Tools of the Mind: Thinking about Executive Skills on Many Levels

February 17, 2014
by: Peg Dawson

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Thinking about Executive Skills on Many Levels

Peg Dawson

When I first started thinking about executive skills, I came at it from my experience working with students with ADHD. With that population, problems with task initiation, sustained attention, and response inhibition are paramount, and I spent a lot of time thinking first about how to structure the environment to better accommodate kids with these skill deficits and then thinking about how to teach them to initiate and stick with tasks and control their impulses more successfully. Working with these skills in particular usually involves an adult (teacher, parent, coach) providing a lot of direction—cues, structure, schedules, routines, checklists, social reinforcement if not more formal incentive systems, and providing students with lots of opportunity to practice under controlled and supervised conditions.

By doing all these things described above, we can shape kids up. They’ll be more likely to complete classwork and homework, they’ll stay out of trouble on the playground and with their friends, and they’ll make life easier not only for themselves but for their parents and teachers as well. But is that really the goal?

Recently I’ve begun thinking about executive skill development from a whole different angle. While having well-behaved kids may make us (parents, teachers, coaches, scout leaders or whatever) enjoy them more, and getting to this stage may increase the chances of smoother sailing as they continue on in school, that’s a pretty narrow way of thinking about executive skills.

If you look at our definitions of executive skills, we’ve arranged them in the order in which we think they emerge developmentally. The skills I’ve listed above are all on the first half of the list. The skills on the second half are more complex and multi-faceted and they tend to emerge later. But those are the skills where the payback is the greatest. When kids develop planning and time management, goal-directed persistence and metacognition—then they become masters of their own fate. More than that—they become skilled problem solvers, deep thinkers, and active pursuers of the skills and knowledge that matter to them. And those are the tools that will enable them to achieve their potential and follow their lofty dreams.

While these executive skills may be fully mastered only toward the end of the developmental period, the seeds for mastery can be sown much earlier. And in many ways, to help kids acquire those skills requires a very different skill set on the part of the adults working with them. Rather than prompting and cueing kids to do specific things (get started, remember stuff, stick with the task at hand), we want to help them learn to think for themselves. For adults to do this, they need to pull back and provide less structure rather than more—provide more subtle cues and supports. Ask questions rather than issue directives.

School-Based Applications

 Tools of the Mind is a preschool curriculum that emphasizes this approach. Based on the developmental theories of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, this approach is built around the notion that children learn and develop by acquiring mental tools that help them think, attend, and remember—“tools of the mind,” in Vygotsky’s terminology. Many of those tools are executive skills. As described by CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) the Tools of the Mind preschool/kindergarten program “encourages teachers to scaffold student learning while encouraging use of mental ‘tools’ through self-regulation activities, make-believe play, and a structured classroom environment that enable students to control their social, emotional, and cognitive behaviors.” (CASEL, 2013) CASEL chose to include Tools of the Mind in their list of effective social and emotional learning programs published in 2013. To be included, programs must be well-designed, deliver high quality training and implementation supports, and to be evidence-based, as shown by at least one carefully conducted study. A copy of this guide can be obtained in PDF format through the CASEL website (http://www.casel.org/). For a more in-depth description of this approach, check out the Tools of the Mind website (http://www.toolsofthemind.org) or take a look at the book by the program developers (Bodrova & Leong, 2007).

Tools of the Mind at Home

 This approach can be applied at home as well as at school. In many ways, it’s well-suited to home-based applications, since a cornerstone of the program involves make-believe play. When children engage in dramatic play, they practice executive skills at a higher level and more independently than in any other daily activity in the early years. Play involves creating an imaginary situation (which requires cognitive flexibility), developing a scheme for how the play will progress (which requires planning), adopting roles, such as parent, doctor, pirate that enable the child to view the world from different perspectives (which requires metacognition) and establishing the rules of play (which requires response inhibition). As Bodrova and Leong (2007) point out, “Unlike other activities where children comply with directives imposed from outside, in play children place constraints on their own behavior. It is the first time that children engage in self-restraint—the beginning of self-regulation.”

 

All too often in today’s world, parents sign their children up for organized activities under the direction of adults, or they give them toys to play with that diminish the child’s need to draw on their own imagination (using a wooden block as a cell phone requires more imagination than giving the child a toy cell phone to play with). Children enjoy these activities and parents feel good about exposing their children to activities and materials that they enjoy. But is there something lost in the process? Are we actually slowing down the child’s ability to develop problem solving skills and self-regulation?

The Tools of the Mind website provides detailed and well thought-out instructions for how parents can help their children learn to play (http://www.toolsofthemind.org/parents/make-believe-play/). But there are other things parents can do to support the development of those more complex executive skills. These include:

  • Asking good questions to get your child to think for himself. Why do you think your baby brother is crying? Is he hungry? Could he be tired? Do you think he’s reacting to too much excitement? Why do we have to brush our teeth after eating breakfast? What fun thing could you do after we clean your bedroom? Since it’s raining and we can’t go to the beach, what else could we do this afternoon?
  • Don’t rush in to solve your child’s problems for her. Your sister’s playing with the toy you want to play with. How could you handle this situation? I know you wanted pancakes for breakfast but I don’t have time to make them—what’s another choice? I think Tommy doesn’t want to play with you because he feels you always need to decide what you’re going to play. What could you do to help Tommy change his mind?
  • Ask your child to wait—and help them think of things they can do while they wait. Learning to wait, it turns out, is an excellent way to develop response inhibition—or delayed gratification. If your child wants you to play a game with him right now, feel comfortable telling him You know what? I have to finish folding the laundry first. It will take about 15 minutes. What can you do while you wait for me to finish my chore?
  • Help your child make plans or to organize things. We’re going on a camping trip this weekend. What do we have to remember to bring? Let’s make a list. You want to make a picture book for Grammy? That’s a great idea. What materials do you need? What will you do first? How can I help you—or do you want to do it all by yourself? We have to pick up your room now. What should we start with? And then what?
  • Help your child set goals. Saving up money for something the child wants is one way to do this (plus it helps develop delayed gratification). But you can build goal-setting into every day tasks as well. How long do you think you can work on your homework before taking a break? How many books do you think you can read this summer? If you’re ready for school 15 minutes before the bus comes, you can watch part of that video you like. How many days this week do you think you’ll be able to do that? Let’s mark it on the calendar.

It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Provide enough structure and support for kids to feel comfortable with routines and schedules—but provide enough free time and encouragement to help kids learn on their own. Kids need to make mistakes and learn to solve their own problems. The advice Dick and I frequently give to parents and teachers is Provide the minimum support necessary for the child to be successful. That’s a flexible maxim: on some days and in some situations, the child needs more support, at other times less. It’s not just kids who are learning as they go—adults who work and live with kids are doing the same.

References

 Bodrova, E. & Leung, D. J. (2007). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2013). Effective social and emotional learning programs: Preschool and elementary edition. Chicago, IL: CASEL.