Programs intended to improve students’ executive function have grown in popularity, but in many cases the hype around so-called “brain training” has outstripped the still-emerging research. A report and rubric released Wednesday by the nonprofit BrainFutures are intended to help district leaders understand different aspects of executive function and evaluate programs intended to support students’ skills.
Executive function is the umbrella term for the mental processes involved in self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. It’s necessary for a variety of functions, including setting longterm goals and resisting bad habits, reasoning out problems, and adapting to changing circumstances and perspectives. Environmental disadvantages, such as poverty and trauma, have been associated with poorer executive function skills in children.
“These functions are the result of the integrated action of hundreds of thousands of neurons spread around the brain,” said Bruce Wexler, a psychiatry professor emeritus and senior research scientist at Yale School of Medicine, “This is the opportunity, that we can harness the brain’s neuroplastic potential to address and mitigate the effects of poverty on cognitive development.”
Executive function has been found to be an even better predictor of a student’s academic trajectory than IQ. What’s been less clear is how schools can improve these mental processes. The early explosion of programs intended to boost all or some executive function skills ran into trouble back in 2016, when the Federal Trade Commission announced multimillion-dollar settlements against Lumosity and other interventions that improperly marketed their “brain training” benefits and the Institute of Education Sciences called for more rigor and better ways to evaluate the programs at the time.
BrainFutures, an initiative of the Mental Health Association of Maryland which includes some intervention developers, found many social-emotional learning programs include tasks to improve executive function, and specific school-based executive function programs fall into a few basic types, including:
- Cognitive training, which includes general games or tasks, often digital, designed to improve specific skills such as working memory or self-control. These can also be incorporated into subject-specific programs, such as math or reading.
- Mindfulness, which teaches students to become aware of their present thoughts, feelings, and environment as a way to improve calm and focus.
- Neurofeedback, in which students see their own brain activity in real time and use this to practice holding certain states such as focus or calm.
- Brain literacy, in which students explicitly learn about the parts of the brain and how they function biologically, in an effort to help students “think about how they think.”
The report analyzed more than 40 K-12 classroom-based programs based on a rubric including its ease of implementation, research backing, and effects. It recommended education leaders scrutinize the research evidence for any program, requiring at least one experimental or quasi-experimental evaluation that measured how well the program improved executive function skills of typically developing children in a classroom, and was published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Of the 40 programs reviewed, the group found only 10 that met all those criteria, and among those, not all had totally independent evaluators. But Rosalyn Rice-Harris, program director for school improvement at the Council of Chief State School Officers said in a a discussion of the report here that the research has been expanding in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act’s evidence requirements. Several states, including Michigan and Kansas, have begun to partner with universities and research groups to study and potentially scale promising programs. (Full disclosure: I moderated part of the discussion.)
And beyond research, school and district leaders must commit to study how interventions work for their own students, recommended Berol Dewdney, a pre-kindergarten teacher and instructional coach at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary-Middle School in Baltimore. Her school has been implementing Tools of the Mind, one of the interventions studied, for the last three years.
“We’ve found that the development of executive function is supported by bedding, in every single activity and every part of our teachers’ school day, executive functioning and self regulation compliance. So that’s been really huge for us,” she said. “We’re seeing really exciting observational data, and then we’re also creating a broader narrative of how this works on the ground at Baltimore.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.