These skills also support positive behaviors in the classroom and in social settings, and in fact, executive functions are now found to be more important for school readiness than a student’s intelligence quotient (IQ) (Diamond & Lee, 2011).
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University defines executive function and self-regulation skills as the mental processes that support students in their ability to plan, focus their attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully (2016). Working memory, mental flexibility and self-control are the brain functions that support self-regulation skills. The development of these functions is foundational for developing higher order executive function skills such as reasoning, problem solving and planning (Diamond, 2012). Working memory is the ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time, and mental flexibility is characterized as the ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands in different settings. And then there is the ever present need for self-control, which is, at its core, the ability to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.
Educators cannot dispute that there is a dire need for students to develop these skills; they are central not only to the learning process but to survival in general. These are the skills that are needed in order to intervene on an impulse that is ill-advised, to resist temptation or to control emotions in difficult situations (Diamond, 2012). So, what if children do not develop these skills? The implications are bleak, but not surprising–children with low self-control have a hard road ahead. Thirty years later, these children are shown to have poorer health and tend to commit more crimes than their peers, further reinforcing the need for developing and refining these skills in students beginning at an early age (Diamond, 2011).
Many may ask, don’t children inherently learn how to do these things in school? The quick answer is no. We are now more aware than ever that children are not born with these skills, and early care and education plays an important role in this development. Quality early care and education experiences are key, but not all curriculums are created equally when it comes to supporting the development of executive function in young children. Brain research shows that providing positive, meaningful experiences for children actually alters the formation of the brain (Rushton & Juola-Rushton, 2011).
Providing positive, meaningful experiences for children actually alters the formation of the brain
One of the only curriculum models that has been empirically shown to improve executive function in children is the Montessori curriculum (Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006). In fact, the very essence of a successful Montessori classroom is characterized by the term “normalization,” which showcases the development of executive function in young children. Normalization is described as the shift from disorder, impulsivity, and inattention to self-discipline, independence, orderliness, and peacefulness (Diamond & Lee, 2011). The Montessori classroom possesses the key elements needed to develop these important brain functions in young children, but these elements could easily be incorporated in a variety of traditional settings.
Allow Students to Develop at their Own Pace
No two children are alike, and likewise no two brains are alike. Classrooms that support open-ended learning, congruent with individual differences, help children move from the concrete to the abstract as their unique brains develop (Rushton & Juola-Rushton, 2011). The pre-frontal area of the brain is the last area of the brain to develop, and this is where the executive functions live.
Classrooms that support open-ended learning…help children move from the concrete to the abstract as their unique brains develop. The pre-frontal area of the brain is the last area of the brain to develop, and this is where the executive functions live.
In the Montessori environment, children are given the opportunity to engage in a daily work cycle, typically lasting three hours for primary aged students (2.5-6 years old). During this time, students are allowed to choose their own work and complete that work at their own pace (Howell, Sulak, Bagby, Diaz, & Thompson, 2013). It is during this uninterrupted work time, during which children are given the opportunity to work at their own pace on work that they are developmentally ready for, that children develop equilibrium, elasticity, adaptability and obedience (all part of executive function). “For it is from the completed cycle of an activity, from methodical concentration, that the child develops equilibrium, elasticity, adaptability, and the resulting power to perform the higher actions, such as those termed acts of obedience” (Montessori, 1965, p. 105).
Students should be given the opportunity to practice executive functions whenever possible, especially in the classroom environment. This can be accomplished fairly easily in the classroom – one way to do this is to ask students to begin learning activities by asking questions that emphasize self-monitoring and planning such as: Where am I? What am I doing? What should I be doing? These questions allow children to focus on the present moment and to select specific behaviors they need in order to accomplish their goals (Diamond & Lee, 2011).
As students grow older, they should be given the opportunity to develop skills necessary for planning, organization and time management in the classroom. One way to do this is to give students the opportunity to develop their own work plans (a technique commonly used in lower elementary Montessori schools) including the order in which they plan to complete their work and the timeline for completion (Howell, et al., 2013). This requires them to be aware of their own work pace and to estimate the amount of time it will take for them to complete tasks (Howell, et al., 2013). Because students have different academic abilities and capacities for completing work, this process is customized for each student, and it teaches them an important lesson–uncompleted work doesn’t go away, but instead work moves to the next day or week, which is much like we experience in the real world (Howell, et al., 2013).
Making time for Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a quality of focused attention on the present moment coupled with a non-judgmental stance. Mindfulness has been associated with well-being and happiness in adults, and there are many aspects of the Montessori curriculum that go hand-in-hand with this concept, and in turn produce positive outcomes for students (Lillard, 2011). Mindfulness activities are not just to make us happy, though. These activities have been shown to improve executive function as well. Mindfulness exercises include sitting meditation and activities to promote sensory awareness or awareness of others or the environment (Diamond & Lee, 2011).
In the Montessori classroom, the Silence Game is a tremendous tool for developing mindfulness, where children sit in silence and listen for their name to be whispered. During that time, they may hear something they otherwise may not have (for instance, the ticking of a clock) and eventually come to love and appreciate the silence. Of course, there are many variations of this game, but activities like this help children develop a higher level of self-control and gives them a sense of joy, achievement and social spirit as the group works together (Baker, 2014). Dr. Maria Montessori says that “When the children have become acquainted with silence…[they] go on to perfect themselves; they walk lightly, take care not to knock against the furniture, move their chairs without noise and place things upon the table with great care…These children are serving their spirits.”
Another Montessori activity that encourages mindfulness is Walking the Line – a lesson where children are required to walk on a line in the classroom, sometimes while holding a spoon full of water without spilling the water or holding a bell without making it ring. This activity, requiring focus and attention, serves as a walking meditation for young children (Diamond & Lee, 2011).
Cultivate Joy, Pride and Self-confidence
The Montessori classroom has a large emphasis on independence from a young age. Students are challenged to engage in activities to sustain everyday life through Practical Life lessons that teach concepts like washing dishes, hand washing, cloth washing and mopping up a spill; the list goes on. As children learn to do it themselves, they develop the self-confidence needed to move into more abstract learning concepts and these lessons provide the foundation for later academic success. They not only develop self-confidence, they develop the control of movement needed to be successful at future academic skills like writing, reading, and math. But, perhaps more importantly, these activities further develop the idea of finding meaning in everyday activities that sustain life and provide the basis for pride and fulfillment throughout a child’s life (Lillard, 2011).
Children teaching children is yet another way to build self-confidence and allow children to demonstrate a deep understanding of a concept. There is much research to support the concept that child-to-child teaching produces considerably better outcomes than teacher-led instruction (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Because multi-aged classrooms are another cornerstone of the Montessori curriculum, older children teaching younger children happens every day in the Montessori environment, and this is a big reason why these classrooms are so successful. Older children may take time to work directly with younger children one-on-one, but there is indirect teaching happening all the time as older children model appropriate behavior and work habits to younger students.
Another way the Montessori classroom promotes the development of executive function is through self-correcting materials, meaning that all materials are created so that the adult does not need to intervene in order for the child to know whether or not they have successfully completed a task. For instance, the Pink Tower, a set of ten blocks, each a different size, must be stacked in the right order, or the tower will not stand with all ten blocks. Allowing children the opportunity to engage with work that requires little, if any, adult intervention is the key to creating a sense of pride and confidence in learners, not to mention the ability to problem solve!
As Maria Montessori said, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say…the children are now working as if I didn’t exist.” The importance of developing executive function in children is fundamental in developing their ability to work autonomously, and although the examples provided in this article stem largely from strategies developed for a Montessori classroom, they can easily be incorporated into traditional environments. It is our responsibility as educators to develop the whole person, and the return on this investment cannot be underestimated.
Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. (2016).
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Lillard, A., & Else-Quest, N. (2006) The early years: Evaluating Montessori education. Science, 313, 1893-1894.
Lillard, A. (2011) Mindfulness Practices in Education: Montessori’s Approach. Mindfulness, 2, 78-85.
Montessori, M. (1965). Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook. New York: Shocken Books.
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