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Teaching Executive Functions in Kindergarten can Improve Children’s Academic Learning

Update Date: Nov 12, 2014 02:11 PM EST

Kindergarten classes designed to help children develop executive functions can boost children's learning in the future, a new study reported. Executive functions include the ability to ignore distractions, focus attention, hold relevant data in working memory and maintain control over impulsive behaviors.

"Working memory and the ability to control attention, both important components of executive functions, enable children to focus and process information more efficiently. Our results suggest that a combined focus on executive functions and early academic learning provides the strongest foundation for early success in school," the study's lead investigator, Clancy Blair, professor of applied psychology at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, said according to the press release.

For this study, the researchers examined 759 children attending 29 schools from Massachusetts. Some of the schools had the Tools of the Mind program and other schools followed typical kindergarten curricula, which acted as the control group. The Tools of the Mind program combines literacy, math and science topics with activities that allow children to direct and take charge. Teachers who are a part of this program help children develop self-regulation sills.

The team compared the children's academic achievement, executive functions and stress levels by measuring cortisol and alpha amylase in their saliva samples. The children were studied for two years. The researchers found that children who learned under the Tools of the Mind program had better math, reading and vocabulary achievements in comparison to the control children. These academic improvements were still noticeable when the children moved on to the first-grade.

In addition, the children in the program were better than the control group of children at paying attention, avoiding distractions and processing data. They also had better working memory and executive functions. The saliva samples revealed that children in the program experienced an increase in stress response physiology, which suggested that these kids were more physiologically and cognitively engaged.

"To date, decisions about the most effective ways to foster learning in early childhood have not fully capitalized on advances in the neuroscience of executive functions, particularly for children in poverty," said C. Cybele Raver, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and the study's co-principal investigator. "The ability to control impulses and regulate behaviors and emotions is a critical function to build into early childhood education, ensuring children's success in both gaining knowledge and learning life skills."

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

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