Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I just returned from the WASA/OSPI Special Ed workshop and it was interesting to see how educators separate learning issues from behavior issues. And its not just educators, domains of cognition and emotion are often treated as non-overlapping entities across the board. This is quite surprising to me because if you think about it in neurological terms, no such distinction remains since both are controlled by the same brain networks. Both Cognition and Executive funtions (EF) are housed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Engaging in tasks that activate the prefrontal cortex can develop both cognition (including social cognition), emotional regulation and behavioral responses. Neuropath Learning Programs offer creative problem solving activities that train cognitive skills plus develop executive function and thus have been shown to improve both learning and behavioral outcomes. Essentially killing two birds with one stone - or blurring the line between them.

Executive functioning refers to our ability to be able to make and carry out plans, direct our attention, focus and also to control our internal states: our impulses and emotions and to be able to switch from one task to another. In other words it is a key part of our ability to self-regulate our behavior, mind and emotions.

However, EF comprises not only effortful control and cognitive focus but also working memory and mental flexibility—the ability to adjust to change, to think outside the box. These are the uniquely human skills that, taken together, allow us keep our more impulsive and distractable brain in check. New research shows that EF, more than IQ, leads to success in basic academics like arithmetic and grammar. It also suggests that we can pump up these EF skills with regular mental exercise, just as we do with muscles.

Studies conducted with preschool aged children showed that those kids educated using techniques that help to develop executive function performed far better than their conventionally educated peers. What’s more the EF groups significantly outperformed their matched peers in all areas including their subsequent ability to learn to read, write and correctly perform mathematical functions when they reached kindergarten.

Here are some examples of the learning activities in the EF curriculum. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: "OK, now clap." "Twirl now." This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain's ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it's the elementary school equivalent of saying "I really need to stop thinking about next week's vacation and focus on this report."

Here's another example from the classroom. Children tell stories to one another, but kids being kids, they all want to be the storyteller; none wants to just sit and listen. But the reality is that only one can tell a story at a time, so the designated listeners hold a picture of an ear, a prop to remind them that they are waiting their turn to talk. This helps them learn to control their natural instinct to talk out of turn. Eventually the props and private chatter are not needed, but in the beginning they help cognitively immature children stretch their executive muscles.

Dramatic role playing is a cornerstone of the EF philosophy. The preschoolers, all four and five years old, actually design the play's action by themselves. For example: "Let's pretend you're the mommy and I'm the baby. I'll get sick, and you'll need to take me to the doctor." Then they act it out, solving problems along the way. The idea is that play of this kind promotes the internalization of rules and expectations and demands mental discipline to stay in character—all cognitive challenges. Importantly, these exercises were not tacked on as a separate teaching, but rather were integrated into every activity of the child's day, from reading to math.

This however, is a vast oversimplification of a curriculum that has taken years to develop and is grounded in rigorous scientific studies of children's brain development. Even though the activities may seem frivolous studies showed that preschoolers with sharper executive capability as a result of such a curriculum outperform their more traditional learning peers in basic skills, especially mathematics, when they hit kindergarten. In other words, early exposure to dramatic play and cognitive games better prepares kids for mastery of traditional academics.

This new thinking has the potential to be transformational if the powers that be are willing to embrace the realities of this data. If you think in terms of Executive function there is no difference in interventions for WON'T DO kids and CAN'T DO kids.

Neuropath Learning has long recognized the importance of executive function and has applied this knowledge to designing all its learning and assessment programs. Our learning activities are real world simulations of these same types of EF activity examples. This is why, not only are they successful they are also fun and children love using them. These programs are easy to use at home to complement school curriculum. So get your child on our learning path today!

Is EF the New IQ?

1 comment:

izza said...

Great game! I'll gonna give this to my kids! Child Care Thanks!