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.

New direction

Three years in, an ambitious experiment to improve the odds for kids at one elementary school is scaling back

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Tennyson Knolls students return to school after a ribbon-cutting ceremony on school grounds in September.

Blocks of Hope was once envisioned as a pint-sized version of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The project would provide an array of educational and social services to young children and families living within the boundaries of one high-poverty Adams County school — in the process, changing not only the lives of individual children but also the community around them.

But after three years, the Westminster-based nonprofit that spearheaded Blocks of Hope is scaling back its ambitions.

While the project won’t disappear entirely, the nonprofit’s leaders say they’re no longer focusing services and staff so tightly on the school’s boundary zone and may eventually stop using the Blocks of Hope name.

“We’re starting to question whether it’s the right strategic direction for the organization,” said Karen Fox Elwell, the new president and CEO of Growing Home, which launched the project in 2014.

The shifting shape of Blocks of Hope — originally framed as a 20-year effort intended to change the trajectories of children 0 to 9 within the Tennyson Knolls Elementary School enrollment zone — is a disappointment for some advocates who’d hoped this “placed-based” approach would not only be successful, but also possibly serve as a model for other Colorado communities.

A raft of issues have prompted the changes, including greater-than-expected mobility among the school population, fundraising challenges, and the tension that came from devoting resources to the 2.25-square-mile project zone while also trying to serve the broader Adams County community.

“It was hard to find that balance to do both well,” said Fox Elwell, who joined Growing Home in January.

Organizers knew when they started that the community was changing, but gentrification pushed out families faster than they expected. About a quarter of Tennyson Knoll’s students left the school in 2015-16.

Leaders said that was one reason it was tricky to track child outcomes that would demonstrate the project’s impact — a hallmark of successful place-based work.

Fox Elwell said there’s more stability among residents in the Harlem Children’s Zone because of rent-controlled housing.

“So families are really staying in that community for years upon years,” she said. “With Blocks of Hope, it’s just not the case.”

Fox Elwell said the board and staff will determine the future of Blocks of Hope during the group’s upcoming strategic planning process starting in late spring.

Teva Sienicki, the former president and CEO of Growing Home and the project’s original champion, said significant evidence supports the place-based strategy that underpinned Blocks of Hope, but didn’t want to second-guess the decisions of Growing Home’s current leaders.

“I really do wish them the best,” said Sienicki, who left Growing Home last summer.

Even at the outset of the project,  Sienicki acknowledged that changing demographics and funding challenges could alter the long-term course of the project. Still, she was optimistic, projecting a gradual expansion that would bring two to three other elementary schools in the Westminster district under the Blocks of Hope umbrella, and increase the number of employees dedicated to the project from two to 70.

In addition to improving family functioning, the project’s goal was to boost school attendance, kindergarten readiness, and third-grade reading scores, and reduce the number of children referred for special education services. This year, 85 percent of Tennyson Knolls students are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, a proxy for poverty.

One of the essential ideas behind place-based efforts like Blocks of Hope and the Harlem Children’s Zone is to flood a carefully defined geographic area with services in the hopes of touching a critical mass of residents, usually around 60 percent. By reaching such a large proportion of a population, proponents say such efforts create a kind of tipping point that pushes the whole community to adopt the norms and aspirations of those who receive services.

But Blocks of Hope never got close to that tipping point.

While certain components of the project, such as backpack and school supply giveaways, reached a large number of families, others, such as parent programs, never got above 15 percent, said Fox Elwell.

Aside from high mobility, the fact that many students ride the bus to Tennyson Knolls — instead of getting dropped off by their parents — made it harder to connect with parents than organizers anticipated.

The nonprofit’s limited budget was also a factor. Spending on the project was originally set at $250,000 annually, with eventual plans to reach $3 million if it expanded to other schools.

The nonprofit’s actual spending on Blocks of Hope has been around $100,000 a year, said Fox Elwell. In addition, a grant that Growing Home leaders hoped would pay for an evaluation of the project never came through.

“There were some incredible hopes to grow the budget and deeply invest in the community,” she said. “And maybe it was more challenging to fundraise than we anticipated.”

There are still several Blocks of Hope programs at Tennyson Knolls this year, including backpack giveaways, holiday gift and meal help, and two parenting classes. The school also houses a boutique with used children’s clothing and gear.

An after-school tutoring program was discontinued after last school year because it wasn’t effective, leaders said. Another program aimed at grandparents raising grandchildren was slated to launch this spring, but will not because school leaders felt they had too much going on.

A community organizer originally hired to work with Blocks of Hope families to advocate for affordable housing has expanded her territory to include other neighborhoods.

“There’s a lot of need just a little bit south and a little bit east of those (school) boundaries,” said Leslie Gonzalez, a Growing Home board member.

Residents in some of those areas began to assume they were no longer eligible for any of the nonprofit’s services as Blocks of Hope ramped up. That wasn’t true, but the project sent some “unintended negative messages,” she said.

Despite looming questions about the future of Blocks of Hope, leaders at Growing Home and Tennyson Knolls say the project has helped families, sparked welcome changes to the nonprofit’s case management strategy, and built community at the school.

Tennyson Knolls Principal Heather McGuire, who is the school’s third principal since Blocks of Hope began, said the project helped get parents involved at school, whether attending PTA meetings, taking Blocks of Hope classes, or attending “coffee with the principal” meetings.

She credits the project with giving rise to the school’s tagline, “We are TKE,” a reference to the school’s initials.

Gonzalez said, “We don’t view Blocks of Hope as a failure necessarily … Even though there were a lot of challenges, a lot of good came out of it, too, and we were able to meet even more families in that community we serve.”

safe haven

Colorado could get its first 24/7 child care facility for families in crisis

PHOTO: Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Mother rubbing forehead while holding baby son.

Last fall, Lisa Rickerd Mills, a medical social worker in Grand Junction, worked with a single mother who needed inpatient mental health treatment.

The problem was child care. The woman had no one to watch her two small children during her stay and bowed out of treatment.

It’s exactly the kind of scenario a group of advocates hope to prevent with a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week child care facility for families facing emergencies or periods of high stress.

The center, to be called the Grand Valley Crisis Nursery and set to open in late 2018, would provide free care for children 0 to 5 years old for periods ranging from a few days to 30 days. The idea is to give parents a safe place to leave their youngest children when they’re facing a crisis — a period of homelessness, an emergency medical procedure, domestic violence, or the threat of job loss. It’s meant to prevent child abuse and neglect and keep kids out of the foster care system.

While there are around 70 crisis nurseries nationwide, the one planned for Grand Junction would be the first of its kind in Colorado. It could pave the way for a new type of state child care license and perhaps crisis nurseries elsewhere in the state. The project is unfolding amidst a broader push in the western Colorado community to improve child and family outcomes by dramatically expanding child care options over the next three years.

Kaleigh Stover, a former pharmaceutical sales representative who moved to Grand Junction from Sacramento last summer, is leading the charge on the crisis nursery. Prior to her move, the 26-year-old volunteered at the Sacramento Crisis Nursery, which runs two of five crisis nurseries in California and, like many such facilities, relies heavily on volunteers to care for the children.

“I’m like that girl in the grocery store who will offer to hold your baby,” she said. “I have a soft spot for babies and moms and helping those people who are experiencing hard times.”

When she first arrived in Grand Junction, Stover called around to several nonprofit organizations and was surprised to learn there wasn’t a crisis nursery in town.

She said local advocates told her, “We don’t have anything like this … but we need it.”

Child abuse cases — and hotline calls about suspected child abuse — have steadily risen over the last few years in Mesa County. The western Colorado county also faces numerous other challenges: higher than average rates of child poverty, foster care placement, and teen pregnancy.

The community’s transience also means that parents of young children often arrive without a circle of family and friends to help out in a pinch, said Rickerd Mills, a member of the crisis nursery’s board.

That can mean parents leave their kids in the care of people they don’t know well or enlist older siblings to watch them.

In addition to providing licensed overnight care for young children, crisis nurseries have case managers who work to connect parents with community resources and get them back on their feet.

While there are a host of typical housing, job, and medical problems that prompt parents to use crisis nurseries, parents with a child care problem outside the usual list won’t be turned away at the Grand Valley center, Stover said.

“We let families define the crisis,” she said, adding that parents using the center would be required to check in with case managers regularly.

Over the past six months, Stover has steadily made progress on the nursery — holding a community town hall, recruiting board members, and finding a local nonprofit to serve as the nursery’s fiscal sponsor. She’s currently in the process of finding a location for the nine- to 12-bed center and will soon begin fundraising.

Stover expects the first-year costs to be around $455,000 if the group purchases a building, with operations costing $150,000 in subsequent years. About 80 percent of the nursery’s funding will come from individual and corporate donations and 20 percent from grants, she said.

In what might be the nursery project’s biggest victory so far, Stover got a preliminary nod in February from the state’s child care licensing advisory committee, which agreed to consider giving the crisis nursery a waiver from state licensing rules.

If the waiver is granted, it could set the stage for a new kind of child care license in Colorado — a cross between a typical child care center license, which doesn’t allow 24-hour care, and a residential child care facility license, which allows 24-hour care but doesn’t permit care for children under 3 years old.

“Having a new license type is kind of nightmare, but it changes the whole state if we can make it happen,” Stover said.

Ebony White Douglas, program manager at the 22-year-old Sacramento Crisis Nursery, praised Stover’s persistence in pursuing the project. She said she routinely consults with people in other states interested in launching crisis nurseries and has seen many such projects sidelined because of complex licensing logistics or daunting fund-raising requirements.

Rickerd Mills said she was heartened to hear about the positive reception from the state’s licensing advisory committee.

“I think it just goes to show the need in this community and the state,” she said.