Q&A

To even the playing field for low-income kids, start with these brain-based skills

PHOTO: Megan Mangrum

The achievement gap between low-income and high-income kids is a pernicious problem in American education — often illustrated by gloomy charts showing wide gulfs in achievement between students from different demographic groups.

But the problem runs deeper than lagging math and reading skills, says a Minnesota-based researcher who visited Denver on Tuesday for an annual lecture hosted by the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy.

It starts with a different set of skills — things like self-control and concentration — known collectively as executive function, said Stephanie Carlson, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

Chalkbeat sat down with Carlson after lunch on Tuesday to talk about why executive function is so important, what happens when young children struggle with it and how parents, educators and policy-makers can help them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Carlson
Stephanie Carlson

How did you get into research focused on young children?
I was in fifth grade and I happened to pick up this book called “Dibs in Search of Self” by Virginia Axline. It was about play therapy with a boy with what today would be called Asperger’s Syndrome. It was a case study. I read it and I never looked back. I said, “That’s what I want to do. I want to do play therapy with kids.” Now, I study play as part of this executive function stuff.

Can you give me a one sentence definition of executive function?
Executive function refers to the brain-based skills that make it possible for us to pay attention, remember our goals, control our impulses, to delay gratification and to think flexibly.

What does executive function have to do with the achievement gap?
Difficulties with executive function really set kids up to fail in school. We also have learned that children growing up in poverty have poor executive function skills. You put these two things together and you have children (who are) unlikely to do well at school because they’re not arriving with these foundational skills in place.

My students and I look at ways to address executive function deficits in early childhood, especially (for) children in low-income circumstances, as one way to try to address and diminish the achievement gap.

Is this conversation about the role of executive function in the achievement gap happening among superintendents, principals and frontline educators?
More and more it is happening, but there’s a long way to go. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the achievement gap and how to address it.

So, by saying, “Well, it’s low reading skills and it’s low math skills,” that’s basically just redefining the problem. What we try to do is look at the underlying and early developing sources of the achievement gap.

Preschool suspension and expulsion has been a hot topic recently in Colorado. What are the implications of your research for this topic?
Common sense would suggest and I believe research would support that exclusionary discipline is not very effective. When you exclude children from the environment that you’re trying to teach them to be better adapted to, you’re not giving them any opportunity to learn new skills and practice them in that environment. In fact, if anything (you’re) probably making it worse.

I don’t know the extent to which this could happen overnight in Colorado or anywhere else, but (it would help for educators to understand), these are not character problems. They’re not even necessarily severe developmental delays. These are immature executive function skills.

In a child care landscape where many providers are poorly paid and may not be able to obtain higher level degrees or additional training, is asking them to adopt best practices based on executive function research an impossible lift?
It might be…I’ve done some collaboration in China and to be a preschool teacher (there) is very revered and it’s relatively well paid. There’s a really strong education and training system for it.

That was fascinating to me. When a society decides that it’s going to take this seriously and prioritize and value these individuals who are interacting with our kids so many hours a day, that could go a long way toward changing this and having the staff be better prepared to absorb the research and use it.

It’s paternalistic to devalue women’s work and that’s what child care still is treated as in the U.S.

What can parents do to help their kids develop executive function?

Resources for parents
Stephanie Carlson co-founded an organization called Reflection Sciences that offers tips for parents on activities that develop executive function in babies, toddlers and preschoolers.

First things first. Are you providing adequate nutrition, a feeling of safety and security? Are there routines where the environment is somewhat predictable?

Beyond that, when you’re trying to teach your child something or help them perform a task that might be a little bit above the child’s current ability, use this “autonomy supportive” caregiving style. So, that’s where you are not controlling the situation too much, interfering and saying, “You’re taking too long. Let me do this.” Other parents will be laissez-faire, where they might be on their cell phone and letting their child do it completely on his or her own, not picking up on the cues from the child that they need more help.

Then parenting (that supports autonomy) is sort of in between — I mentioned Goldilocks parenting — getting it just right, with just the right amount of support that helps the child feel autonomous: “I did it. My actions matter.”

What are some other suggestions for parents and caregivers?
Talking out loud about your own thought process… Say, you’re a teacher in the classroom and you make a mistake — you’re trying to open the supply closet in the classroom and you’re using your house key. Then you’re like “Oh, I was on autopilot for a second there. I use my house key so many times a day, but I’m in school now. I need to choose this other key instead.”

When you talk about your mistake out loud, you can model for kids how they could start to talk to themselves — at first out loud but then ultimately in their head — to think through errors and reflect on them.

Then play, and particularly pretend play. Helping children imagine themselves being someone else, in a different setting, needing to solve different problems. Like, “Let’s pretend we’re on Planet Opposite,” where everything is backwards. Everybody walks on their hands and the sun comes up at night. That helps children think more flexibly.

You mentioned sleep as a key factor in executive function. Is it mainly about children getting enough sleep?
In infancy, it’s not the total number of hours, it’s the consolidation of sleep, particularly nighttime sleep. Those infants who had longer stretches of consolidated sleep at night went on to have better executive function skills that carried with them through school entry. We don’t know exactly why that is.

It could be that their self-regulation for sleep was also good earlier in life. But there are a whole lot of other factors that go into sleep, such as family routines. If it’s a family where it’s a little more chaotic, a little more stressful and there’s a lot more variability in bedtimes, that will affect things like sleep consolidation.

What preschool curriculums or approaches are best for helping kids develop executive function?
Common denominators are that they are play-based and somehow encourage reflection. Play-based curricula like Tools of the Mind…embed language and play in ways that, if done well, can foster reflection. The Montessori approach is another one. The basic premise is to foster reflection in almost everything they do. To help kids be more reflective and intentional about their actions, holding in mind what their goal is.

If you could make one policy change that takes into account the research on executive function, what would it be?
If we could spread the word and help policy-makers, educators and funders really believe these skills matter, at least as much as early reading and early math, I would be very happy. If you imagine a nation with a generation of children who had not learned how to read, that’s how serious it is to not have good executive function skills.

Has the executive function of American children gotten worse over the years?
The socioeconomic differences have always been there… But expectations have changed too, for kids to be able to sit still at a much younger age than was asked of them in the past. So, it’s not the case that children today on average have worse executive function skills than they did 50 years ago.

Any last thoughts?
I would like to encourage educators and parents to get involved in these issues. There’s no powerless figure: “There’s nothing I can do for my class or for my child that’s going to make any difference.” You really can and it’s a collective form of empowerment.

Quality quest

How Colorado is trying to boost access to quality child care for poor kids

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

When Colorado changed the way it paid child care providers for educating little kids from low-income families — paying high quality providers more than lower-quality ones — there was both elation and frustration.

Deb Hartman, program director at a highly rated center in Las Animas County in southern Colorado, called the new approach “life-changing.” The extra money, she said, helped save infant and toddler classrooms that otherwise would have closed. She was able to give her teachers raises and even buy a coffee-maker for the teacher’s lounge.

But 300 miles north in Larimer County, officials who administer the state’s child care subsidy program for residents weren’t so happy. The new reimbursement rates meant a growing price tag for the program and today, nearly 600 kids on the wait list.

The dichotomy illustrates the growing pains that have come with state efforts to get low-income youngsters into high-quality child care — a key factor in making sure kids are ready for kindergarten and reading well in third grade.

While Colorado policy-makers have made an array of changes to the complicated $86 million subsidy program in recent years — several focused on promoting child care quality— there’s a long way to go to ensure poor kids get the same level of care available to upper-income kids.

Not only are there too few high-quality providers across the state, but many don’t accept subsidies, which is often the only way low-income families can gain access to top-notch child care.

Thousands of providers — about 84 percent — are still on the lowest rungs of the state’s two-year-old quality rating system, Colorado Shines. The lowest rating is Level 1, which means a provider is licensed and has met basic health and safety requirements. Level 2 is a step up and means a provider has started to climb the quality ladder, but has not yet achieved what is considered the mark of high quality — a Level 3, 4 or 5 rating.

Of about 680 high-quality providers across Colorado, about 37 percent accept subsidies. Sometimes it’s because they can easily fill their rosters with children whose parents pay full freight. In other cases directors balk at accepting subsidies because the program, officially called the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, has a reputation for red tape and out-of-date technology.

“It’s not very 21st century at all,” said Terri Albohn, who helps administer the subsidy program for Boulder County.

State officials say they’re in the process of streamlining and modernizing the program, which helps low-income parents afford child care if they’re working, in school or looking for jobs.

State officials aim to increase the number of providers that have ratings above Level 1 and to improve the distribution of high-quality programs that accept subsidies so communities outside the Front Range have better access.

“The idea is to try to break out of that I-25 corridor in particular,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of early care and learning for the state Department of Human Services.

When kids lack access to high-quality care, it can mean less-than-ideal child care arrangements — sitting in front of the TV or staying home with grandparents or older siblings.

One state initiative in the works will award grants to providers rated Level 2-5 that accept or plan to accept child care subsidies. Mewhinney said the state’s goal is to ensure that 33 percent of Colorado communities have at least one high-quality provider that takes subsidies. Right now, that number stands at 26 percent.

One person on the front lines of efforts to get more providers to accept subsidies is Jennifer Sanchez McDonald, coordinator of the Huerfano and Las Animas Counties Early Childhood Advisory Council.

She likes to tell providers that the program is “going to empower your site, not decrease your opportunities.”

In one recent example, she visited a licensed provider who cares for children in her home, discussing the subsidy program over a conversation at the kitchen table. The woman was worried about shrinking enrollment because some of her families were struggling to pay. Shortly after that conversation, the provider began taking the subsidies.

Sanchez McDonald hopes to get up to eight more of the 16 licensed providers in the two-county area to accept state subsidies. Currently, four take the subsidies — only two that have high ratings.

Besides getting centers to take subsidies, there’s also the challenge of getting parents to apply for them. Although area poverty rates are high and children often lag academically, many parents keep their kids at home until kindergarten, Sanchez McDonald said.

In Boulder County, officials launched a campaign called “Just One More” urging high-quality child care providers to set aside one new slot for a subsidized child. In some cases, the centers are accepting subsidies for the first time.

The campaign, begun 18 months ago, hinges on personal outreach to providers by county workers who describe the impact quality care can have on a low-income child and check in frequently during the early weeks of enrollment.

Elizabeth Groneberg, outreach coordinator for Boulder County’s subsidy program, said she tells providers, “You let me know when you get your first (subsidized) family. We’ll be in touch every day.”

At one high-quality private preschool, she said, the director agreed to begin accepting the subsidies so the child of one the center’s teachers could attend. Today, the center has two children in subsidized slots.

In Larimer County, where demand for subsidies far outstrips supply, officials say they’re not recruiting more providers to take subsidies because they couldn’t place children in those slots.

While about a dozen Colorado counties have wait lists for subsidies, Larimer has the largest, according to state officials.

“We want to pay for good quality care, but you have to have additional finances … to do it,” said Heather O’Hayre, deputy director of human services for Larimer County.

The real problem is that the state’s formula for distributing funds to counties isn’t working the way it should, O’Hayre said. She and her colleagues also lament that the committee that determines the formula is heavy on metro Denver representation and that members have no term limits. There are no voting members from Larimer County.

While state officials say they understand Larimer’s concerns about the long wait list, the fact that the problem is acute in just one county rather than several doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with the allocation formula.

“I know they’re frustrated for sure,” Mewhinney said.

Legislating discipline

Not just a Front Range problem: Young boys of color are more likely to be suspended in rural Colorado, too

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

When a Colorado bill that would limit suspensions and expulsions among young students met vocal opposition from rural school district leaders in March, a common refrain was that harsh discipline tactics were a Front Range problem, not a rural one.

But a Chalkbeat examination of state data on out-of-school suspensions of students in kindergarten to second grade shows that a key concern of bill advocates — that such methods disproportionately impact boys, especially boys of color — bears out in the state’s rural districts, too.

Last year, the state’s 148 rural districts handed out nearly 500 out-of-school suspensions to early elementary kids, 84 percent of them to boys. Boys in almost every racial and ethnic category were overrepresented in the suspension pool when compared to their overall populations in rural districts.

The disparities were particularly pronounced for black and multiracial boys, who make up just under 2 percent of rural students, followed by white boys, who comprise one-third of rural students.

Supporters of efforts to curb early childhood suspension and expulsion say removing kids from school at a young age can have devastating lifelong consequences — increasing the likelihood of future suspensions and the risk that kids will eventually drop out and end up incarcerated.

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

The legislation was crafted after months of work by advocates who sought input from an array of sources, including the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

At first, the alliance didn’t take an official stand on the bill, but in late March — the same day the House approved the bill — its board voted unanimously to oppose the bill. After that, Republicans in the Senate assigned the bill to a committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. It’s scheduled for a hearing in that committee on Monday.

While not all rural school district leaders oppose the bill, some say the problem the proposed legislation is trying to solve doesn’t apply to them.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance said, “It’s not a rural issue … We are not over-expelling or over-suspending our kids.”

National experts, however, say the problem touches districts of all sizes and types.

“Usually whether it’s rural, suburban or urban, we see a wide range of suspension rates, evidence of excess and unjustified disparities,” said Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “We see it everywhere.”


Murphy said there’s been no outcry in Colorado’s rural districts from parents or community groups about discipline in the early grades.

Losen said there can be a variety of reasons for that. Parents may not be aware of data that illuminates discipline disparities. They may also be ashamed that their children behaved poorly at school or feel intimidated by school officials.

If parents are undocumented immigrants, Losen said, “the last thing they’re going to do is challenge school officials about anything.”

Taken together, Colorado’s rural districts do have lower suspension rates in the early childhood years than non-rural districts. Colorado’s rural districts educate about 16 percent of the state’s students and hand out 9 percent of the early elementary suspensions, according to 2015-16 data from the Colorado Department of Education.

The numbers, however, vary widely by district.

Dozens of rural districts suspended no kindergarten through second-grade children last year. Dozens of others suspended at least a few, with several handing out more than 20 suspensions. (Expulsions of young children are rare in all types of school districts, with only six statewide last year.)

There are dramatic differences in out-of-school suspension rates even in similarly sized rural districts. For example, the 1,360-student East Otero district in southeastern Colorado handed out 32 suspensions to children in kindergarten through second grade last year, while the 1,320-student Fremont RE-2 district suspended one.

East Otero Superintendent Rick Lovato said part of the reason for the high number of suspensions last year at La Junta Primary School was a new principal and assistant principal who put in place stricter behavior guidelines after a year in which students were being sent to the office constantly for bad behavior.

The vast majority of suspensions — some children received two or three that year — were for violent behavior such as punching, fighting, kicking and biting, Lovato said. This year, so far, kindergarten to second grade suspensions are down to 12.

“Kids and parents have adjusted to the culture and understand what those boundaries are,” said Lovato.

He said the district is working to reduce out-of-school suspensions in all grade levels at all three of its schools.

Lovato said he’s on the fence about House Bill 1210. While he’s adamantly against early elementary expulsions and believes nearly all early childhood suspensions given in East Otero would be allowed under the legislation, he feels districts should get to have the final say in such decisions.

High poverty rates can sometimes drive high suspension rates, but it’s far from universal in Colorado’s rural districts. For example, the 3,600-student Canon City district, where about half of students come from low-income families, gave out 43 early elementary suspensions last year while the nearly 5,000-student Garfield RE-2 district, where the same proportion of students come from low-income families, gave out nine.

Losen said how heavily a building relies on suspension has a lot “to do with the school principal and the culture and history of a school.”

“You tend to see it where resources are really scarce and folks don’t feel they can teach all kids,” he said.

Given the state’s perennial school funding crunch, many rural superintendents argue that limited resources play a part. They say shoestring budgets make it hard to afford counselors, social workers or other staff who could help children with challenging behavior.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that East Otero had suspended 32 children last year. In fact, the district gave out 32 suspensions last year, with some children receiving multiple suspensions. Also, a previous version of the story quoted the Fremont Unified School District director of student support services. That school district is in California. The administrator gamely answered our questions about Colorado legislation, and we quoted him. We meant to contact the Fremont R-2 school district in Florence, in southern Colorado, to ask about the district’s low suspension rates. We regret getting our Fremonts mixed up.