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.

A push for change

Plans for tackling Colorado’s early childhood suspension and expulsion problem coming into focus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Last spring, after plans fizzled for legislation to address the suspension and expulsion of young children, a loose-knit group of early childhood advocates and state officials began meeting monthly. They wanted more input before trying again in the 2017 session.

Those meetings wrapped up on Wednesday and although no definitive answers emerged, they provided a peek at some of the policy changes that may end up in legislation or other state rules.

In broad strokes, the plans include collecting more detailed suspension and expulsion data from more early childhood programs, creating policies limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, and giving providers more training in how to handle challenging behavior like chronic biting, hitting and tantrums.

Multiple lawmakers have expressed interest in sponsoring a bill in 2017. Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat, attended several stakeholder meetings and pledged her support from the start.

In addition, Representative-elect Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, as well as a staff member from the office of Rhonda Fields, another Aurora Democrat, attended Wednesday’s meeting and offered their help.

A coalition of groups have participated in the meetings, including Padres & Jovenes Unidos, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the Denver chapter of the National Black Child Development Institute, and several early childhood councils and school districts.

Over the past couple years, there’s been a growing spotlight on early childhood suspension and expulsion — discipline tactics that disproportionately impact boys of color.

But while many advocates decry the use of such methods as both harmful to children and ineffective, there’s also the reality that many child care workers are not well-versed on alternatives, and don’t have the time or money to pursue extra training.

The draft of policy proposals presented on Wednesday acknowledged that in a way—with the longest list of recommendations falling under a category focused on giving child care providers more support.

Here’s a summary of the policy ideas presented Wednesday:

Better data

Currently, the government collects data from school districts showing the number of suspensions and expulsions they’ve handed out to students, including preschoolers. The data is broken out by race, gender, disability status and English-language learner status, but not based on which students get government subsidized meals, a proxy for poverty. No data is collected for the large percentage of young children who attend preschool or child care outside of public schools.

Policy proposals include:

  • Expand the discipline reporting requirement to include preschool kids who are in taxpayer-funded care outside of public schools.
  • Break out discipline data based on free-and-reduced-price meal status.
  • Survey child care providers, particularly those who care for children 0 to 3, to gather discipline data from those not required to report their numbers to the government.

Clear policies

State child care rules already require that licensed providers establish policies stating how they’ll handle challenging behavior, when they’ll bring in mental health consultants and what steps they’ll take prior to a suspension or expulsion. Still, suspensions and expulsions aren’t prohibited and there are no rules about how long suspensions can last.

Policy proposals include:

  • Prohibit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for children under 8 with exceptions for ongoing safety concerns or as required by federal law.
  • Limit the length of time for out-of-school suspensions for children in preschool through second grade and ensure plans for the transition back to school when suspensions occur.
  • Embed restrictions on the use of suspensions and expulsions in the state’s mandatory five-level child care rating system, Colorado Shines.

Support for providers

The state and various nonprofit organizations already offer a number of options to help child care providers manage children with challenging behavior. These include training programs as well as coaching from early childhood mental health consultants.

Still, such services aren’t universally accessible and don’t address the overall lack of teacher preparation training on the topic or other problems, such as low pay for child care workers and the lack of access to social workers, counselors and other mental health specialists.

Policy proposals include:

  • Put in place early detection and prevention programs for kids with challenging behavior.
  • Ensure access to teacher preparation and on-the-job training that includes focus on cultural competence, social-emotional learning, restorative justice and early intervention when children show challenging behavior.
  • Provide greater access to specialists such as social workers, counselors and mental health consultants.
  • Diversify the early childhood workforce.
  • Pay early childhood teachers more.
  • Provide families with wraparound services from birth and invest in programs like home visiting.

How many is too many?

Not all schools want the state telling them how to assess whether kids are ready for kindergarten. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Photo by Shaina Cavazos/Chalkbeat

Next week, Principal Lori Heller will drive to Denver from her tiny elementary school on the Eastern Plains for a hearing before the state Board of Education. She’ll bring along her kindergarten teacher, who this year has 10 students in her class.

They’ll be asking the board to grant their district, Peetz Plateau, an exception to a state rule that requires Colorado schools to assess kindergarteners using certain approved tools. If the vote goes in their favor — it didn’t on their first try in August — Peetz Plateau will be among eight school districts and 80 charter schools that have received such waivers over the last two years.

School and district leaders who’ve gotten the waivers see them as common-sense measures that give them more control over assessment decisions. But for some early childhood advocates the growing numbers of waivers are troubling — a sign that the lofty ambitions of a major 2008 school reform law are being watered down.

That law, called CAP4K, mandated that kindergarteners be assessed to see how well they were doing on a range of academic, developmental and behavioral skills as they entered school. And the results weren’t just for parents and teachers. They would be reported in aggregate to state lawmakers.

That is still set to happen, probably in about 18 months. Even so, there’s been a growing chorus of worry that those aggregate results won’t provide much clarity if they’ve been gleaned from many different types of assessments, some of which have been nationally vetted for validity and reliability, and many others that have been developed locally without rigorous scientific evaluation.

“At some point the state needs to step back and say, ‘Do we believe in the aggregate assessment of how our kids are doing at kindergarten entry or are we OK with not really knowing,’” said Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Given the growing variability in assessment tools, he said, “It’s going to be very hard to know the value of investments we’re making in early childhood.”

State board members — both Democrats and Republicans — have also worried that the growing number of kindergarten assessment systems will make it impossible to meet their obligation to the legislature.

School districts with kindergarten readiness waivers

  • Academy 20
  • Cheyenne Mountain
  • Holyoke
  • Elbert County
  • Lewis-Palmer
  • Woodlin
  • Wray

During a hearing on a waiver request by the 6,300-student Lewis-Palmer district last April, board vice chair Angelika Schroeder said, “I just don’t believe that the legislature asked us to check on kindergarten readiness and then have it nicked away and nicked away until there isn’t anything were actually providing to them.”

At the same time, officials from districts and schools that have sought waivers say they are committed to kindergarten readiness assessments but prefer to use locally-grown systems developed with staff input over several years.

“Long before CAP4K…we had a pretty robust screening and diagnostic process in place that we used with all our kindergarteners,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the 5,100-student Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, which won its waiver in March.

The process was developed by an interdisciplinary team, including teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and school nurses.

“We did not want to abandon what we had been doing that had been so successful for us,” Cooper said.

In small rural districts, which represent five of the eight districts that have sought waivers, administrators say small class sizes and the close-knit nature of their communities ensure that teachers are intimately familiar with students’ strengths and weaknesses.

“They’re not going to get lost,” Heller said.

Rocky roll-out

One reason for the rocky transition to the kindergarten assessment system mandated under CAP4K and the growing stream of waiver requests has been frustration with the first assessment approved by the state.

Called Teaching Strategies GOLD, it’s now one of three approved assessments, but remains the most widely used one. (Unlike assessments for older kids, which might be paper-and-pencil or computer-based tests, kindergarten readiness assessments rely on teachers to observe students and document their skills.)

Over the past few years, many teachers and administrators have complained that GOLD is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes hobbled by technological snafus. In some districts, there were also concerns about privacy since the online tool allows teachers to document student progress using photos and videos of kids.

Since then, several changes have been made, including cutting the number of items on GOLD nearly in half and and requiring parental permission for student photos and videos. The streamlined version of GOLD was unveiled this fall.

But even with the improvements, administrators like Lori Heller say the tool duplicates what her school is already doing. Since Peetz Plateau hasn’t yet received a waiver, the kindergarten teacher used both the usual district assessments as well as GOLD this fall.

“At this point, we’re not getting any additional information from TS GOLD about students that we don’t already have,” Heller said. “It’s not really helping to drive our instruction.”

The situation was similar last year at Roots Elementary, a Denver charter school that opened in the fall of 2015 but didn’t have a waiver until this year.

Principal Jon Hanover said while he usually lands on the side of more assessment and accountability, he doesn’t feel that way about GOLD. The school used it along with a raft of other carefully chosen assessments last year.

It’s well-intentioned, he said, but puts an unnecessary burden on kids and teachers and didn’t add anything to the data they already collected.

Numbers stable for now

Despite worries about a mishmash of kindergarten assessment systems now in use across Colorado, it’s unclear whether the number will grow further.

Currently, Peetz Plateau is the only district scheduled for a waiver hearing at an upcoming state board meeting. Officials at the education department said they weren’t aware of any other pending requests.

With the requirement for statewide kindergarten readiness assessment now in its second year, it’s possible educators are getting used to the new system. Even before the tool was scaled down this year, it garnered praise from some teachers who said it provides a comprehensive picture of how children are doing and is easy for parents to understand.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she’s heard positive feedback from districts since the simplified version of GOLD was released.

“They like it better,” she said. “It’s much more user-friendly.”

Even with the changes, some rural district leaders believe GOLD is more than they need in their small communities, Murphy said.

Low bar for some applicants?

Some district officials have been surprised by what they see as inconsistencies in how the state decides who gets kindergarten readiness assessment waivers and who doesn’t.

Some waivers, especially those from charter schools, seem to sail through the approval process. Others have faltered even when modeled on successful waiver applications submitted by other charter schools or districts. In addition, some district waivers expire after three years while others continue into perpetuity.

These disparities are partly due to the three different waiver pathways that exist in state law — one for charter schools, one for school districts and one for schools or districts seeking innovation status.

But timing also seems to be a factor, with more scrutiny for some districts that have sought waivers later in the process when the number of waivers was beginning to alarm the state board.

Cooper said his staff developed their waiver application in close collaboration with a local charter school that had easily obtained a waiver the year before. He said he was surprised at the “double standard of scrutiny” applied to Cheyenne Mountain’s proposal — hours of conference calls with state education department officials and multiple revisions to parts of the plan.

Melissa Colsman, executive director of teaching and learning at the education department, said, “We recognize that a charter that comes forward with a waiver request has already had a level of oversight and scrutiny by their district or local authorizer.”

The education department plays that vetting role for school districts requesting waivers, she said.

But Cooper argued that local school boards vet waivers from both charters and their own school districts, so the different standard by the state doesn’t make sense.

Murphy also lamented the high bar that districts such as Peetz Plateau must hurdle to get waivers.

“I’d just like to see small rural (districts) have an easier time in the review process,” she said.