Promoting Executive Function to Enhance Learning in Homeless/Highly Mobile Children
Co-Principal Investigators: Philip Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson
Purpose: The goal of this project is to improve student learning by applying recent advances in developmental cognitive neuroscience to create an innovative intervention that targets executive function (EF) skills in impoverished preschoolers, particularly for homeless and highly mobile (HHM) children. These children are at serious risk for poor EF skills, often show low levels of school achievement, represent a substantial portion of many urban school districts, and have limited access to intervention programs and research. Evidence in developmental cognitive neuroscience indicates that EF skills are fundamental for learning, predict early school success in HHM, depend on brain development, are compromised by adversity, and respond to targeted intervention. Researchers plan to develop and examine the promise of an innovative intervention to promote EF skills as a means to enhance school readiness, learning, and early school success in HHM children and similar preschoolers at high risk for school failure.
Project Activities: The intervention will consist of three related components, each of which is comprised of theoretically motivated and highly focused strategies to promote EF during a key period of neural and behavioral plasticity. The three components that will be developed are: (1) individual reflection training; (2) preschool classroom activities; and (3) parent education on promoting EF in children. Through an iterative process (Years 1 and 2), each component and the combined intervention will be 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 will also be collected as well as data from repeated field-testing and evaluations of feasibility. In Year 3, a pilot study of the refined intervention will be conducted 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.
Products: The products of this project will be a fully developed intervention targeting EF skills in HHM preschool age children. Peer-reviewed publications will also be produced.
Setting: This study will take place in two preschool settings in Minneapolis, Minnesota serving disadvantaged children. Supplemental development and field testing will occur in a laboratory preschool at the University of Minnesota.
Population: Participants will include 156 preschool children (ages 4 to 5)—predominantly from disadvantaged socioeconomic and minority backgrounds—including children who are classified as HHM. The majority of the preschool participants are HHM children (ages 4 to 5) who are currently living in shelters and similar children who are attending preschool programs with high proportions of very low-socioeconomic status children. Additional children from the University of Minnesota laboratory preschool will participate in order to provide an opportunity to explore the utility of the intervention for children from a wider range of backgrounds who may also be at risk for problems with EF. The intervention development and pilot testing will also include the parents of the participating children and preschool staff.
Intervention: The theory of the intervention focuses on motivating, scaffolding, and practicing the reflective reprocessing of information to promote the development of EF skills in children that will in turn improve learning and achievement. Laboratory studies indicate that brief, but optimally targeted, reflection training improves children's EF performance, with corresponding changes in neural function. Experts in preschool education and HHM children will adapt these strategies to develop the individual, preschool group, and parent education components. The intervention will be designed for practical implementation in community preschools with HHM and other highly disadvantaged children, but with flexibility for adaptation in diverse preschool settings. The intervention will consist 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; and (3) parent education on how to support and promote EF in their children. Each component will consist of activities designed to teach, practice, reward, and motivate the use of reflection and EF skills by the children.
Research Design and Methods: The goal of the first phase is to develop three intervention components with the potential to be implemented and evaluated separately (in Phase 1 of this project), in combination (in Phases 2–3 of this project), and variously combined to test differential effects and value-added benefit-to-cost. The components will be evaluated individually and in combination with respect to changing EF and related behaviors, and most importantly, achieving better academic outcomes, including emerging verbal and math literacy. Researchers will use an iterative developmental process: (1) adapt or design a version of the component; (2) consult with the focus groups and obtain feedback; (3) refine the component; (4) field test the component; (5) evaluate the feasibility of the component; and (6) repeat the last three steps in this process as needed. In Phase 1, the separate components will be adapted and field tested, with input from a design team and focus groups, then refined. In Phase 2, the combined intervention will be field-tested and training manuals and methods will be revised. In Phase 3, a pilot study (comparing children in similar classrooms with or without the intervention) will be conducted at two community sites to evaluate the feasibility of implementation and promise of the intervention in terms of effects on EF and achievement.
Key Measures: Key measures include standard child EF; intelligence; early math and literacy tests; behavior ratings and observational coding; and the standard school readiness screener for 3- to 5-year olds used by Minneapolis public schools. The Minneapolis Preschool Screening Instrument–Revised (MPSI-R) measures important indicators of school readiness, including cognitive (e.g., colors, information, matching, counting), language, and literacy skills, motor and perceptual skills, and social-emotional function. General intellectual function will be assessed by two subscales (the routing subtests) of the Stanford Binet for Early Childhood (5th edition) assessing fluid reasoning and verbal knowledge (10–15 min). Kindergarten outcomes will be assessed by standard tests of learning (e.g., verbal and quantitative literacy) and teacher ratings of academic and social behavior.
Data Analytic Strategy: Qualitative and quantitative data will inform the intervention during the iteration and development process, focusing on analyses that inform feasibility evaluation and implementation measurement. In the pilot study phase, post-intervention EF will be examined in relation to emergent literacy skills and also to standardized scores on measures routinely collected before or during kindergarten. In addition to basic statistical tests of mean differences between intervention and comparison groups on change in EF, facet plots will be used to illustrate growth and variation in initial values and trajectories for each child participant. Such graphs make it possible to examine patterns of intra- and inter-individual change and variation, to see whether there are slope effects in the predicted direction, treatment effects, and an effect of starting value on growth.
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 in Diverse Populations (pp. 133–158). NY: Springer.
Christie, D.J., Behrman, J.R., Cochrane, J.R., Dawes, A., Goth, K., Hayden, J., Masten, A.S. Panter-Brick, C., Punamaki, R-L, and Tomlinson, M. (2014). Healthy Human Development as a Path to Peace. In J. Leckman, C. Panter-Brick, and R. Salah (Eds.), Pathways to Peace: The Transformative Power of Children and Families (pp. 273–302). Boston: MIT Press.
Masten, A.S. (2014). Promoting the Capacity for Peace in Early Childhood. In J.F. Leckman, C. Panter-Brick, and R. Salah (Eds.), Pathways to Peace: The Transformative Power of Children and Families (pp. 251–271). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Journal article, monograph, or newsletter
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, Marie Meierhofer Institute for the Child,, 91: 69–79.