Executive functions—a set of skills including the ability to focus attention, avoid distractions, and regulate impulses—are a critical part of academic achievement. Students who have stronger executive functions do better academically. Researchers from the New York University (NYU) Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development tested an education program that helps young students perform better academically by improving their executive functions. The program, tested with kindergarteners, could help diminish the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
The researchers tested a research-based educational program called Tools of the Mind in 29 Massachusetts schools. Tools of the Mind includes typical math, literacy, and science curriculum as well as child-directed activities and structured make-believe play. A previous test of Tools of the Mind in preschools produced mixed results. The new study focused on 759 kindergarteners. Some of the kindergarteners participated in the Tools of the Mind program and the rest served as a control group. Researchers measured the students’ academic achievement and executive functions. They also monitored the students’ stress response by measuring the levels of cortisol and alpha amylase taken from saliva samples.
Students in classrooms that used Tools of the Mind demonstrated greater improvements than children in classrooms using standard curriculum. The Tools of the Mind students demonstrated improved academic achievement in math, reading, and vocabulary. The students’ achievement gains in reading and vocabulary persisted into first grade, suggesting that self-regulation skills have long-term benefits.
The Tools of the Mind students also exhibited stronger executive functions. These students were better at paying attention, even in the presence of distractions. They also had better working memory and processed information more efficiently.
The saliva samples revealed that students in the Tools of the Mind group had an increased stress response. This indicates that the students were both more physiologically and cognitively engaged in school.
The Tools of the Mind program is a promising way to reduce the poverty-related academic achievement gap. Tools of the Mind could help children from impoverished circumstances ready themselves for school.
Lead study investigator and professor of applied psychology at NYU explains, “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.”
This research is published in the journal PLOS One.
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