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IES Grant

Title: Promoting Executive Function to Enhance Learning in Homeless/Highly Mobile Children
Center: NCER Year: 2011
Principal Investigator: Masten, Ann Awardee: University of Minnesota
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $1,484,771
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A110528

Co-Principal Investigator(s): Zelazo, Philip; Carlson, Stephanie

Purpose: The goal of this project was to improve student learning by applying advances in developmental cognitive neuroscience to create an intervention targeting the executive function (EF) skills of impoverished preschoolers experiencing homelessness or high residential mobility. Prior research indicated that EF skills among these children often lagged behind the level expected for school readiness and also predicted difficulties with early school adjustment. EF refers to the neurocognitive processes involved in goal-directed behavior and self-control that are fundamental to learning. These skills develop rapidly during the preschool years and research had shown their malleability in response to targeted interventions. However, young children at risk due to family homelessness and high mobility rarely had access to interventions for school readiness or research tailored to their situation. Thus, this research team developed and examined the promise of an innovative intervention to promote EF skills to enhance school readiness, learning, and early school success in homeless or highly mobile children and similar preschoolers at high risk for school failure.

Project Activities: The researchers developed three related components  for the intervention, Ready? Set. Go!. This intervention was designed for implementation in early childhood programs serving children from impoverished backgrounds, with a particular focus on usability in the context of homelessness or high residential mobility. The three components were (1) classroom-based EF training curriculum and related teacher training, (2) parent education/training on promoting EF development and EF practice with their children, and (3) individual direct child EF training. Through an iterative process, each component and the combined intervention were refined by a design team comprised of community partners and university experts on EF development, early childhood and family education, preschool teacher training and curriculum development. Input from focus groups of parents and teachers was also collected as well as data from repeated field-testing and evaluations of feasibility. The researchers conducted  a pilot study of the refined intervention to assess the feasibility of implementation in community-based preschool programs and ascertain its promise for promoting EF to improve learning and early school success.

Key Outcomes: This section will be updated when key outcomes are published.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study took place in two preschool settings in Minneapolis, Minnesota serving disadvantaged children from families who were homeless or highly mobile. Supplemental development and field testing occurred in a laboratory preschool at the University of Minnesota.

Sample: Participants included 172 preschool children (ages 3 to 5)—predominantly from disadvantaged socioeconomic and minority backgrounds—including children residing in a shelter for homeless families. The majority of the preschool participants were from currently homeless or highly mobile families who were living in shelters and similar children who were attending preschool programs with high proportions of very low-socioeconomic status children. Additional children from the University of Minnesota laboratory preschool participated in order to examine the utility of the intervention for children from a wider range of backgrounds who could also be at risk for problems with EF. The intervention development and pilot testing included parents of the participating children and preschool staff.

Intervention: The theory of the intervention focused on motivating, scaffolding, and practicing the reflective reprocessing of information in young children to promote the development of EF skills that would in turn improve learning and achievement. Laboratory studies had indicated that brief, but optimally targeted, reflection training improved children's EF performance with corresponding changes in neural function. Experts in preschool education and children and parents experiencing homelessness children adapted these strategies to develop the individual, preschool group, and parent education components. The intervention was designed for practical implementation in community preschools with homeless or highly mobile children and other highly disadvantaged children but with flexibility for adaptation in diverse preschool settings. The intervention consisted of three components designed to promote EF skills:

  1. individual training built on successful lab methods of improving EF in preschool-age children through specific reflection training on EF tasks and games
  2. preschool group activities targeting EF skill development, using similar strategies to individual training but with the addition of conversation, collaboration, negotiation by taking turns, explaining one's ideas to the group, and role playing
  3. parent education on EF, related brain development, and how to support and promote EF in their children combined with parent-child interaction time for games and songs to practice EF

Each component consisted of activities designed to teach, practice, reward, and motivate the use of reflection and EF skills by the children. Components also were aligned to reinforce each other, for example by learning and practicing the same games in both the family and classroom activities. 

Research Design and Methods: The goal of the first phase was to develop three intervention components with the potential to be implemented and evaluated separately (in phase 1 of this project), in combination (in phases 2 and 3 of this project), and variously combined to test differential effects and value-added benefit-to-cost. The researchers evaluated components individually and in combination with respect to changing EF and related behaviors and achieving better academic outcomes, including emerging verbal and math literacy. Researchers used an iterative developmental process: (1) adapted or designed a version of the component, (2) consulted with the focus groups and obtained feedback, (3) refined the component, (4) field tested the component, (5) evaluated the feasibility of the component, and (6) repeated the last three steps in this process as needed. In phase 1, the separate components were adapted and field tested with input from a design team and focus groups and then refined. In phase 2, the combined intervention was field-tested and training manuals and methods were revised. In phase 3, a pilot study (comparing children in similar classrooms with or without the intervention) was conducted at two community sites to evaluate the feasibility of implementation and promise of the intervention in terms of effects on EF and achievement.

Control Condition: Children in the same preschool or in residing in the same shelter who did not receive the intervention.

Key Measures: Key measures for children included 7 tasks assessing child EF skills, including the NIH Toolbox measures of EF (Flanker, Dimensional Change Card Sort) with developmental extensions, subscales of the Stanford Binet for Early Childhood (5th edition), Woodcock Johnson III tests of early math (Applied Problems) and literacy (Letter-Word), and ratings of behavior by parents and teachers. Parents and teachers also completed evaluations of the intervention for their respective components: Family Fun Nights or teacher training and classroom curriculum. Fidelity of implementation in classrooms was assessed through teacher self-reports of classroom activities and CLASS observation coding by blind observers.

Data Analytic Strategy: Both qualitative and quantitative data informed the intervention during the iteration and development process, focusing on analyses that inform feasibility evaluation and implementation measurement. Evaluations by teachers and parents were summarized. In the pilot study phase, hierarchical linear regressions were fitted to analyze change over time in EF scores, controlling for age, IQ, and EF composite score at pre-test, with condition (intervention or control group) added as a predictor in step 2 to test for intervention effects at post-test or follow-up. Due to small sample sizes, separate regressions were run for post-intervention and the 1-month follow-up analyses of intervention effects.

Products and Publications

ERIC Citations:  Find available citations in ERIC for this award here.

Select Publications:

Book chapter Casey, E.C., Finsaas, M., Carlson, S.M., Zelazo, P.D., Murphy, B., Durkin, F., Lister, M., and Masten, A.S. (2014). Promoting resilience through executive function training for homeless and highly mobile preschoolers. In S. Prince-Embury, and D. Saklofske (Eds.), Resilience Interventions for youth in diverse populations (pp. 133–158). Springer.

Journal articles Distefano, R., Schubert, E. C., Finsaas, M. C., Desjardins, C. D., Helseth, C. K., Lister, M., Carlson, S. M., Zelazo, P. D., & Masten, A. S. (2020). Ready? Set. Go! A school readiness program designed to boost executive function skills in preschoolers experiencing homelessness and high mobility. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17(6), 877-894.

Masten, A., Fiat, A.E., Labella, M.H., and Strack, R.A. (2015). Educating homeless and highly mobile students: Implications of research on risk and resilience. School Psychology Review, 44(3): 315–330.

Masten, A.S., Cutuli, J.J., Herbers, J.E., Hinz, E., Obradovic, J., and Wenzel, A. (2014). Academic Risk and Resilience in the Context of Homelessness. Child Development Perspectives, 8(4): 201–206.

Masten, A.S., Kimball, A., Lister, M., and Siedow, N. (2013). Promoting academic success in young children from homeless families. undKinder,  Nr. 91(June): 69–79