Encompass strives to be on the cutting edge when it comes to research related to early childhood development, so imagine my excitement when we were invited to participate in a state-wide research study on the development and role of executive function skills in young children.
Executive function is the brain’s “air traffic control system”, which allows us to manage multiple streams of information at the same time, control impulses and revise tasks as necessary. It is believed that acquiring the early building blocks of these skills is critical to school readiness and social development through middle childhood, adolescence, and into early adult life.
The opportunity to participate in this research study arose when we were contacted by both the Department of Early Learning and the University of Minnesota and were asked to research executive function and how it relates to the education of children. Encompass was one of five organizations in Washington state to be selected to participate in the pilot program known as “Executive Function Learning Communities” and to educate its staff on the concept. Participants included Encompass preschool teachers, Parent-Child Interactive Therapy coaches, and pediatric therapists. Over a 15-week period, our staff learned how to build awareness and knowledge of executive function, and explored how to support executive function in an early learning setting.
What science has discovered is that executive function skills can be taught and that the brain is still developing and is “plastic” so-to-speak until one reaches 25-30 years old. Through the “Executive Function Learning Communities” program, Encompass staff learned tactics to identify which children were facing executive function challenges and provided them strategies to combat those challenges.
Our partnership with the University of Minnesota was designed to support a research study that measures children’s executive function. It involved the uses of deliberate teaching skills (working memory, mental flexibility, inhibitory control) through a series of games and activities designed to increase those skills.
One way we measured executive function in the classroom setting was by playing a memory card game. Unlike a basic memory game where children simply need to remember card placement (working memory), we challenged them by changing the rules of the game along the way (mental flexibility) and introduced a spinner to challenge their ability to wait their turn (inhibitory control).
Although the instructional has come to an end, our staff leaves with a new awareness and knowledge of executive function to take with them into their different areas of specialty. All Encompass staff will have access to the learning materials used during the study, which will support them in building executive function in young children.
The University of Washington plans to conduct an evaluation of this project and the “Executive Function Learning Community” leaders, like myself, will meet at the end of March to discuss our findings and the plan to introduce these methods in other communities throughout the state of Washington.
As a parent educator, I believe knowledge of executive function should not be limited to child educators but should be shared with parents, too. I’m excited to offer an Executive Function Workshop at Virginia Mason in Issaquah on Thursday, May 1, 2014. I hope many of you can join us to learn about this important topic and how it relates to your child’s education, school readiness and social development.
Kerry Beymer, Encompass Parent Education and Support Manager