An educational approach in kindergarten focused on the development of executive functions – the ability to avoid distractions, focus attention, hold relevant details in working memory, and regulate impulsive behavior – in children improved academic learning in and beyond kindergarten, helping to overcome deficits in school readiness associated with poverty, according to a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Clancy Blair and C. Cybele Raver from New York University.
Based on the results, the authors suggest that executive function skills – the ability to avoid distractions, focus attention, hold relevant details in working memory, and regulate impulsive behavior – should be a key focus of early childhood education.
A trial involving >750 children in 29 schools in Massachusetts compared the effects of a research-based curriculum program with typical kindergarten curricula on children’s educational and executive functions outcomes. “Tools of the Mind” is a program that embeds executive functions practice into classroom routines, activities in literacy, math, and science aligned with the Common Core, and uses socio-dramatic play as a vehicle to build these functions.
When compared with peers, the authors found that children in Tools of the Mind were better at focusing attention in the face of distractions and had better working memory. These differences were even more pronounced in high poverty schools. Furthermore, these gains in achievement seem to carry into first grade, where these students achieved even higher results in reading and vocabulary.
The authors note that the analysis does not address program fidelity or components, but it may build on previous studies by neuroscientists that suggest a positive impact with improving these skills in preschool.
“Working memory and the ability to control attention, both important components of executive functions, enable children to focus and process information more efficiently. Our results suggest that a combined focus on executive functions and early academic learning provides the strongest foundation for early success in school,” explained Clancy Blair, Principal Investigator of the study.
Adapted by PLOS ONE from release provided by the author.
Closing the Achievement Gap through Modification of Neurocognitive and Neuroendocrine Function: Results from a Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial of an Innovative Approach to the Education of Children in Kindergarten, Blair C, Raver CC, PLoS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112393, published 12 November 2014.
Support for this research was provided by Institute of Education Sciences grant R305A100058. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
The author has declared that no competing interests exist.