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.

help wanted

It’s hard to find qualified early childhood teachers. Here’s what one Denver provider is doing about it.

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Scattered around a meeting room in groups of three or four, 13 women bent over laptop computers and smartphones, squinting at Colorado’s hundreds of child care regulations.

They were child care and preschool employees from all over Denver on a scavenger hunt of sorts, searching for answers to worksheet questions such as how quickly child care workers must be trained on child abuse reporting and which eight kinds of toys and equipment classrooms are required to have.

The exercise on a recent Tuesday night was part of a 120-hour course — the equivalent of two college classes — that leads to a nationally-recognized child care credential.

Leaders at Mile High Early Learning, which operates seven centers around Denver, decided last summer to launch the training program to help solve one of the organization’s — and the field’s — most intractable problems: A shortage of qualified teachers and assistant teachers.

“We were having difficulty finding staff so we thought, ‘How could we grow our own?’” said Pamela Harris, the organization’s president and CEO.

In a field known nationally for low pay and high turnover, Mile High’s staffing struggles are hardly unique. What’s more unusual is the organization’s decision to address the problem with a formal in-house training. It’s a move that illustrates the anxiety providers face in finding high-quality staff and the gaps that exist in the state’s early childhood worker pipeline.

Over the next three years, a new state early childhood workforce plan aims to fill some of those holes, in part through alternative pathways like the training offered by Mile High. But experts agree the task is formidable.

Three participants in a recent training at Mile High Early Learning look through child care regulations.

In Colorado, the dearth of well-trained child care and preschool teachers has worsened in recent years even as evidence mounts that quality caregivers play a critical role in setting kids up for long-term success.

Christi Chadwick, who heads the Transforming Colorado’s Early Childhood Workforce project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado, said the state’s population growth, stagnant wages in the field and more demanding worker qualification have exacerbated the problem. It’s particularly acute for community child care providers, which can’t usually pay preschool teachers as much as school districts do.

“The compensation is a challenge,” Chadwick said. “If we’re going to ever professionalize the field, we have to think of how we have our teachers on par with those in elementary education.”

A winding road

Experts say many child care workers back into the profession — following a twisting path that may not include any formal training on how to work with little kids.

Some come in with only high school diplomas, some with associates degrees and some with bachelor’s degrees, though often in unrelated subjects.

Take Muna, a 24-year-old participant in the recent Mile High training. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the University of Colorado Boulder and has held jobs working with adult refugees and teaching high school girls in Saudi Arabia.

Until eight months ago when she became a staff aide at Mile High’s center in the Lowry neighborhood, Muna had never worked with young children.

Staff aides are entry-level workers who make about $12 an hour. They allow Mile High to meet staff-child ratio requirements, but under state rules, can’t be left alone with children.

Muna, who asked that her last name not be used, is exactly the kind of person Harris wants to nudge up the career ladder with the new training program,

“We want to push them out of staff aide. We want them to be teacher assistants,” Harris said, noting that a pay bump comes with the promotion.

Mile High is among a variety of organizations that offer the training, which leads to a credential called the Child Development Associate. Mile High staff can take the course for free as long as they commit to stay for a year. Employees at other Denver area centers can participate for a fee. Harris said one of Mile High’s next steps will be to offer the training in Spanish.

For Muna, the course was mainly a way to learn the ropes of a profession she’s found both fulfilling and unfamiliar.

“I felt like I really didn’t know anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to be making mistakes or doing anything wrong.”

During the scavenger hunt activity, Muna and her two partners — both of whom work at centers outside the Mile High network — talked about the maze of rules that govern child care.

Muna recalled how jarring it was to learn that she had to don gloves first before tending to a crying youngster with a bloody nose.

Megan O’Connor, a former marketing officer and the mother of a teenage boy, laughed about the fact that there’s not only a specific technique for changing a baby’s diaper, but also for throwing the diaper away.

The changing pipeline

Starting in the 1980s, state law prohibited Colorado’s universities from offering bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. When that changed a few years ago, it opened the way for a new crop of college graduates with specialized coursework focusing on young children.

But that spigot, while promising, is also very new.

A recent survey of about 5,000 early childhood workers across the state revealed that while just over half of lead teachers have a bachelor’s degree, only 25 percent have degrees in early childhood education or a closely related field. (The full results of the survey are due out in mid-August.)

Diane Price, president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers in Colorado Springs, was pleasantly surprised this summer to land three new teachers who’d recently graduated with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood. But with more than 40 percent of her staff turning over every year, recruitment is still a battle.

“I firmly believe that right now in early education you either grow your own or steal from someone else,” said Price, who was a member of the steering committee that helped developed the state’s new plan.

Early Connections doesn’t offer its own Child Development Associate training like Mile High does, but the course is available through local partners.

Both Harris and Price say the training is enjoying a resurgence at the moment. It provides a gentle way of introducing child care workers, who may find college intimidating or unaffordable, to the prospect of higher education.

“We don’t want this profession to be a dead end,” Price said. “We want them to see there is a pathway. You can become a teacher, you can be a lead teacher … You can be a director some day.”

(Very) early education

Helping expectant and new mothers can lead to health and education gains for children, new paper says

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A toddler at Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center, draws on an outline of his foot.

A new paper released Monday identifies health and educational benefits for children whose mothers participated in a home visitation program that provides medical assistance and early childhood development.

The Nurse-Family Partnership program begins in prenatal stages and ends when the child turns 2. The program offers care to disadvantaged, first-time and single mothers. Registered nurses visit the women’s homes and assist both with medical needs and early education.

University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, in tandem with four other professors and researchers at major American universities, analyzed a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis, Tennessee. The paper concludes, among other things, that Nurse-Family Partnership programs improve cognitive skills for babies of both genders by age 6, and specifically social and emotional skills for girls. At age 12, males whose mothers were involved in Nurse-Family Partnership program perform better academically.

It is very important to provide a strong start early in life,” said Maria Rosales-Rueda, a professor at the University of California, Irvine and one of the paper’s authors. “We have seen several research children arrive to school already with big gaps between low socioeconomic status and high socioeconomic status. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership target low income very disadvantaged families, first-time mothers, sometimes teenagers, by helping them to invest in their children.”

Nurse-Family Partnership receives federal funding from the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. The funding expires Sept. 30. If Congress does not reauthorize the program, Nurse-Family Partnership and other early childhood programs could lose crucial federal dollars, said Fran Benton, a spokesman for the program’s national office.

Rosales-Rueda said she hopes the paper will help raise awareness about the effectiveness of Nurse-Family Partnership.

Currently, its programs are widely available in Colorado, according to Michelle Neal, director of the program at the Denver-based organization Invest in Kids. While federal funding makes up a smaller portion of Nurse-Family Partnership’s revenue, Neal said if the federal funding is not reauthorized, Colorado’s program could be in jeopardy.

“In Colorado at least we have great support for the program in that we’re available in all 64 counties,” she said. “A (paper) like this can have an impact on our advocacy to have the federal funding be reauthorized because that’s up in the air. We need that funding to continue flowing after October 1.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when federal funding for the Nurse-Family Partnership expires.