+ Behavior: Training Preschool Brains in Self Control

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In another of his excellent articles in the New York Times, Benedict Carey suggests that certain exercises can help children become more self-possessed at a very early age.

Around age two or three, he writes, little brains seem to send multiple messages to the body and the result is they become interruption machines.  One reason is that an area of the brain which is critical to inhibiting urges, the prefrontal cortex, is still a work in progress.

The density of neural connections in the 2-year-old prefrontal cortex is far higher than in adults.  Levels of neurotransmitters, the mind’s chemical messengers, are lower.

While some children’s brains adapt quickly, others’ take time.

Executive Function Said to be More Importhant Than I.Q. For Success in School

Carey writes:

But just as biology shapes behavior, so behavior can accelerate biology.  And a small group of educational and cognitive scientists now say that mental exercises of a certain kind can teach children to become more self-possessed at earlier ages, reducing stress levels at home and improving their experience in school.  Researchers can test this ability, which they call executive function, and they say it is more strongly associated with school success than IQ.

Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says “We know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20’s, and some people will ask, ‘Why are you trying to improve prefrontal abilities when the biological substrate is not there yet?’  ”

“I tell them that 2-year-olds have legs, too, which will not reach full length for 10 years or more — but they can still walk and run and benefit from exercise.”

Three important skills are involved in executive function.

  • The ability to resist distraction: to delay gratification in order to finish a job (e.g., finish the book report before turning on the TV).
  • Working memory: the capacity to hold multiple numbers or ideas in mind (e.g., do simple addition without pencil and paper).
  • Cognitive flexibility: the ability to adapt when demands change (e.g., when recess is canceled and there’s a pop quiz in math). 

Researchers are able to rate these abilities with some precision.  They give young children several straightforward mental tests.  In one, they sit in front of a computer and when a red heart appears on the left side of the screen, they strike a key on the left, and when it appears on the right screen they strike a key on the right.  Most children do well with this.

But if the scientists change the rules and have the children strike a key on the right when the symbol appears on the left and vice versa, the test gets harder.

The number of errors they commit, and the time it takes the children to answer, are considered measures of their ability to regulate themselves.

Other similar tests track improvement in working memory and intellectual flexibility. 

Some Newly Designed Curriculums for Building Skills  

Researchers have designed school-based curriculums intended to improve each of these abilities.

In a 2007 study Dr Diamond led a team that compared one of these programs — called “Tools of the Mind” — to a standard literacy curriculum in several preschools in the Northwest. 

The Tools program features a variety of exercises including a counting activity in which children pair off.  One child counts a given number of objects from a pile and separates them, and then the other child checks the sum.  The “checker” has a sheet of paper with a list of numbers, each beside a corresponding number of dots: for example, four dots line up beside the number 4.

By placing the objects on the dots, the child can see whether the count was accurate.  This double checking is intended to force the “counter” to be more careful and to stall the other child’s impulse to grab an object.

Another paired activity has one child tell a partner a story based on pictures in a book, while the other child listens.  The listener holds a drawing of an ear — a visual reminder that his role is to listen and not interrupt.  The child telling the story holds a drawing of a mouth — a reminder of her role as the speaker.

After about two months, children didn’t need the props any more: they had internalized their roles — the listener listens until it’s her turn to speak.

“The activities are specifically designed to promote self-regulation, and they are embedded in the teaching,” says Deborah J Leong, an educational psychologist and professor emerita at Metropolitan State College of Denver, who designed the Tools program with Elena Bodrova, principal researcher at McREL, an educational research group in Denver.

The program also focuses on pretend play with a purpose.  In a dramatic role-playing exercise, children decide beforehand what their roles are and must stay in character — making it an exercise that draws on all aspects of self-regulation.

The 2007 preschool study tracked 85 preschoolers in the Tools program, as well as 62 in the basic literacy curriculum.  After one year, teachers in one school judged that children in the special program were doing so well that all students were moved into it.

After two years, factoring out the effects of gender and age, the researchers found that the students in the special program scored about 20 percent higher on all of the demanding measures of executive function.

The authors of the study wrote “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

Parents can also help children, according to neuroscientists Jessica Fanning and Helen J Neville, neuroscientists at the University of Oregon.  They are testing how parent training classes affect the same kind of executive skills in youngsters.  The preliminary finding: children of parents taking the training have developed significantly better concentration and self-discipline than the others.

The researchers say that parents can use a variety of home activities to help children sharpen executive skills.  Some are obvious: read to your child while continuing to establish eye contact.   Tilt a book so the pictures are obscured — you force him to follow the words carefully, and hold more of them in mind at one time — a function of working memory.

Sing a bedtime song or a cleanup song: this can keep a child resisting distractions and focusing on the chore at hand.  If she knows the song, the familiar verses tell her how much time she has to finish a task.

sole source: Benedict Carey’s NY Times article on 9/15/08.  www.nytimes.com .  To see an interactive graphic showing how the brain develops throughout childhood, visit www.nytimes.com/wellchild   For Tools of the Mind, see  http://www.mscd.edu/extendedcampus/toolsofthemind/index.shtml

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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