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September 2011

From the National Center for Education Research (NCER)

NCER Funds Project to Improve Executive Function Skills in Homeless and Highly Mobile Children

A young student and teacher working with a touchscreen computerPhoto by Dawn Villella used with permission from the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota.

Did you know?

Each year, the Department of Education estimates that there are over 800,000 children and youth in the United States who experience homelessness. These homeless children and youth lack fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residences and can be found living in emergency or transitional shelters, sharing homes with others, living in hotels, motels, and trailer parks, or even sleeping in cars, parks, or on the streets. States and school districts across the country face the daunting task of ensuring that poverty and its associated housing instability does not cause these vulnerable children to fall behind in school.

In July 2011, the National Center for Education Research awarded a 3-year development grant to Ann Masten at the University of Minnesota to develop and evaluate the promise of an innovative intervention to enhance the school readiness, learning, and early school success of homeless and other highly mobile preschoolers, a population at high risk for school failure.

According to Dr. Masten, "Children from residentially unstable families experience many of the same kinds of risks as other children living in poverty, adversity, or chaotic situations, but often to a more severe degree. In addition to severe poverty, however, these families often are moving because of family crisis events, including foreclosure, job loss, illness, incarceration of a parent, and violence in the family or neighborhood."

By intervening during the preschool years, the University of Minnesota research team seeks to help lay a cognitive and motivational foundation for homeless and other highly mobile children to learn more effectively from instruction in a classroom setting. The intervention specifically targets improving executive function skills and the brain processes required for these cognitive control functions. Executive function skills include keeping information in mind, thinking flexibly, and inhibiting impulses or distractions.

"For children, the combination of very high risk and extremely low or depleted resources may generate overwhelming stress," explains Dr. Masten. "It is difficult to maintain good cognitive function and self-regulation when stress is high. If stress continues, particularly in early development, it can undermine brain development as well as other aspects of health, and prolonged stress may be especially detrimental to brain regions that support executive function skills and learning, such as the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus."

While executive function skills are developed throughout childhood and the adolescent years, they develop more rapidly during the preschool years. The intervention will be designed to be feasible for even the most disadvantaged children, including preschool children who are homeless or highly mobile, as well as preschool children who are currently housed but live in poverty.

The intervention will use games and other activities specifically modified to build executive function skills, including versions of popular childhood games like "Simon Says," musical activities like "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," and interactive readings of executive function-themed books. These games and activities are intended to boost the self-reflection that supports executive function development. Self-reflection and self-control are taught through conversation, taking turns, collaborating, explaining one's ideas to the group, musical games, and pretend play activities.

Researchers will also develop new user-friendly parent education materials designed to teach parents about executive function and its importance for children's development as well as provide executive function activities that parents can implement at home with their children. Why also target parents? According to Dr. Masten, "Moving, especially in the context of crisis, is very disruptive and distressing to all members of a family. Children often lose the support of extended family or teachers. Childcare and education are frequently disrupted, along with sleep and other routines. Parents are stressed and depleted, and may find it very challenging to provide the quality of interaction that fosters development of executive function skills in their children."

This study will primarily take place in two preschool settings in Minnesota that serve homeless and highly mobile children, as well as their similarly disadvantaged peers. Additional field testing will also take place in a laboratory preschool at the University of Minnesota, in order to provide an opportunity to explore use of the intervention for children from a wider range of backgrounds who may also be at risk for problems with EF. At the end of the grant, the research team will conduct a pilot study to determine if the intervention shows promise (compared to typical preschool activities) in improving performance on executive function tasks, pre-math and pre-literacy achievement tests, self-regulation behavior, and kindergarten outcomes.

This approximately $1.5 million development grant was awarded through the Cognition and Student Learning (CASL) research program, which provides funding for research that improves student learning by applying recent advances in cognitive science to education practice. For more information on the program Promoting Executive Function to Enhance Learning in Homeless/Highly Mobile Children, see the project abstract at For additional information on CASL and descriptions of all 22 CASL grants awarded in 2011, see

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education also funds the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, which provides formula grants to states to provide coordination of the education of homeless children and youths and to ensure that homeless children, including preschoolers, have equal access to free and appropriate public education. For more information on the McKinney-Vento grant program, see