What’s So Great about Executive Function?

 

The Stroop test is used to evaluate executive function skills, especially attention and cognitive flexibility. Try it! Say the color, don't read the word.

The Stroop test is used to evaluate executive function skills, especially attention and cognitive flexibility. Try it! Say the color, don’t read the word.

Why is everyone talking about executive function?

To begin with, it’s at the heart of self-regulation—that is, our ability to consciously control our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. When it comes to readying children for school and helping them to succeed in both the social and the academic realms, executive function is even more important than IQ.

And according to a study of 1000 children whom researchers followed from birth to age 32, good self-regulation creates healthier, wealthier, and more law-abiding people, whereas poor self-regulation leads to trouble paying attention, following directions, and building and maintaining positive relationships.

So what exactly is executive function?

There are three core executive functions:

  • Working memory is the ability to keep information in our minds for a short period while we work with it.
  • Cognitive or mental flexibility permits us to shift our focus, adjust to new demands, information, and priorities, fix mistakes, and come up with alternative solutions to problems.
  • Inhibitory control is the capacity to control our impulses and think before we act, or in the words of neuroscientist Adele Diamond, “to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.”

By working together, these three executive functions lay the foundation for the higher order skills of planning, reasoning, and problem solving.

How do children learn these skills?

Children begin to acquire executive function skills in infancy (think of the baby soothing herself with her thumb or pacifier), and early childhood is an especially fertile period for developing them. We can see this happening before our eyes as toddlers and preschoolers learn to share, wait for a turn, understand rules and directions, calm themselves, and empathize.

But executive functions don’t develop automatically. They depend on the external guidance and support of parents and teachers. By modeling self-regulation ourselves and by providing warm, sensitive, and responsive care, plentiful opportunities to practice self-regulation, scaffolding children’s learning so that they can do what we ask, and reinforcing effort, persistence, and focus, we can help their executive functions to become stronger and stronger. At the same time we are building resilience.

Children who lack these skills need our support the most. Living with toxic stress—for example with neglect, maltreatment, violence, caregiver mental illness, or poverty—disrupts children’s brain development and often robs them of the chance to develop their executive functions. But research shows that children with poor self-regulation actually make the largest gains when they have our support and guidance.

It’s important to improve these skills early because executive function problems grow over time. Diamond says that increasing children’s executive function could even help to close the achievement gap in school and health.

How can teachers enhance executive function?

Several curricula (PATHS, Chicago School Readiness Project, Tools of the Mind, Montessori) show signs of improving children’s executive function, but the research evidence is still weak. However, it is very clear that lots of practice is imperative. Here are some tips to use in your own classroom:

  • Work on developing secure relationships with the children you care for. A warm, sensitive, and responsive relationship with a child is the basis for all positive change.
  • Create a stimulating and well organized classroom environment with consistent rules. Minimize distractions, remove things that trigger impulsive behavior, and provide reminders and memory aids (such as a picture of an ear to help children listen). With this assistance, children can practice inhibiting their own impulses and following your directions instead.
  • Bear in mind that negative emotions such as anger, depression, stress, frustration, and loneliness dispose us to pay less attention, respond impulsively, and even act aggressively. Children having a hard time at home need extra support, monitoring, and guidance; and when they behave inappropriately, a calm, warm response is likely to be more effective than a harsh one.
  • Explain the reasons behind your actions and decisions. This enables children to internalize the message.
  • Give one direction at a time.
  • To help children calm themselves when they’re upset, teach them to recognize the clues their body gives them. Then teach them the turtle position (cross your arms, wrap them around your body, take a deep breath, and then plan how to respond) and/or belly breathing (lie on your back with a small stuffed animal on your belly, and breathe slowly in through the nose and out through the mouth, which rocks the animal). (If you have no stuffed animal, you can put your hands on your tummy.)
  • Teach children self-talk. To help them act appropriately, they can quietly tell themselves what to do or count to 10 forwards or backwards, either out loud or in their heads. This helps them to think more rationally.
  • Tell stories, and have children tell them, too. Write them down or ask the children to illustrate them, and discuss the feelings in them.
  • Schedule lots of time for pretend play, and ask the children to make a plan for what they intend to do. Supervise and ask questions about what they’re doing.
  • Use games and songs that require children to pay attention and remember the rules: Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, memory, walking on a line, follow the leader, freeze dancing, dancing to fast and slow music, singing loud and soft, “Head and Shoulder, Knees and Toes,” “BINGO,” “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “Five Green and Speckled Frogs,” etc. Puzzles and matching and sorting games (by size, color, shape) also help develop executive function. When children have mastered a game or a song, tweak it to challenge them more, e.g., in Simon Says, change the cue to follow Simon.
  • For more ideas, see Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence by the Center on the Developing Child of Harvard University; the November 2014 issue of Zero to Three; and this video on executive function by Alberta Family Wellness.

How many of these strategies do you use in your classroom? Have you seen any improvement in the children’s self-control? How hard is it for you to model self-regulation? What do you do to keep your cool when the going gets tough?


Following Up After You See Bullying: A Practical Guide, Continued

bullying-infographic1

Note: This is the fifth in a series on bullying.

You’ve seen bullying and intervened to stop it. You’ve shown that you won’t allow it. But the case is not yet closed. What do you do next?

Should there be consequences for children who bully?

Many bullying experts believe that punishment doesn’t deter children from bullying and leads to harsher—and more subtle—attacks. Children who bully may blame the child they targeted, seek vengeance, and issue new threats. Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion discourage both targeted children and bystanders from reporting or intervening in a bullying situation and don’t help the child who bullied. Punishment also teaches that bullying is acceptable for people with power.

So what are the alternatives?

Dan Olweus, the father of bullying research, regards a serious talk with a child who’s bullying as a consequence; and Canadian researchers Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig favor formative consequences that teach empathy, awareness, and social skills, while holding children responsible for their behavior and underlining that bullying is unacceptable.

Because bullying is a group problem, other experts advocate a group solution like restorative practice or similar interventions designed to deescalate denial and defensiveness, focus on the impact of the bullying, and redirect children to more positive pursuits.

A word of warning: Peer mediation is not a solution. Research shows that it doesn’t work, and it increases victimization. The children involved in bullying aren’t equals, and the child who was targeted is bound to be intimidated and even retraumatized by the child who bullied.

Talking with the participants

Regardless of what you feel about consequences, it’s important to talk separately with the children involved in a bullying incident. These talks will help to build trust and gather information for planning individual and group interventions.

The children also need a chance to express their feelings and their point of view, and they will feel more comfortable talking with a teacher they have a relationship with. If your school’s protocol calls for a specialist in bullying to take on this task, you might ask to sit in on the meeting—or brief the specialist—because you are the one who really knows the child.

The experts disagree about the order of these meetings. Some favor starting with the child who’s been targeted so that you understand his or her feelings and can use them to evoke empathy in the children who bullied. Other experts prefer to begin with the children who bullied to avoid accusations of tattling. In the end, personal preference—and how well you know both the group and the children involved—may determine where you start.

Meeting with children who’ve bullied

It’s not easy to speak with children who bully. They are likely to deny all wrongdoing, justify their behavior, and push your emotional buttons. But one-on-one time with a child who bullied can provide insight into the reasons behind the bullying and allow you to focus on strengths, recognize and redirect leadership abilities, and think up positive replacement behaviors to meet needs.

If several children took part in the incident, arrange to see them individually, one right after the other, so that they can’t use the group as a power source.

  • Show respect. Don’t accuse or blame. Listen to what they have to say without judging them.
  • Remind them of the rules. Tell them that bullying is serious and it must stop.
  • Help them to take responsibility for their behavior, to understand why it was wrong, and to see how it affects others.
  • Encourage them to make amends by eliciting empathy for the child who was targeted, asking them to propose one concrete way they can make his or her life better, and using formative consequences, such as reading a story that describes what it feels like to be bullied.
  • Make plans to work with them on problem solving, emotional regulation, and positive ways to use their leadership abilities.

Meeting with children who’ve been targeted

Research suggests that children rebound best from bullying when they tell friends and adults. The goal here is to build resilience.

  • Listen well, using open-ended questions and active listening. Let them know you care and want to help.
  • Tell them that they aren’t to blame and don’t deserve this treatment. You can support them best by empathizing, whereas trivializing events will make things worse.
  • Together explore ideas for improving the situation. Pinpoint bullying hot spots to avoid, and work on ideas for dealing with recess and lunch.
  • Help them to find new friends. You can start by assigning partners and groups instead of allowing children to choose their own and by frequently changing the seating arrangements for the whole class.
  • Teach self-talk, and role-play and rehearse staying calm, being assertive, and walking away. It is better if they can manage not to give in, get upset, or fight back, which promote bullying behavior. Do not suggest saying, “Stop,” pretending they aren’t hurt, or saying how they feel, which don’t work.
  • Continue to offer support. Because bullying is a relationship problem and hurts so much, it’s important to stay in touch. Children who are targeted can too easily develop—and get stuck in—a victim mentality. Work to build a relationship, and make sure the child knows you’re there for him or her.

Meeting with bystanders

Because almost all children will be bystanders at some point in their lives, it is probably most effective to speak with the whole class.

Bystanders often think bullying is wrong, feel sorry for the child who’s been victimized, and would like to help, but they fail to act. Peer norms—widely shared practices, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes—play a huge role, but children may not know what their peers actually believe. Anonymous surveys and posters showing the results can help make them aware that others disapprove of bullying and want to intervene. Younger children may share their feelings in a circle or class meeting if there is an open and trusting sense of community in the group. Even a single defender can reduce the painful fallout for a child who’s being harassed.

  • Explain that when they’re present, even if they’re only watching, they are supporting the child who bullies. Discuss and role-play what they can do instead—walk away, tell the teacher, and if they feel safe, help the child who was bullied to leave the scene (for example, by saying, “Come on, I’ll walk with you to class” or “We need you for the game”).
  • Help them understand that fighting back puts a defender in danger, escalates the aggression, and reinforces violence as a means to resolve problems.
  • Emphasize that one of the best ways to help is by including children who were bullied after (and before!) the incident—sitting with them at lunch or on the bus, phoning or texting them, and saying that it isn’t their fault.
  • Stress  that secrecy enables bullying to continue and that grown-ups can help. You can encourage children to report it by clarifying the difference between tattling to get someone into trouble and telling to get someone out of trouble.
  • Whenever possible, integrate issues related to bullying into the curriculum, and talk about them regularly. Power, empathy, peer pressure, courage, prosocial behavior, the difference between accidental and on purpose, the line between teasing and bullying, how it feels to be unwelcome—all of these topics kindle discussion. Reinforce the anti-bullying message with age-appropriate books, drawings, and puppets.

It takes time to stop bullying, but when you intervene consistently, meet with the parties involved, build relationships, and work with the whole class to create a community, you can lessen its impact and make it less likely to reoccur.

What do you think about using consequences for bullying? Have you used formative consequences, restorative practices, or other alternative methods? What works and what doesn’t? Tell us about your thoughts and experiences.

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov) and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.


What to Do When You See Bullying: A Practical Guide

bullying

Don’t Bully Me
Photo by Phoenix Coverley

Note: This is the fourth in a series on bullying.

Bullying is extremely complex, but one thing about it is crystal clear: it is essential to stop it when you see it.

Your response—or lack of response—sends a message to every child in your class: that you will not allow bullying, or that you will. Your message may reach the whole school if you’re on the playground or in the cafeteria.

Teachers who know what to do are much more likely to intervene, so we decided to offer you a how-to guide. Although it’s drawn from evidence-based research and practice,* please don’t think it’s a bible. Not everything works every time or in every situation. The field is moving at lightning speed, much is controversial, and notions about what to do change frequently.

This intervention works best when you feel comfortable using it, so it might be a good idea to get together with your colleagues to role play and practice it.

 What to do when you see bullying

Step in at once, even if you’re not sure it’s bullying.  Stand at an angle between the child who’s been targeted and the child who’s bullying, not turning your back or facing either child directly but blocking eye contact between them. Leave some space between you and the child who’s bullying, and keep your face neutral and your body posture relaxed with your arms at your sides. Until everyone has calmed down, avoid eye contact, which can aggravate the situation.

Stay calm and speak firmly in a low, moderate tone. Don’t smile, argue, or yell. Be respectful at all times.

What do you say?

First address the child who bullied. Describe what you saw or heard and identify it as bullying, whether it is physical or relational: “That was bullying. It is not okay. We take care of each other here. It’s my job to keep everyone safe, and I won’t allow children to hurt each other.” Don’t lecture, try to sort out the facts, demand an apology, or impose consequences.

Next speak to the child who was targeted. Say, “No one should be treated that way,” or “You’re not to blame. This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Do not say, “I’m sorry,” or “Are you okay?” These words may reinjure the child who was bullied.

Don’t send away the bystanders who joined in the bullying, laughed, or just watched. Asking them to leave gives the message that the bullying had nothing to do with them, when in fact they play an important role and can actually help to increase or decrease it. Let them hear you say that bullying is not acceptable and you support the targeted child. Refrain from asking what they saw or trying to gather information—they’ll probably be too afraid they’ll lose their friends or become the next target to tell the truth.

If they defended the targeted child, thank them for trying to help. If they didn’t try, encourage them to take a more prosocial role next time by finding an adult, for example. If you don’t know them, get their names, then send them back to class.

What comes next?

If the child who was targeted seems all right, he or she can return to class, too. But when the child isn’t ready, you need backup. If your school doesn’t have a communication system, you can send one of the bystanders for help—a teacher, the school nurse or counselor, a friend of the child—who can lend support. Alternately, if you have a good relationship and your schedule allows it, the child can stay with you.

As for the child who was bullying, what you do depends on the policies, procedures, and legal requirements of your school, district, and state. Find out exactly what’s mandatory. More than likely you’ll have to escort or refer the child to the office and/or make arrangements for a meeting with you, the principal or director, or another designated person. If necessary, you can accompany both children to the office, walking silently between them.

Inform your colleagues about what happened so that they can provide support and protection and supervise more closely.

You’ll also want to tell both families, who should be aware of the situation and participate in the solution.

Complete a detailed incident report as soon as possible. The data you collect now may be very useful later. Include ideas for improving supervision and monitoring.

Bear in mind that these are immediate measures, not long-term solutions. It takes much more time, planning, follow-up, and action on many fronts to prevent and reduce bullying. In our next post in this series, we’ll guide you through the steps that follow a bullying incident, including the question of consequences and talking with the children involved.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about this intervention. Would it help you to address bullying in your classroom? What other strategies and ideas do you use?

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov), and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.