A New Study by Annie Bernier, Stephanie Carlson, and Natasha Whipple on How Parents Can Help Young Children Gain Life Skills
By Ellen Galinsky
I have spent the past eight years reading child development research, interviewing leading scientists, and we have even filmed these scientists as they conduct their studies. I have been driven by the question: what can we learn from studies of child development that will help our children thrive now and in the future?
As the parent of grown children and as a professional in child development, I have the time and knowledge to understand this research and I have the passion to translate it for all of us.
I have put many of these lessons learned into my forthcoming book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills that Every Child Needs, to be published in April by HarperStudio.
But there is always new research and we continue to go out and interview and film these studies. So this begins a new series of blogs where I will share what I am learning.
I am excited about a new study, just published in Child Development. In this study, Annie Bernier of the University of Montreal, Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota, and Natasha Whipple of the University of Montreal look at what parents can do to promote young children’s “executive functions.” Executive functions involve being able to pay attention and focus, to hold different ideas in our minds at the same time, to think flexibly, and to have the self control to inhibit our tendency to go on automatic but instead to do something that furthers a goal we have. My eight years of looking at research have convinced me that executive functions are involved in the life skills that I see as most essential to our children thriving, now and in the future.
First, how did these researchers measure executive functioning in children at 18 and at 26 months? They played games with the children. For example: they hid an attractive sticker under one of three colored pots in full view of a child and asked the child to find it. Then they made that task harder for older children, by covering the pots with a blanket, or even by moving the pots around, while they were covered by the blanket—a more difficult game of “hide and seek.” All of these games involve focusing and remembering more than one thing at the same time.
Another way the researchers measured executive functioning was by having the child first feed a mommy doll with a large spoon and a baby doll with a small spoon and then asking the children to switch—to feed the mommy doll with the baby spoon and the baby doll with the mommy spoon. That task calls on children to inhibit what they have just learned and do the opposite (they have to have the self control to go off of “automatic” in pursuit of a goal).
The researchers had a number of important findings. For example: they found that sensitivity matters—understanding what your child is trying to say to you in actions or in words and responding in a caring and warm way.
They also found that talking about what the child is thinking and feeling matters too—giving children a window into understanding “minds at work”—their own and others. This is as simple as saying: “you seem to want that book,” or “looks like you’ve had enough.”
Of greatest importance in this study is supporting children to be more autonomous. The researchers measured this by giving young children puzzles that were challenging and then videotaped mothers and children working on the puzzles together.
The mothers who helped the children most:
- Structured doing the puzzle so that the challenge was appropriate and not overwhelming to the children;
- Encouraged children as they worked on the puzzle, giving helpful hints and suggestions, using a tone of voice that communicates “I am here to help”;
- Followed the children’s pace, gave children reasonable choices for how to work on the puzzle (“would you like to try the blue piece next or the red piece?”); and
- Didn’t take over and finish the puzzle for the children—but helped the children do it themselves.
In Bernier, Carlson and Whipple’s puzzle game, mothers are helping their children cope with a slightly challenging situation—not by taking over—but by helping children find their own ways of managing the challenge. They are also promoting their children’s focus and self control.
Many of you reading this will probably say, “I do this with my kids.” You may not have known how important it is. In fact, the small things we do everyday with our children help them build the life skills so that they can thrive today and for many tomorrows to come.
Share your thoughts: What do you do to help you children manage slightly stressful situations more autonomously and in the process, build their skills in focus and self control?
Ellen Galinsky is president of Families and Work Institute and author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs