30 November 2007

A Competent Future? Teaching Executive Function in Preschool

In neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, executive functioning is the mental capacity to control and purposefully apply one's own mental skills. Different executive functions may include: the ability to sustain or flexibly redirect attention, the inhibition of inappropriate behavioral or emotional responses, the planning of strategies for future behavior, the initiation and execution of these strategies, and the ability to flexibly switch among problem-solving strategies. Current research evidence suggests that executive functioning in the human brain is mediated by the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Wikipedia

To succeed in life, a human needs control of "executive function."
The term executive function describes a set of cognitive abilities that control and regulate other abilities and behaviors. Executive functions are necessary for goal-directed behavior. They include the ability to initiate and stop actions, to monitor and change behavior as needed, and to plan future behavior when faced with novel tasks and situations. Executive functions allow us to anticipate outcomes and adapt to changing situations. The ability to form concepts and think abstractly are often considered components of executive function.

Tools of the Mind is a curriculum for early childhood that resulted from a collaboration between Russian and American researchers. Recent research published in Science evaluated Tools of the Mind for efficacy:
University of British Columbia Psychiatry Prof. Adele Diamond, who is Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, led the first evaluation of a curriculum called Tools of the Mind (Tools), that focuses on executive functions (EFs) that depend on the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Functions include resisting distraction, considering responses before speaking, mentally holding and using information, and mental flexibility to “think outside the box.”

...The study is published in this week’s issue of Science.

“EFs are critical for success in school and life. The skills are rarely taught, but can be, even to preschoolers. It could make a huge difference, especially for disadvantaged children,” says Diamond, who is a member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital; Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute (VCHRI); the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Dept. at BC Children’s Hospital; the Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI); and the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) in Vancouver.

“The recent explosion in diagnoses of ADHD may be partly due to some children never learning to exercise attentional control and self-discipline,” says Diamond. “Although some children are strongly biologically predisposed to hyperactivity and wouldn’t benefit from training, others may be misdiagnosed because what they actually need are skills in self-regulation.”

Previous research has shown that EFs are stronger predictors of academic performance than IQ, she adds.

Let me repeat that: "EFs are stronger predictors of academic performance than IQ."

Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova believe that they have found a way to develop EF in pre-schoolers, that could benefit the children for their entire lives. It will be fascinating to see followup studies for children who undergo this curriculum, to see if the benefits are sustained. Early childhood IQ often diminishes by one half SD by the time the child is in the late teens. Will the same thing happen to EF, a learned skill?

Other studies claim that EF is 90+% heritable. How will those findings be reconciled with this study? Naturally, that will depend upon followup studies for both hypotheses--and replication of results.

My personal opinion is that while EF and IQ are probably both largely heritable, we are not doing enough for children until we optimise environment. If the existing EF and IQ of the child is not being developed, who is to blame? Until environments are optimised, the heritability of these traits cannot be fully expressed.

If EF can be taught with the skills retained into adulthood, one of the foundations of psychological neoteny may just be undermined. And without psychological neoteny, academic lobotomy will be much harder to perform.

In the social sciences (like climate science), talk is cheap. Good science is more rare.

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