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.

paycheck parity

How a rural preschool overcame an industrywide challenge and paid teachers more

PHOTO: Marcia Walter
Marcia Walter, a teacher and the director at Dragon's Wagon Preschool, reads to her students.

Marcia Walter has worked at Dragon’s Wagon Preschool in the small town of Holyoke in northeastern Colorado for more than 25 years — starting as a teacher’s aide and working her way up to director.

In August, she got some news that made her cry: She was getting a raise.

It wasn’t a modest cost-of-living raise. It was a whopping 44 percent increase that bumped her annual salary from $32,000 to $46,000. At the same time, the preschool’s board approved increases for other staff members, and for the first time, put in place a salary schedule.

The changes came out of a years-long process by the 10-member board to better match staff salaries with those of local school district employees. The effort represents a unique victory in a field where low wages are the norm and some child care employees earn so little they qualify for public assistance. It also provides a glimpse into the complicated funding puzzle that many preschools and child care centers face when it’s time to build their budgets.

“I’m proud of where we’ve come from and where we are now,” said Tracy Stegg, a Dragon’s Wagon board member. “They deserve it.”

On average, early childhood workers nationwide earn $10.60 an hour, according to a 2016 report put out by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those with at least a bachelor’s degree earn $14.70, about half of what other kinds of workers with bachelor’s degrees earn.

At Dragon’s Wagon — where the classroom walls are painted with rolling green hills, kite-flying bunnies and shoe-nibbling puppies — the board began talking about raises a couple years ago. Aside from Walter, the preschool’s other employees had all turned over in the space of four years, said board member Deb Williamson, who is vice president of the local bank.

“It opens your eyes,” she said. “Maybe we need to look at why we’re losing people.”

The board began to think harder about the importance of consistency for the 67 children who spend four half-days a week at Dragon’s Wagon and the ease with which Walter, a lead teacher, could find better-paying work if she wanted to.

She was nurturing and dedicated. She’d gone back to school to get her bachelor’s degree at the board’s urging. And like all of the preschool’s employees, Walter didn’t get employer-provided health insurance.

To help settle on a new compensation system, the board looked at the salaries offered by the local school district as well as a handful of other child care providers in the region. In addition to Walter’s $14,000 raise, they decided to raise the salary of the assistant director, who’d been at the preschool for two years, from $26,000 to $32,000. Teacher’s aides also got a boost, moving from $8.50 an hour to $10.

So, how did they come up with more than $20,000 to increase staff pay?

There was no magic bullet. Board members said they’d accumulated a small “nest egg” by squirreling away money in years there was a budget surplus. In addition, they relied on grants, tuition money, fundraising dollars from the school’s annual spaghetti supper and auction, and state money they received for serving at-risk students and those with special needs.

Asked how other preschools or child care centers might achieve such salary improvements, Stegg said a proactive board and careful planning helps.

Walter, who started working at Dragon’s Wagon in 1989, said community buy-in is critical. Residents — many of whom work at nearby hog farms, the local grain elevator or the hospital — have relied on and supported the preschool for years.

Kathy Miller, a regional support specialist for the state’s Colorado Preschool Program, said she considers the salary increases a “beautiful example” but expressed concern that the changes can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

“I think it’s a model,” said Miller, who works with child care sites, including Dragon’s Wagon, within an eight-school district region. “I just don’t know if it’s possible in all communities.”

There are tight state and school district budgets to contend with, the public misconception that early childhood teachers are glorified babysitters and the fact that busy preschool directors may not be forging close connections with local business leaders, she said.

For Dragon’s Wagon, the challenge ahead will be sustaining the raises.

“I hope they can keep that up,” Miller said.

Tuition, which has remained at $80 a month for the last eight years, may eventually increase, Williamson said. Preschool leaders are also highlighting the new pay structure in grant applications, after learning that some foundations are eager to know about such improvements.

For her part, Walter is confident that the board has done its due diligence. She’d been privy to conversations about staff salaries for years. In fact, back in August, she knew she’d be getting a raise herself— she just didn’t know how big it would be.

“It made me realize that they do appreciate everything we do and that we’re worth it,” she said.

Q&A

Denver’s citywide effort to help poor children read better — explained

PHOTO: Lisa Roy
Lisa Roy, Denver Public Schools' new executive director of early childhood, started in October

Lisa Roy became Denver Public Schools’ executive director of early education — a newly created position — in October.

She’ll play a key role in launching the “Birth to Eight Roadmap,” a community effort aimed at improving literacy outcomes among young children living in areas of concentrated poverty in Denver.

Before coming to DPS, Roy was executive director of the Denver-based Timothy and Bernadette Marquez Foundation and did consulting for Grantmakers for Education, a national network of education grant-makers. She’s also worked for two other Denver-based foundations: the Piton Foundation and the Daniels Fund.

We sat down with Roy this week to discuss her background, her new position and the road map’s recommendations.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What was your own early childhood experience like?
My great-grandfather was the superintendent of schools for Frederick County, Maryland, and he built one of the first high schools for African-American kids. So he was what was called the Superintendent of Colored Schools at the turn of the last century.

My grandmother and all of her siblings were teachers, and so my early childhood experience was actually my grandmother. She was a stay-at-home grandmom and took care of me and my cousins and siblings and we got a great experience. Of course, there was the ruler when I mispronounced words — a little slap on the hand — and I had to do my little rhyming before I could eat lunch or breakfast.

What was it like when your school was integrated when you were in kindergarten?
I didn’t really think about it. I had seen white kids on television and in the supermarket. I don’t think that part was as shocking. As I got older, it was a little different because I realized I was invisible. Obviously, I tested well and was put in an advanced track. It was myself and one other schoolmate that went through this advanced track together until we graduated from elementary school.

For me growing up, there was also this dissonance around if you were doing well in school somehow that meant you were trying to assimilate as opposed to this was my family background. I didn’t know how else to be.

What is the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
It’s a partnership between the City and County of Denver, Denver Public Schools and a myriad of nonprofit partners to provide supports and services around language and literacy from birth to third grade.

We have 11 different recommendations — from having an early opportunity system which ensures that kids have the developmental screenings they need and are provided the services to keep them at grade level, to hubs, which could be community-based or school-based opportunities to provide supports and services to families.

Has Denver Public Schools done anything like this before?
No, not like this. DPS and the city did work hand-in-hand with then-Mayor (John) Hickenlooper on the first Denver Preschool Program ballot initiative (which provides preschool tuition assistance for Denver 4-year-olds through a city sales tax ), but it was a very discrete ballot initiative. It wasn’t meant to solve every issue around birth to age 8. It was 4-year-olds only.

This has never been done before because it’s crossing the boundaries of what DPS is responsible for and what the community and parents are responsible for. It’s this opportunity to collaborate with parents, collaborate with nonprofit programs and child care centers, collaborate even within the district, across departments.

What is the goal of the Birth to Eight Roadmap?
The ultimate goal is that kids are reading proficiently and above by third grade.

We understand that when kids get to kindergarten it’s too late. About 38% of our children have no formal pre-K experience. We want to ensure our teachers are able to individualize according to where kids are, and their backgrounds and experiences … but also to try to the raise the percentage of kids who have some type of exposure (to early learning).

Not all parents are going to pick formal pre-K. But some of them might be willing to do a play-and-learn group or join the family literacy program or do Parents as Teachers or Home Instruction for Parents and Preschool Youngsters. We want to provide more opportunities like that with the collaboration.

What will the resource hubs will entail?
One example that we have in Denver Public Schools already is College View Academy, which has everything from play-and-learn groups to English as a Second Language and GED (classes) for parents. They even have opportunities for parents who are interested in going into the teaching profession to start off as a paraprofessional.

Again, this underlying theme around language and literacy is there throughout the building— with other supports that families need to succeed. Keep in mind that every neighborhood looks different.

How many hubs will there be and where?
We’re hoping to launch five, but keep in mind these are not hubs from scratch. These are hubs that have a lot of comprehensive services (now).

Right now, we have College View Academy, Place Bridge Academy, a school for immigrants and refugees; Florence Crittenton High School, a school for pregnant and parenting teens; and Focus Points Family Resource Center, near Swansea Elementary.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in implementing the Roadmap recommendations?
Well, it could be like herding cats. When you’re dealing with a lot of different people that have to raise their own funding, that are in various communities … it makes an interesting avenue to launch this kind of work.

What’s the timeline for the Roadmap?
Some of these things will be going to go on into perpetuity I would hope. But for the next three to four years we’re going to intensively look at three different phases. By the end of four years, it will really take shape, in a way you can say, “Yes, that’s the result of the Birth to Eight Roadmap.”