Cultivation of EF Skills by Caregivers and Teachers

The development of EF skills during childhood is influenced importantly by caregivers, who support the acquisition of these skills in specific ways. In the context of safe, supportive relationships, children explore challenges. Parents may calibrate these challenges and scaffold children’s efforts to meet them. Empirical studies have shown that scaffolding behaviors (i.e., providing children with manageable challenges and offering just enough support for children to succeed) both concurrently and longitudinally predict preschoolers’ EF skills (Hammond, Müller, Carpendale, Bibok, & Liebennann-Finestone, 2012; Hughes & Ensor, 2009). Furthermore, parenting behaviors that are autonomy supportive - which include scaffolding and also offering appropriate choices, taking children’s perspective and following their lead, and providing encouragement and praise - are also associated with current and future EF skills in young children (Bernier, Carlson, Deschenes, & Matte-Gagne, 2012; Bernier, Carlson, & Whipple, 2010; Distefano, Galinsky, McClelland, Zelazo, & Carlson, 2018; Meuwissen & Carlson, 2015). Within the context of autonomy supportive relationships, children internalize rules and their intrinsic motivation is sustained; this is critical because simply having strong EF skills is not enough, children also need to be motivated to employ them. Finally, parents also provide examples of reflection and goal-directed problem solving.

Teachers are another important scaffolding influence on children’s developing EF skills. Across 23 studies, one meta-analysis found a significant correlation between positive teacherstudent relationships and children’s EF skills (Vandenbroucke, Spilt, Verschueren, Piccinin, & Baeyens, 2018). Specifically, teachers’ emotional warmth, teacher-student closeness, and positive behavioral management (e.g., “I like how you are sitting during story time”) have been shown to predict gains in preschoolers’ EF across the school year (Cadima, Verschueren, Leal, & Gliedes, 2016; Fuhs, Farran, & Nesbitt, 2013). Positive teacher-student relationships may be particularly critical for children with lower EF skills who tend to need more structure and support than children with higher EF skills. One study with a sample of 169 Head Start preschoolers demonstrated that teacher emotional support was more strongly associated with gains in EF for children who scored below the 25th percentile on an EF measure in the fall of preschool (Choi et al., 2016). Beyond specific teacher-student relationships, educational environments can be structured to best support EF development by promoting student exploration through engaging and playful trial and error learning, providing opportunities for feedback and reflection, and encouraging children to be accountable for their own learning

(e.g., Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, Goodman, Spelke, & Schulz, 2011; Bruner, 1966; Mar-covitch, Jacques, Boseovski, & Zelazo, 2008; Zimmerman, 1990).

Neuroscience Influenced Interventions in Early Childhood

Basic research on EF development has provided an important foundation for interventions designed to specifically target EF skills in young children, and suggests how to structure places of education to playfully explore their environments in intentional and attentive ways, to practice reflection, and to engage in self-regulated learning. These neuroscience-based interventions span multiple contexts, from the home to the classroom, and, increasingly, aim to connect these developmental systems to have the greatest impact on children.

Lab-based Interventions

In a laboratory context, a brief psychological distancing intervention has been shown to effectively boost EF performance in the moment. Psychological distancing refers to putting mental space between oneself and the current moment. White and Carlson (2016) found that when 5-year-olds were asked to pretend to be their favorite media character (e.g., Batman), thus providing some psychological distance, they performed better on an EF task compared with children who were asked to think about themselves during the task, as well as children in a no-manipulation control condition. This study reveals the importance of pretending to the development of EF skills. In addition, psychological distancing is theorized to be effective because it promotes reflection, and thereby supports children’s intentional use of EF skills. In fact, one study with preschoolers (Espinet et al., 2013) studied the effect of a brief 15-minute reflection training session, in which children who failed an EF task (the Dimensional Change Card Sort, or DCCS; Zelazo, 2006) were given a different version of the DCCS (with different shapes and colors) and taught to pause before responding, reflect on the hierarchical nature of the task, and formulate higher-order rules for responding flexibly. Compared with children who received only minimal yes/no feedback (without practice in reflection) and with children who received mere practice with no feedback at all, children who received reflection training showed significant improvements in performance on a subsequent administration of the DCCS. The benefits of reflection training generalized to improvements on a measure of flexible perspective taking (a false belief task) — an example of far transfer — and these behavioral changes were accompanied by changes in children’s brain activity, as measured using electroencephalography (EEG). Moriguchi, Sakata, Ishibashi, and Ishikawa (2015) also encouraged preschoolers to reflect on the DCCS, by asking them to teach a puppet the rules of the task. Compared with controls, trained children showed improvement in performance on the DCCS along with increased brain activity in parts of prefrontal cortex.

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