December 10, 2007

Preschool Program Improves Cognitive Control

a photo of two preschool-age children looking at a book

An innovative curriculum significantly improved several cognitive skills in low-income, urban preschool children, a new study found. The improvement came without any special equipment, using regular teachers in public school classrooms.

Certain skills based in the prefrontal cortex of the brain are critical for success in school and life. These "executive functions," or cognitive control skills, include the ability to hold information in your mind; to resist habits, temptations or distractions; and to adjust to change. Poor executive function skills have been associated with problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), student dropout, drug use and crime. In fact, previous studies have found that these skills are more strongly tied to school readiness in preschoolers than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills.

Most interventions for at-risk children target the consequences of poor cognitive control. But while some children are genetically predisposed to be hyperactive or have attention problems, these skills can also be taught. The Tools of the Mind curriculum has been developed over the last 12 years by educational psychologists to improve cognitive control. It has 40 core activities, including strategies to improve memory and attention, such as telling yourself what to do out loud before you do it. Social pretend play is also an important part of Tools, bucking the trend to limit playtime in favor of lessons.

A research team led by Dr. Adele Diamond at the University of British Columbia, with support from NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Human Early Learning Partnership, set out to compare Tools to a more typical curriculum. An urban school district agreed to randomly assign teachers, assistants and 4- and 5-year old preschool children from low-income families to 2 groups. All the classrooms — including 18 the first year and an additional 6 the second — received exactly the same resources and the same teacher training and support.

After the children were in the programs for 1 or 2 years, the researchers gave them computerized tests that challenged them to remember rules, discount distractions and flexibly switch between rules. The researchers gathered this cognitive control data on a total of 147 preschoolers.

As reported in the November 30, 2007, edition of Science, the Tools group significantly outperformed the other group. In one test, for example, almost twice as many Tools children got more than 75% correct. At one school, educators halted the experiment after the first year to give all the children the Tools curriculum, because the Tools children seemed to be doing so much better than the comparison group.

The study would have been stronger if the children's performance had been measured at the start to ensure that both groups were comparable before exposure to the curricula. If these results are confirmed, Tools could potentially be used to help reduce the societal costs of antisocial behavior, the need for costly special education, and the number of diagnoses of executive function disorders such as ADHD.

"Helping at-risk children improve [executive function] skills early might be critical to closing the achievement gap and reducing societal inequalities," Diamond said.

— by Harrison Wein, Ph.D.

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