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.

Nature's classroom

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A girl plays during a Worldmind Nature Immersion School class at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

A 2½-year-old boy named Ben was ankle-deep in a Jefferson County creek when suddenly he lost his footing and plopped onto his bottom in the cold shallow water. The fall didn’t faze him. Neither did his dripping shorts. He got up and kept playing.

About a dozen children frolicked in or near the creek that day — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, building dams with sticks and mud, or inspecting bugs that flitted nearby.

It was a typical day at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, one of a growing number of programs where toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners spend all their time outside — no matter the weather.

“When children look like they’re playing in nature, huge amounts of learning is taking place,” said Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association and the co-founder of a pioneering outdoor preschool program in Washington state.

Established first in Scandinavia, such “forest schools” occupy a steadily expanding niche in the American early-childhood landscape. But even with the movement’s popularity, advocates wonder if it can reach beyond the homogenous slice of families — mostly middle-class and white — it now serves.

Advocates like Kenny lament the academic push found in many traditional preschools and say that young children thrive outdoors — developing independence, resilience, and other valuable social-emotional skills.

Parents say their kids like the expansive space, non-stop play, and dearth of rules in outdoor classes. And as long as they’re dressed for the conditions, they take rain, snow, or frigid temperatures in stride.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, pretends her preschool students are penguin chicks.

“I think it’s great to come in bad weather,” said Denver parent Tracy Larson, who has two children in the Worldmind class. “It makes us go outside when we’re at home in bad weather too … You’re not afraid of it.”

Forest schools nationwide face significant regulatory and logistical barriers to expanding their footprint — and serving students of color and those from low-income families.

“This movement is not going to move forward or it’s going to be stigmatized if we don’t rapidly move the needle from white middle-class to all-inclusive,” said Kenny.

Perhaps the most immediate problem is that states have no rules for outdoor-based programs that serve young children and thus, no way to grant them child care licenses. Besides signaling that programs meet basic health and safety rules, a license opens the door to state subsidies that help low-income families pay for child care.

In Colorado, the inability to get licensed means that forest schools can only have up to four young children in a class or, as is the case at Worldmind, must require parents to stay for each session. But licensing rules here could soon change. The same is true in Washington state, where there are dozens of outdoor preschool programs.

Government officials in both states are working with outdoor preschool providers as part of pilot programs that could lead to creating a child care license for outdoor preschools. The idea is to ensure children’s safety without stamping out the creek-wading, tree-climbing sensibilities that make the programs what they are.

Kenny said there are now around 50 forest preschools in the U.S. and another 200 “nature schools,” which put a major emphasis on outdoor learning but have buildings, too. Colorado and Washington are the only ones she knows of that are actively exploring special licensing classifications for outdoor preschools, but hopes their pilot programs will build momentum nationally.

“I used to feel I was riding the crest of a wave,” she said. “Now I feel the wave has crashed and it’s moving in ripples everywhere.

Testing the model

In Colorado, two providers — Worldmind and a Denver-based program called The Nursery School — are participating in the state pilot program. It starts this month for the Nursery School and in August for Worldmind. Both providers will be allowed to serve up to 10 children ages 3 to 6 during half-day sessions without parents present. The schools must adhere to a staff-student ratio of 1 to 5 — stricter than what is required in a traditional preschool.

They’ll also have to abide by other rules, including keeping tree-climbing children within arm’s reach and seeking indoor shelter in extreme weather.

In addition, both programs will track heaps of data, ranging from hourly weather changes to the circumstances behind any wildlife encounters or potty accidents. State licensing officials will also visit each program regularly. The pilot will run through February — to capture all kinds of Colorado weather — with a licensing decision possible in the summer of 2019.

Matt Hebard, a former preschool teacher and early childhood school district administrator, launched The Nursery School with Brett Dabb last fall at Denver’s Bluff Lake Nature Center. In recent weeks, the handful of children enrolled there have spotted newly hatched goslings and mule deer, and made “snowmen” with fluff from cottonwood trees.

The two men first conceived of the school in 2013 during their time in an early childhood leadership program and soon after discovered the long, bureaucracy-laden road to state recognition. There were waiver applications, denials, a hearing before the state attorney general, and even a look at whether state legislation would further the cause of outdoor preschools in Colorado.

“It’s been slow going,” but worthwhile, Hebard said. “It’s going to allow other practitioners to open outdoor preschools … It’s going to give parents another option.”

A child plays in the limbs of a tree at Matthews/Winters Park in Jefferson County.

Megan Patterson, a former elementary school teacher in Alaska and Colorado, launched Worldmind in 2015 — complying with state rules by offering “child and caregiver” classes at local parks and botanical gardens in Boulder County and metro Denver.

“I studied urban ecology in Boston and after that I realized … how important it is to connect kids to places around where they live,” she said. “I finally found the type of education I believe in 100 percent.”

State officials say they have been approached by other outdoor preschool providers interested in the pilot, but don’t plan to expand it beyond the two programs, and the roughly 40 children they’ll serve during the pilot period.

“We feel the model needs to be even more rigorous in the state of Colorado,” said Erin Mewhinney, director of the state’s early care and learning division in the office of early childhood.

She said while forest schools are popular in United Kingdom — where leaders of Worldmind and The Nursery School have both attended special teacher training courses — Colorado weather and terrain pose different challenges

“We all love the outdoors, but we all know how dangerous it is and we’re trying to strike a balance with that license type,” she said.

A sense of freedom

The recent Worldmind class where 2-year-old Ben plopped in the creek took place at Matthews/Winters Park in Golden on a warm, sunny May morning. While Patterson offered some general structure to the dozen kids in attendance — a snack break, a brief discussion of a picture book they’d read, and a chance to feel animal pelts, the kids were mostly free to do what they wanted.

Their parents lingered nearby, chatting with each other, chasing after younger siblings, or joining their kids in the creek or on a green tarp laid out nearby. It felt like a big, free-flowing playdate in the woods.

To be sure, there were the usual little-kid frustrations. One small girl, after repeatedly scrambling up the bank of the creek without much trouble, was reduced to tears once her hands went from merely dirty to muddy.

Worldmind’s upcoming pilot program class will look similar to the child and caregiver class, though without the parents. It will take place at Denver’s City Park, with the adjacent Denver Museum of Nature and Science serving as a backup in case of extreme weather.

Several parents who attended the recent class at Matthews/Winters Park said they planned to send their children to the pilot program. They often used the same word to describe why they liked the outdoor classes: Freedom.

Brittany Courville, of Lakewood, said she brought her 5-year-old daughter Siena to her first Worldmind session after the family relocated to Colorado from Texas a few years ago. The move had been jarring for the then 2-year-old, but the outdoor class seemed to restore her spirits.

“She loved it … It was freezing and she didn’t want to leave,” said Courville. “You know, you go to library story times — ‘Sit down. Do this. Do that’ — and she came here and there were other kids she could play with and also be herself and just explore.”

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent “forest school” class.

Brit Lease, a Denver resident and the mother of 2-year-old Ben, has friends who are excited that their daughter’s preschool has pledged she’ll be reading on a first-grade level by the time she starts kindergarten. But Lease doesn’t want that for Ben.

“What social-emotional learning did they miss out on or interpersonal kinds of things did they miss out on because they were so focused on learning how to read?” she asked.

While she talked, Ben growled like a tiger and showed off his “sword” — fashioned out of two thin branches bound together with black cord.

“My theory right now is just let them be kids as long as they can because it does start sooner,” Lease said. “Kindergarten is no joke anymore.”

A bigger tent

While Patterson launched Worldmind with a primary focus on getting kids outside, she’s lately shifted her goals. The organization is revamping its mission to aim for racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and ability diversity.

If Worldmind becomes licensed, she also plans to accept state child-care subsidies. Tuition for four half-days of forest school during the fall semester of the pilot project runs about $2,900.

But like other outdoor preschool providers, Patterson knows the typical part-day forest school schedule doesn’t work for everybody.

In part to accommodate working parents, Patterson hopes by the fall of 2019 to open a brick-and-mortar child care center that would still focus on outdoor learning, while enabling Worldmind to serve infants and toddlers, and offer full-day care for children up to age 6.

Megan Patterson, the founder of Worldmind Nature Immersion School, talks with two children while others play nearby.

Hebard said he doesn’t plan to accept child-care subsidies because they come with requirements he thinks don’t apply to an outdoor preschool model. These include evaluating students using a state-approved assessment tool.

Still, he would eventually like to raise money for a scholarship program. But with only a handful of tuition-paying families enrolled now and much of his extra time spent working nights at UPS Inc., that reality could be a ways off.

“It would be nice to have a broader demographic,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for any child.”

Nationally, some forest preschools have come up with creative ways to open their doors to a wider slice of their communities. For example, the Forest Freedom School, based in Oakland, gives students of a color a 30 percent break on tuition. It’s billed as the “Struggle Is Real” discount.

Aside from financial obstacles, there can be cultural barriers that make outdoor preschools perplexing or unthinkable for some families. These may include worries that children will get sick if they spend time in the rain and cold or simply the sense that school isn’t an outdoor activity.

Hebard said a colleague at another organization told him about concerns voiced by parents about plans to replace the preschool’s brightly colored plastic play equipment with a nature-themed playground. Some of the parents worked outside all day and were put off by the idea of their children playing in the dirt at school.

Overcoming those perceptions will take parent education and outreach to local groups that work with communities of color, forest school leaders say.

Kenny said programs must be aggressive about serving all kinds of families. And it’s not just tuition help that’s needed, she said. Because children are outside in all kinds of weather, families may need help ensuring their children have access to high-quality clothing and gear.

“It’s incumbent on these schools to offer some kind of assistance because right now the government’s not doing it, nobody’s doing it,” she said.

Prize money

A million dollars, 570 hopefuls, and 15 winners: How a new competition aims to boost babies and toddlers

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images
Boy displaying drawing.

A Colorado team is one of 15 winners to share in $1 million awarded by a Denver-based organization as part of a new contest recognizing innovative efforts benefitting children from birth to 3 years old.

The Boulder-based team will receive $80,000 for a project that helps little kids acquire language, thinking, and social-emotional skills using a cell phone app inside a stuffed animal.

Gary Community Investments, which gives grants and makes for-profit investments to benefit low-income children and families, announced the winners of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Tuesday afternoon. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

The Colorado team that won prize money developed a tool called MindScribe. It works like this. An adult slips a cell phone with a special application into the belly of a stuffed zebra. The app prompts the child to explain what they are doing or making and asks follow-up questions, such as “What happened next?” and “Why?”

MindScribe founder Layne Hubbard, a Ph.D. student in computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, said her work as a teacher at Boulder’s Children’s House Preschool inspired the project.

“I thought back to storytelling and how powerfully the children’s original stories catalyzed growth, development, and connectedness,” she wrote via email. “I realized that I wanted to scale this opportunity to reach young children across diverse early childhood communities, especially those which are multilingual, low-income, or affected by trauma or disability.”

One little girl who stars in a MindScribe’s demonstration video describes her crayon drawing of a garden — and her fictional protagonist’s desire to change “boring weather” — to the MindScribe zebra for seven minutes.

But the girl, Mia, isn’t oblivious to the cell phone inside the paunchy stuffed animal. Instead, she’s delighted.

She explain how it works to her father, saying, “This is like the teacher but with a radio inside the teacher.”

Mindscribe, which is still in the pilot stage, began with three languages and is now available in 11.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, unveiled by Gary last fall, is distinctive because there are few contests that focus on very young children — despite a large body of evidence showing that high-quality care and education for this group yield significant financial and societal dividends.

Leaders at Gary invited prize submissions from teams with advanced ideas, early-stage ideas, and nascent concepts. Five advanced winners received $100,000 each, five early-stage winners received $80,000 each, and five beginning-concept winners receiving varying shares of $100,000. Gary also recognized seven teams, including one from a Colorado Springs-based network of child care centers, that didn’t win money but offered promising ideas.

The contest used an online platform that made each submission publicly viewable and allowed teams to get feedback from fellow candidates, and in some cases, mentoring from experts.

“We really wanted the prize to be an engaging opportunity for people in the early childhood field,” said Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director.

Gary received 570 submissions, with winning ideas coming from nonprofit and for-profit groups, universities, city governments, and the National Head Start Association.

One winning team aims to eradicate book deserts by putting children’s reading materials in public spaces like barber shops and beauty salons. Another proposes classes on mindfulness to reduce child care providers’ stress levels. Several feature technology solutions — to improve child care business operations or promote early developmental screenings.

Clothier said although most of the prize winners are testing projects outside Colorado, their ideas could eventually be replicated here. She said the organization has not decided whether to hold the innovation competition again.