Executive function skills are critical for children to learn
April 25, 2013
By Ellen Galinsky
There have been an increasing number of highly influential calls for America to wake up to the importance of what are called "executive function skills."
Take the high school graduation rate. Economics professor at Princeton University and former member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Cecilia Rouse, was asked on PBS's Need to Know a while back what she would do to improve the high school graduation rate (where America is reported as 21st among the top 28 industrialized nations). In addition to stating that she would invest more in the early childhood years and would provide more support, including mentors, for children in the 8th to 9th grade transition, Rouse called for a rigorous curriculum that includes promoting executive function skills. She says:
When you talk to employers, they say that students and job applicants ... don't have the executive functioning kind of skills to really be able to function in today's workplace.
Noting that machines and computers can now perform routine tasks, she states that we need employees who can do what ONLY people can do, such as problem solve and use their creativity. Unfortunately, however, she concludes:
Many people have argued that our curriculum is stuck back in the 1950s and 1960s and that everyone, soup to nuts, needs to be thinking about what are the skills that we need to be teaching our children going forward.
To help educators and parents better understand the role executive function skills play, I'll be participating in a free webinar on May 7 titled "Mind in the Making: Executive Function and the Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs." The webinar is open to anyone who's interested in finding out more and it's hosted by Bright Horizons. You can go here to sign up.
During the webinar, parents will discover:
The simple everyday things parents can do to build life skills in your children
The connection between life skills and school readiness
Strategies to help fuel your child’s natural passion for learning
Methods for empowering your child to manage stress, take on challenges and build resilience
(We'll also be giving away five free copies of my book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.)
Because I also conduct research on the workforce and workplace at Families and Work Institute, like Rouse, I am acutely attuned to the fact that employers are concerned that families and schools are not promoting the kind of skills employees will need. Too many young people, they tell me, have a fill-in-the-bubble mentality, where they think that knowledge consists of the one right answer to a multiple-choice question. However, employers know that employees are increasingly called upon to solve problems not yet imagined, and will need out-of-the-box thinking. Employers are also concerned that young people are used to competing, where success in the workplace also increasingly calls for working with diverse teams.
Based on my review, the skills I have identified as most essential are:
- Focus and Self Control,
- Perspective Taking,
- Making Connections,
- Critical Thinking,
- Taking on Challenges, and
- Self-Directed Engaged Learning.
In addition to a concern about the dropout rate, and the achievement gap, I can also see that we have a learning-dropout phenomenon in America. Far too many children lose the fire in their eyes for learning that they are born with. And far too many children see learning as extrinsic -- what it can do for them -- and are losing the intrinsic connections to learning -- the joy, the curiosity, the passion.
In the course of talking about executive function skills for the past two years to audiences across the country, here are some questions I hear frequently.
Just what are executive functions skills?
Executive function skills take place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other areas of the brain working in concert with it. We use these skills to manage our attention, our emotions, our intellect, and our behavior to reach our goals. They include:
- Focus -- being able to pay attention;
- Working memory -- being able to keep information in mind in order to use it;
- Cognitive flexibility -- being able to adjust to shifting needs and demands; and
- Inhibitory control -- being able to resist the temptation to go on automatic and do what we need to do to achieve our goals.
As children grow older, these skills include reflecting, analyzing, planning and evaluating. Executive function skills are always goal-driven.
As you will see in the video below, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia, finds that executive functions predict children's achievement as well as IQ tests or even better because they go beyond what we know and tap our abilities to USE what we know.
How do these skills differ from the content that children need?
Children need both content and these life skills. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child says it well:
In practice, these skills support the process (i.e., the how) of learning -- focusing, remembering, planning -- that enable children to effectively and efficiently master the content (i.e., the what) of learning -- reading, writing, computation.
Don't teachers and families have enough to do to add one more thing to their plate?
Promoting these skills require a different mindset so that families and teachers do what they already do, but in slightly different ways. For example, while young children are waiting, they can play Simon Says, Do the Opposite (to promote Focus and Self Control). Or when they are doing scientific experiments later on, they can be taught to think about what makes a good experiment (to promote Critical Thinking).
Can these skills really be taught?
In a word, yes. There are numerous experiments that show that adults can promote these skills in children. For example, the experiments of Michael Posner of the University of Oregon show it is possible to promote focus and self control. The experiments of Larry Aber of New York University and his colleagues also show that it is possible to reduce aggression in children by helping children learn to understand the perspectives of others through a literacy curriculum.
A final word of hope
As we learn more about executive function skills and as we begin to promote them, it is clear that we can make progress on some of America's more enduring challenges. However, we need to do so in ways that keep the fire for learning burning brightly in children's eyes, as we help children thrive! If we do so, then I will have achieved my most enduring dream.
High Quality Preschool for All: Why It’s So Important
February 14, 2013
President Obama made history this week when he called for “high quality preschool for all” during the State of the Union address.
But why is this proposal so critical?
Erin Ramsey, Mind in the Making's new Senior Program Director, offers her perspective:
We now know that learning begins at birth.
We also know that the relationships, environments, and the opportunities for learning are key factors in children’s healthy development. The brain is rapidly developing during the first five years of life and it is imperative that children are engaged in loving, trusting relationships; in safe, peaceful and stimulating environments and receiving good nutrition in order for the brain’s infrastructure to make the connections.
These factors are essential to school readiness and lifelong success.
As a country, we need to acknowledge the high level of poverty, the needs of working families and the impact these factors have on children. By creating a system that will increase accessibility, affordability and high quality early care and education we are strengthening every aspect of our country.
By increasing the number of children and families that can access high quality early childhood experiences we are increasing the likelihood that the promotion of executive functions of the brain will occur.
Executive functions include working memory, focus, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility; they are often referred to as the air traffic control center of the brain.
New research indicates that executive functions can be indicators of better success in school and in life. “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs,” by Ellen Galinsky combines the research and offers ideas to what adults can do to help set children up for optimal development.
(For more on how our nation will be able to finally have high-quality preschool for all, check out Galinsky’s Huffington Post article.)
To Let Kids Fail Or Not To Fail…
January 30, 2013
“Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” is the title of an Atlantic article getting lots of attention this week.
The piece, written by Jessica Lahey, who writes about education and parenting, cites a new study looking at the ramifications of students not being allowed to fail.
This from Lahey’s piece:
“The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.
I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories were pretty good -- until I read a study out of Queensland University of Technology, by Judith Locke, et. al., a self-described "examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting."
Overparenting is characterized in the study as parents' "misguided attempt to improve their child's current and future personal and academic success."
Not surprisingly, the article has got tons of people pretty vocal for one side or the other.
When I tweeted a link to the article, I got two opinoins on the debate:
So agree about this. Kids need to fail sometimes to learn problem-solving skills.
And @EdNavigation wrote:
It’s hard to prescribe one approach because every kid and parent is so different. That means, parents and educators have to decide on what works best for their situations.
But what if allowing children to suffer setbacks they are able to flourish?
“I like the notion of failing to succeed,” says Ellen Galinsky, author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs.”
In Chapter 7 of her book “Skill Seven: Self-Directed, Engaged Learning” she points out that “all children have weaknesses,” but “how do we deal with those? I think it’s important for children to know that making mistakes is an essential part of learning.”
She uses the example of the grading scale at the Harlem Children’s Zone, (HCZ) an educational nonprofit focused on helping low-income children and their families. HCZ does not use A, B, C, D and F ratings, but utilizes a rating of 1 through 4. 1 is considered an “oops.”
Galinsky quotes the former HCZ superintendent Daryl Rock, saying:
We give [children] the freedom to make mistakes. WE teach our kids that failure is not a way of labeling who you are – it’s just a way of identifying what you don’t know and what you need to put more effort into. When kids understand that, they’re not hesitant about trying something, because if they fail, its not a reflection on them. That just tells them: “This is an area we need to work on.”
Indeed, Galinsky maintains: “We can’t learn without making mistakes.”
What’s your take? Should we allow kids to fail? Share your examples that worked, or didn’t work. (You can join us on Facebook.com/MindintheMaking if you want to weigh in with other educators and parents.)
Talking to Young Children About the Death of Young Children
December 18, 2012
By Ellen Galinsky
The front pages of newspapers show hearses lined up and the headlines talk of the mournful task of saying goodbye. An eight-year-old child is quoted in a New York Times article, speaking of his six-year-old friend, Jack Pinto:
I used to do everything with him. We liked to wrestle. We played Wii We just played all the time. I can’t believe I’m never going to see him again.
America has had a collective experience of death over the past days. Amid the December skies and the festively lit Christmas trees in Newtown, Connecticut are the votive candles, the shrines, the stuffed animals, and the loving notes to the children and adults who tragically lost their lives on December 14th.
This shared and heartbreaking loss has spilled into all of our lives, whether near or far, whether old or young, whether we knew those who lost their lives or not.
For many of us, this collective loss has raised questions of how we talk about this the loss with children—from safety in schools, to killings, to death.
For some of us, this collective loss reminds us of the loss of our own children—as it does for me—soon after his birth years ago on a December day, not unlike today. And I, like many parents in Newtown, faced the task of telling my five-year-old son about the death of his brother.
Before we talk to children about the death of a child, we have to try to come to terms with our own thoughts and feelings. The death of a child is the ultimate contradiction—children are supposed to outlive us, children’s lives are just beginning, children are our legacy. In addition, there is a sense of loss of control. We know that we ultimately don’t have control, but we mask that reality with making plans and schedules that manage our minutes and days. Finally, there are our beliefs—what we believe about death and life after death. It is best to think as intentionally as we can about what we want to say about the death of a child to children.
We also have to think about how we convey our feelings. I learned that it was important to share my feelings without flooding my son—“I am very sad, but we will be okay.”
I know in my case, it was first and foremost most important to comfort my child, just by being together. As President Obama said in Newtown, “we’ve pulled our children tight.”
Then it was important to listen. Preschoolers have very concrete questions—like do people get cold in the ground. Children’s “why” questions concern themselves: Is it my fault? No. Could this happen to me? We will do everything we can to stay safe. And their questions aren’t just over in a few days. We have to keep the conversational door open for their questions to emerge over weeks and years.
Just as we have to accept our own feelings, we have to try to understand theirs, which may range from anger, to fear, to confusion, to seeming indifference. Giving children opportunities to express their feelings—by our writing down their words to giving them art materials to create pictures can be comforting.
Commemorating is key. We need to find ways to help children celebrate the loss of a child, as the children of Newtown are doing with their memorials that line the streets.
And finally, we need to help the children find ways to have the children they lost live on in their lives. Speaking at Jack Pinto’s service, a family friend Mary Radatovich spoke to his ten-year-old brother, saying:
Now he will be with you, Ben, for the rest of your life. Think of him every time you catch a football, hit a baseball, or hug your mom and dad.
It has been many years since my own very young son died—but we think of him often, especially on gray days like today when he was born. We have created a living legacy to him in how we talked to our children.
(Continue the discussion on our Facebook page.)
60 MINUTES: Babies help unlock the origins of morality
November 19, 2012
Are we born good? Great piece on 60 Minutes last night.
Can infants tell right from wrong? And if so, how would you know? Come to Yale's baby lab. Lesley Stahl reports.