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Why Tools of the Mind and Montessori Educational Approaches Can Help Executive Function Skills
- When December 1, 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
- Who Adele Diamond, PhD, Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
- Where Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, M203
2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, VA 24016
- Notes A public reception will precede this event in the VTC Cafe at 4:30 p.m.
“Executive functions” (EFs) refer to the cognitive-control abilities dependent on the prefrontal cortex, such as selective attention, self-control, problem-solving, reasoning, and not getting into trouble. These abilities can be improved through training and practice. They are also particularly susceptible to disruption by stress, lack of sleep, loneliness, or lack of exercise. Conversely, what nourishes the human spirit, it turns out, is also best for the exercise of EFs.
Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s EFs, including computerized training with or without other types of games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, playing a musical instrument, and school curricula. Regardless of the intervention, two key principles seem to hold. First, EFs need to be continually challenged; if EF demands do not keep increasing as children improve, few gains are seen. Second, whether EF gains are seen depends on the way an activity is done and the amount of time spent doing it, practicing and pushing oneself to do better. It’s the discipline, the practice, that produces the benefits. Even the best activity for improving EFs produces little benefit if done rarely.
Dr. Adele Diamond, whose research specialty is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), declares that PFC is overrated. To learn something new, she holds, we need PFC. But after something is no longer new, people who recruit PFC least perform best. Older brain regions have had far longer to perfect their functioning; they can subserve task performance ever so much more efficiently than can PFC. A child may know intellectually (at the level of PFC) that he should not hit another, but in the heat of the moment if that knowledge has not become automatic (passed on from PFC to subcortical regions) the child will hit another (though if asked, he knows he should not do so). The only way something becomes automatic (becomes passed off from PFC) is through repeated action. Nothing else will do.
School curricula empirically shown to improve EFs share several features in common. First, the classroom is not centered around the teacher, and the teacher is rarely expected to teach all children the same thing at the same time. Instead, children progress at their own individual rates. They work largely on their own and with one or a few other children. They help mentor other children and work cooperatively. Because other children are productively engaged when the teacher works with any individual child, individualized instruction can readily be provided and the teacher can spend time observing and assessing each child’s progress, seeing where assistance or new challenges might be needed for a particular child. Finally, children are required neither to sit still for long nor to learn primarily by listening rather than doing. These approaches minimize stress for both teachers and students. Rather than acting as primary enforcers of rules, teachers encourage internal self-discipline. Students are rarely embarrassed or shamed. Teachers provide supports that ensure that children are far more likely to succeed than to fail. Even young children plan what they are going to do. Extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, are absent; exploration, discovery, and mastery are seen as their own rewards. Character development—such as the fostering of a spirit of kindness and helpfulness—is a priority. Social inclusiveness and mutual support are cultivated among the students. The most effective way to improve EFs and academic achievement is to address the child’s full social, emotional, and physical development.
Adele Diamond, PhD
For more than 30 years, Adele Diamond has been studying the region of the brain devoted to the most complex human abilities. Collectively referred to as “executive functions,” these include attention, self-control, and reasoning.
As the Canada Research Chair Professor in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Diamond studies how executive functions can be modified by the environment, modulated by genetics and neurochemistry, and become derailed in certain disorders. She also researches effective interventions, ways to prevent disorders, and educational implications. Her work has helped change medical practice for the treatment of PKU, or phenylketonuria, and for the inattentive type of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She helped found the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience, and her current research is changing our understanding of the dopamine system in the prefrontal cortex and of gender differences in that.
Dr. Diamond has shown that critical executive function skills can be improved in very young children in the classroom without specialists or expensive equipment. Most recently she has turned her attention to the possible roles of play, the arts, dance, storytelling, and physical activity in improving executive functions and academic and mental health outcomes. What nourishes the human spirit, it appears, may also be best for executive functions.
Adele Diamond earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology–anthropology and psychology from Swarthmore College and a doctorate in developmental psychology from Harvard University. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine. In recognition of her research accomplishments she has received numerous awards and honors, including election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She was named one of the “2000 Outstanding Women of the 20th Century.”