Young boys take turns listening and speaking without interrupting each other.
AFTER inflicting months of sleep deprivation on their parents, young children often switch course and begin what could be called a thought-deprivation campaign.
This is the stage, around age 2 or 3, when their brains seem to send multiple messages to the body at once – eat, scream, spill juice, throw crayons – and good luck to anyone trying to form a complete sentence or thought in their presence. Toddlers are interruption machines, all impulse and little control.
One reason is that an area of the brain that is critical to inhibiting urges, the prefrontal cortex, is still a work in progress. The density of neural connections in the 2-year-old prefrontal cortex, for instance, is far higher than in adults, and levels of neurotransmitters, the mind’s chemical messengers, are lower. Some children’s brains adapt quickly, while others’ take time – and, as a result, classmates, friends and adults are interrupted for years along the way.
But just as biology shapes behavior, so behavior can accelerate biology. And a small group of educational and cognitive scientists now say that mental exercises of a certain kind can teach children to become more self-possessed at earlier ages, reducing stress levels at home and improving their experience in school. Researchers can test this ability, which they call executive function, and they say it is more strongly associated with school success than I.Q.
“We know that the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the 20s, and some people will ask, ‘Why are you trying to improve prefrontal abilities when the biological substrate is not there yet?’ ” said Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “I tell them that 2-year-olds have legs, too, which will not reach full length for 10 years or more – but they can still walk and run and benefit from exercise.”
Executive function involves three important skills. The first is the ability to resist distractions or delay gratification to finish a job: to finish the book report before turning on the television. The second is working memory, the capacity to hold multiple numbers or ideas in the mind, – for example, to do simple addition or subtraction without pencil and paper. The third is cognitive flexibility, the presence of mind to adapt when demands change – when recess is canceled, say, and there’s a pop quiz in math.
Researchers can rate these abilities with some precision by giving young children several straightforward mental tests. In one, youngsters sit in front of a computer and when a red heart appears on the left side of the screen, they strike a key on the left, and when it appears on the right screen they strike a key on the right. Most of them do well on this.
But when scientists change the rules, and have the children strike a key on the right when the symbol appears on the left, and vice versa, the test gets harder. The number of errors they commit, and the time it takes the children to answer, are considered measures of their ability to regulate themselves. Other similar kinds of tests can track improvements in working memory and intellectual flexibility. Researchers have designed school-based curriculums intended to improve each of these abilities. In a study published in 2007, Dr. Diamond led a team that compared one of these programs – called Tools of the Mind – to a standard literacy curriculum, in several preschools in the Northeast. The Tools program features a variety of exercises, including a counting activity in which children pair off. One child counts a given number of objects from a pile and separates them, and then the other child checks the sum. The “checker” has a sheet of paper with a list of numbers, each beside a corresponding number of dots: for example, four dots line up beside the No. 4. By placing the objects on the dots, the child can see whether the count was accurate. This double-checking is intended to force the “counter” to be more careful and to stall the other child’s impulse to grab an object.
In another activity, also done in pairs, one child tells a partner a story based on pictures in a book while the other child listens. The listener holds a drawing of an ear – a visual reminder that his role is to listen and not to interrupt. The child telling the story holds a drawing of a mouth – a reminder of her role as the speaker. After about two months, children didn’t need the props anymore: they had internalized the rules, namely that the listener listens until it’s his or her turn to speak.
“The activities are specifically designed to promote self-regulation, and they are embedded in the teaching,” said Deborah J. Leong, an educational psychologist and professor emerita at Metropolitan State College of Denver, who designed the Tools program with Elena Bodrova, principal researcher at McREL, an educational research group in Denver. The program also focuses on pretend play with a purpose, namely dramatic role-playing in which children decide beforehand what their roles are and must stay in character – an exercise that draws on all aspects of self-regulation.
The 2007 preschool study tracked 85 preschoolers in the Tools program and 62 in the basic literacy curriculum. After one year, teachers in one school judged that the children in the special program were doing so well that all students were moved into it. After two years, and factoring out the effects of gender and age, the researchers found that the students in the special program scored about 20 percent higher on all of the demanding measures of executive function. “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential,” the study authors concluded.
Parents, too, can help their children become more self-possessed in this way. Jessica Fanning and Helen J. Neville, who are neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, are testing how parent training classes affect the same kind of executive skills in youngsters. Their preliminary finding is that the children of parents taking the training have developed significantly better concentration and self-discipline than the others.
Researchers say that parents can use a variety of home activities to help children sharpen executive skills. Some of these are obvious: reading to a child while continually establishing eye contact. By tilting the book so pictures are obscured, parents force youngsters to follow the words carefully, holding more of them in mind at one time – a function of working memory.
Singing a bedtime song or a cleanup song can keep children focused on the chore at hand, resisting distractions. The familiar verses tell them how much time they have to finish a chore.