I’ve been lucky to spend my entire working life with children, firstly as a teacher and then as an educational psychologist. My interest is in how children learn: the nuts and bolts of thinking and memory but also in the way we can best get children motivated and capable of learning. I’ve chosen engagement, enthusiasm and executive function for the letter E in my A to Z of Flourishing series.
Engagement and enthusiasm are self-explanatory and briefly executive function is the set of skills we need to plan a task and manage thinking and concentration effectively. This complex set of skills is key to learning, as we shall see later, but tough to master. What we do know, is that combining opportunities for young children to become enthusiastically absorbed in extended tasks is the ideal proving ground for executive function to develop.
Picture this: a room full of 3 year olds sitting quietly at tables with an adult at the head of each to keep them on task. There is no running around without purpose here. The outdoor space is available only at set break times.
Across town we can visit another group of 3 year olds offered a very different experience which encourages them to explore, discover, and make plans to test out their ideas. The adults follow the children’s interests and are available to support rather than lead learning.
Which one of these scenes appeals to you will depend on your assumptions about how young children learn. I’d like to introduce you to a very interesting early year’s programme based on psychological research based in The United States called Tools of the Mind
“Tools of the Mind is a research-based early childhood program that builds strong foundations for school success by promoting intentional and self-regulated learning in preschool- and kindergarten-aged children. Tools’ instructional philosophy is inspired by the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his students, and at the same time, is rooted in cutting edge neuropsychological research on the development of self-regulation/executive functions in children.”
So what are the component skills that make up Executive Function? They centre on working memory, mental flexibility and self-control. Essentially the art of making a choice and staying on track by:
- Making Plans: what do I need and where am I heading
- Managing distractions to stay on task
- Keeping more than 1 thing in mind to manage complex multi layered tasks
- Connecting current task to past knowledge
- Adapting as you go as new information or ideas emerge
- Seek help or support
- Work effectively in a group
- Evaluate ideas and reflect on progress
An impressive set of skills I hope you will agree but can such young children really begin to develop and use such complex skills? Well yes they can if you allow children to learn in the way their natural development intends rather than offering them a watered down school based approach.
So what happens in a typical day at Tools of The Mind nursery? The emphasis is on helping children develop mature, creative and imaginative play. They are encouraged to take an idea like playing fire stations and fully develop it: the setting, the equipment, the various roles each child will play and the detailed acting out.
The emphasis is on child led play with the adults ensuring children have what they need and find ways to resolve any problems which come up. The focus is channelling the child’s enthusiasm, encouraging engagement and helping children to work together to sustain their play. Not as easy as it sounds but highly effective.
Where there is firm adult guidance it is on staying on track. I’ve so often seen children starting well but then getting stuck and the adult support not being ready and waiting to help unpick the problem. The child psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasises that a child’s learning is a shared experience where the child’s interests and abilities need adult support to “scaffold” new learning. When children reach past their learning comfort zone they look for support to find the way forward or if nothing is available they go off on another path. Tools of the Mind offers a way for children to learn effectively by providing high quality support to “scaffold” learning.
The results are impressive although we have to remember that here in the UK the early years’ experience is shorter than in the US. A number of research projects have been completed with various universities. In early years Tool of the Mind children have higher rates of self-regulation than control groups. Follow up studies in school found that children out perform others in literacy skills when they start formal education. Other studies showed improved outcomes for behaviour communication and social skills. In all the benefits of a developmentally appropriate early years’ experience is overwhelmingly positive.
As a footnote to all my lovely early years colleagues here in the UK it is not my intention to overlook great early years provision here in the UK but what we need is the research to back our best practice. Supporters of the quiet classroom assume it will deliver better educational outcomes. They assume early formal learning deliver results but don’t look for evidence. We need proof not the dismal spiral of competing argument.
The A to Z of Flourishing series
The A to Z of a Flourishing Childhood series explores what makes for a happy, confident and successful childhood. I write about what makes a real impact on children’s lives: whether at home or at school, when playing with friends or spending time alone? How we can set the scene to give children the best experiences for a good childhood so they become mature and fulfilled adults. The A to Z series is based on research evidence from child psychology and my personal experience putting this theory to the test in my work as a child psychologist.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0