(Cross-posted from the blog on my private practice site.)
An article in this week’s Newsweek by Wray Herbert describes some fascinating research being done on enhancing preschool education by focusing the curriculum specifically to improve executive functions. From the article:
[...] Psychologist Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been testing the EF concept in the classroom, with provocative results. In one recent study Diamond convinced a large low-income urban school district (in the northeastern United States) to let her experiment with its preschoolers. Half the classrooms, involving hundreds of children, adopted a new curriculum specifically designed to boost EF, while the other half used a more traditional academic curriculum aimed at basic literacy.
The EF curriculum has many strands, but here are a few just to give a flavor. Instead of keeping the classroom quiet, kids are actually taught and encouraged to talk to themselves, privately but aloud, as a way of helping them exert mental control. In one exercise, for example, the kids have to match their movements to symbols. When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: “OK, now clap.” “Twirl now.” This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain’s ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it’s the elementary school equivalent of saying “I really need stop thinking about next week’s vacation and focus on this report.”
Here’s another example from the classroom. Children tell stories to one another, but kids being kids, they all want to be the storyteller; none wants to just sit and listen. But the reality is that only one can tell a story at a time, so the designated listeners hold a picture of an ear, a prop to remind them that they are waiting their turn to talk. This helps them learn to control their natural instinct to talk out of turn. Eventually the props and private chatter are not needed, but in the beginning they help cognitively immature children stretch their executive muscles.
The research described above is more evidence that play is central to learning, and that play therapy is beneficial for enhancing executive function. Especially with very young children having behavioral difficulties, I find play-acting with them to be very helpful to working through emotional dilemmas and practicing problem-solving.
For those looking for ways to enhance executive function with video game exercises, Nintendo’s Brain Age can help with the “suppress and sub” brain exercises, such as one where you have to say the color of the lettering on the word, rather than the word itself. For this example: blue the correct answer would be “red.” This is a similar activity to the one described above in which the children were prompted to coordinate body movements with the teacher holding up certain symbols.
(This is cross-posted from my private practice site.)
Sharpbrains.com, one of the sites in our Technology & Helping Kids blogroll, has an article by Dr. David Rabiner in which he reviews some new research on teaching mindfulness meditation to teens and adults, and how study participants with attentional problems were helped by learning and practicing these techniques. The article also provides this summary for how study participants were trained in mindfulness meditation. From the article:
- Mindfulness Training -
Mindfulness meditation is described as involving 3 basic steps: 1) bringing attention to an “attentional anchor” such as breathing; 2) noting that distraction occurs and letting go of the distraction; and, 3) refocusing back to the “attentional anchor”.
This sequence is repeated many times during the course of each meditative session. As the individual becomes better able to maintain focus on the attentional anchor, the notion of “paying attention to attention” is introduced and individuals are encouraged to bring their attention to the present moment frequently during the course of the day.
By directing one’s attention to the process of paying attention, to noticing notice when one becomes distracted, and to refocusing attention when distraction occurs, mindfulness meditation training can be thought of as an “attention training” program. As such, examining the impact of such training on individuals with ADHD becomes a very interesting question to pursue.
The results of the study are encouraging, with 78% of participants reporting an overall reduction in ADHD symptoms. This was only a pilot study, but it’s a good indicator that meditation and mindfulness may play a key role in mental health.