Interventions in the Classroom

Tools of the Mind is a research-based early childhood model combining teacher professional development with a comprehensive curriculum that helps PreK- and Kindergarten-aged children develop cognitive, social-emotional, self-regulatory, and foundational academic skills. Their approach includes the use of specific tactics to support memory and learning, as well as the organization of “shared cooperative activity” designed to promote socialemotional as well as cognitive development. Tools of the Mind focuses on EF skills as a primary mechanism through which children make academic progress and develop social competencies. In order to promote these skills, the program blends teacher-led scaffolding of a comprehensive curriculum of literacy, mathematics, and science activities aligned with the Common Core Standards as well as with child-directed activities and, importantly, structured sociodramatic play. In this curriculum, teachers help children build self-regulation skills through purposeful playful and engaging interactions with classmates.

A study by Blair and Raver (2014) found that the Tools of the Mind Kindergarten program had positive effects on EF skills, reasoning ability, the control of attention, and levels of salivary cortisol and alpha amylase (i.e., indicators of neuroendocrine function). Results also demonstrated improvements in reading, vocabulary, and mathematics at the end of kindergarten that increased into the first grade. As the researchers state, “A number of effects were specific to high-poverty' schools, suggesting that a focus on executive functions and associated aspects of self-regulation in early elementary education holds promise for closing the achievement gap.”

Other EF interventions in a school setting have been more child-focused and incorporated classroom activities specifically designed to provide children with opportunities to practice their EF skills. In the semi-structured block play intervention described in Schmitt, Korucu, Napoli, Bryant, and Purpura (2018), researchers worked in small groups with preschool-aged children twice per week for 7 weeks. The block play intervention required children to plan and to solve problems while working collaboratively with peers. Results indicated a moderate effect size of the intervention on children’s EF skills, with the intervention being most effective for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

A similar child-focused intervention leveraged the circle time format typical in most preschool classrooms. Two times per week for 8 weeks, children were led by a trained assistant through a series of games designed to exercise children’s EF skills (Tominey & McClelland, 2011). For example, in the freeze dance game, children danced while music was playing, but then stopped when the music was paused; this activity requires children to use their inhibitory control skills because they need to stop and start their behaviors based on the rules of the game. One study evaluated the effect of the Circle Time Games intervention in a sample of 276 children enrolled in Head Start classrooms (Schmitt, McClelland, Tominey, & Acock, 2015). Results showed significant effects of the intervention on the two measures of EF used in the study. Furthermore, the intervention appeared to be most effective for children who were English language learners. Together, these two child-focused interventions suggest that one way to improve children’s EF skills is to give them targeted, supported, and engaging opportunities to practice these skills.

Parenting Interventions

The Attachment and Biobehavioral Catchup (ABC) intervention is designed to strengthen attachment relationships and support effective co-regulation strategies in foster parents and children (Lewis-Morrarty, Dozier, Bernard, Terracciano, & Moore, 2012). Compared with children who received an active control condition, children who received the ABC intervention showed significant improvements in their EF skills. Another intervention conducted by Obradovic and colleagues (Obradovic, Yousafzai, Finch, & Rasheed, 2016) targeted sensitive and responsive parenting through community groups and home visiting in mothers and their infants living in rural Pakistan. These authors found that the intervention had both a direct effect on children’s EF skills at age 4 years and an indirect effect through maternal scaffolding behaviors, suggesting that parenting behaviors are an important mediator of intervention effects.

Interventions Using Technology

Vroom, a program of the Bezos Family Foundation, helps parents transform everyday routines, such as bed time, bath time, meal time, into brain-building moments by providing a validating message — you have ivhat it takes — through science-backed tips that parents can use in the time they have with their children. There are more than 1,000 tips for families for children birth through 5, which are available online through a mobile phone-based App, and by text at no cost to parents. These tips have been designed to be accessible to parents and families from diverse backgrounds: They are available in 14 languages, written at a fifth-grade reading level or lower, and contain no more than 300 characters (Galinsky, Bezos, McClelland, Carlson, & Zelazo, 2017). Many of the tips allow children to directly practice their developing EF skills. For example, in one daily tip, parents are encouraged to ask their children to reflect on their day, but to try to do so backwards. This activity requires EF because children need to hold in mind what they did during the day, but manipulate the information to go in reverse order. They also need to inhibit the usual way they tell their parents about their day. In addition to the tip itself, Vroom provides information on how the activity relates to children’s cognitive development as a way to further connect families to developmental science.

Vroom currently reaches more than one million families via local community activations in over 170 sites with a total reach of 37 states. It also reaches families through partnerships with brands, with spots on Daniel Tiger and a mini-series on Univision. Vroom has 860,000 digital followers. There are seven international sites, including work through the International Rescue Committee for Syrian refugee families. Although the impact of Vroom on children’s developing EF skills has yet to be assessed, this approach has considerable promise and is designed to be scalable.

Two-generation Interventions

One intervention framework that has been used to integrate many of the effective EF intervention strategies is the two-generation approach. First gaining attention decades ago, two-generation interventions target both children and their families to bolster positive developmental outcomes (Chase-Lansdale & Brooks-Gunn, 2014; Ramey, Ramey, Gaines, & Blair, 1995; Shonkoff & Fisher, 2013). Theory in support of this approach posits that development occurs within the context of multiple interacting systems (Bronfenbrenner, 1992; Ford & Lerner, 1992). Thus, interventions targeting children’s development cannot ignore the influences of these developmental systems. Even the most well-designed child-focused interventions may come undone if children return to a home environment with problematic parent-child relationships and chaotic conditions. Despite the strong theoretical rationale for two-generation approaches, however, there are only a few interventions that have focused on parents and children together.

The Parents and Children Making Connections - Highlighting Attention (PCMC-A) program was designed for parents and preschool-aged children to improve parent and child self-regulation (Neville et al., 2013). Parents attend weekly 2-hour group sessions for 8 weeks while preschool-aged children participate in separate small groups to practice attentional and emotional regulation. For example, to practice attentional regulation, children are told to color in the lines of a complex picture while other children attempt to distract them (e.g., tossing balloons in the air). Results indicated that children showed changes in the neural systems underlying selective attention and parents reported less stress and demonstrated more positive parenting behaviors in an observational parenting task compared with both a child-focused active control group (i.e., Attention Boost for Children) and a Head Start-only control group. These findings suggest that a two-generation approach is promising for strengthening both parenting outcomes and children’s brain development. Additional research is needed, however, to create and test two-generation interventions that show effects on behavioral measures of children’s EF skills and engage multiple developmental systems for more ubiquitous intervention effects.

In an attempt to mitigate some of the neurobiological effects of early adversity, Fisher, Frenkel, Noll, Berry, and Yockelson (2016) developed the Filming Interactions to Nurture Development (FIND) program. FIND is a two-generation intervention that targets the early caregiving relationship because positive infant—caregiver experiences are central to healthy brain development during this sensitive period of development. The FIND program uses video feedback during parent-child interactions to promote five elements of serve and return: sharing focus, supporting and encouraging, naming, back and forth interaction, and beginnings and endings. These intervention targets are hypothesized to increase parents’ own EF skills (e.g., parents practice their inhibitory control skills when they wait for their child’s cues), which in turn support future positive parenting and mental well-being, as well as children’s neurocognitive and socioemotional skills. Trials of the FIND intervention are currently being implemented in childcare settings and home-visiting programs.

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