EF as the New Standard for Brain Function

An article in this week’s Newsweek by Wray Herbert describes some fascinating research being done on enhancing preschool education by focusing the curriculum specifically to improve executive functions. From the article:

[…] Psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been testing the EF concept in the classroom, with provocative results. In one recent study Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district (in the northeastern United States) to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.

The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. 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 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.

The research described above is more evidence that play is central to learning, and that play therapy is beneficial for enhancing executive function. Especially with very young children having behavioral difficulties, I find play-acting with them to be very helpful to working through emotional dilemmas and practicing problem-solving.

For those looking for ways to enhance executive function with video game exercises, Nintendo’s Brain Age can help with the “suppress and sub” brain exercises, such as one where you have to say the color of the lettering on the word, rather than the word itself. For this example: blue the correct answer would be “red.”  This is a similar activity to the one described above in which the children were prompted to coordinate body movements with the teacher holding up certain symbols.