assessments, regardless of IQ.
“Strong pretenders understand the boundary between pretend and reality and are also good with executive function, where you are playing around with boundaries,” says Carlson. “We think that pretending is really one of the key ingredients to executive function development. And the experimental, observational, and correlational evidence really backs that up.”
In another assessment of pretending and executive function, researchers asked children to play a game with a stuffed animal. One tray had five pieces of candy while another tray had two. The children were told that the tray they picked would go to the animal, and they would get the other tray. Even if they were reminded halfway through the game, the 3-year-olds would continually point to the tray with more candy, giving the bigger portion away. But the 4-year-olds would usually have a light-bulb moment when they realized that they needed to point to the tray with the smaller amount of candy to receive the larger amount. Carlson found that 25 percent of her 3-year-old subjects passed the test compared to 65 percent of the 4-year-olds.
Next, the researchers read a story to some of the children called Planet Opposite, where everything is topsy turvy, to see if hearing about an imaginary world would help them get into a more flexible state of mind. Other children heard a more straightforward story. In this study, Carlson and graduate student Rachel White found that 60 percent of the 3-year-olds who listened to the Planet Opposite story passed the candy/animal assessment compared to 20 percent of the kids who heard the straightforward story.
This strong link between pretend play and executive function, as well as social skills, gives teachers tools when working with children or students who are lagging behind, Carlson says. Improving one of these areas can have a strong impact on kids’ ability to learn. “I like the idea of trying to infiltrate the system from many different angles,” she adds. “You can work on one area like pretend play, and it will have positive, reverberating effects on other areas like social skills or executive function. That’s important, and it can make a big difference for students.”
Carlson and Zelazo are teaming up with others from the college to study executive function in preschool-age children living in stressful environments. Working with Ann Masten, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in ICD, the professors will study 4-year-olds staying at the People Serving People homeless shelter to determine if guidance during an activity can help them enhance executive function. It’s an important group to study because Masten’s research has shown that children enduring poverty and stress are susceptible to poorly developed executive function, Zelazo says.
The study will compare outcomes for children who receive the training compared to those who don’t. They want to see if a relatively brief intervention early in development can have long-term effects and cascading consequences for functioning in other areas. “A small change at just the right time sets children on a different trajectory and developmental pathway, and it could have a really large effect down the line,” Zelazo says.
Another reason to tackle executive function and its development: Those who have childhood onset disorders, including conduct, autism spectrum, attention deficit hyperactivity, and obsessive-compulsive, often have poor executive function, too. “By looking at atypical development we stand to learn a lot about typical development—and then we can help kids and families,” says Carlson. Concurrently, she’s interested in studying resilient children to determine how they overcome their difficult environments to develop strong executive function skills.
The research potential for executive function seems endless. Zelazo is investigating the impact of mindfulness training and how it affects students’ executive function and achievement in the classroom, while Carlson is doing separate research projects on the impact of nutrition and bilingualism on executive function development. Children from bilingual families, who often come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, typically have strong executive function skills, Carlson notes. That’s because they must be flexible in switching between two languages, and they understand that an object can be defined by words in different languages that have the same meaning.
Research like this will help Zelazo, Carlson, and others continue to discover the best ways to measure and prompt the emergence of executive function. They hope their findings will help parents, teachers, and others to know when and how to intervene when necessary and get students on the right track to learning.