As federal and state focus on early childhood education heats up, researchers like Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development are trying to measure the skills that form the foundation of young students' academic success.
Skills teachers report students need to be successful in the school transition, Carlson said, aren't related to knowing the alphabet or counting to 100, but to executive functions: the ability to concentrate and ignore distractions, remember and follow rules, transition from one activity to another, suppress aggression and get along with other students, and wait for turns or rewards.
"Executive function skills are critical for predicting, even in high-risk kids, which ones are going to go on and do well." Carlson said. "Even within a high-risk group, like homeless kindergarteners, resilient kids have high executive function. This is independent of IQ."
Carlson is directing a project by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to develop a test of executive function for children from the ages of 2 to 5. In older children, executive functions tend to be measured individually—attention, reasoning skills, and self-control, for example—but Carlson said executive function in preschoolers can be more unified.
"There are marked changes in the preschool years," she explained at a research forum on the project earlier this month. "We become more reflective and less reflexive as we get older."
Games of Skill
Carlson and her colleagues are testing these skills in a pool of about 60,000 preschool children, about 10 percent of whom come from families who earn less than $25,000 per year. The researchers are working to adapt several early childhood measures into a cohesive test of executive function.
For example, the foundation of the test is a dimensional card sort, in which children are asked to sort a series of cards by shape or color. The rules of sorting change mid-game, and prior research has found developmentally younger children cannot make that switch, even if the tester reminds them that the rules have changed.
"If you want to look closely at the transition from 3 to 4 years old, there are some very good tests to do that," like the card sort, she said, but added, "It's much harder to measure a broader range. If [a tested child] gets a zero on the card sort, we're not comfortable saying this child has no executive function."
In another game, called "less is more," researchers present children with two small bowls of favorite candy and a stuffed monkey who is intended to share the candy with them. One bowl has two candies and the other five, and the children agree that five is more than two. But then the researchers present a problem: Whichever bowl the child picks will go to the monkey. It's pretty easy to think that to get the most candy for yourself, you must repeatedly choose the smaller candy bowl, but at 3 years, little more than one in four children can choose the opposite of what they want; only a year later, 63 percent can do it.
Moreover, Carlson has found early tests on one measure—delaying gratification, the so-called marshmallow test—can be highly sensitive to children's background and context, as well as their age. While 40 percent of 2 1/2 year olds can wait 10 minutes for a sweet in order to get two, and 80 percent can hold off two years later, less than a third of homeless 4-year-olds will put off eating a treat for 10 minutes, and even fewer children will wait if the researcher has lied to the child in the past.
"It doesn't make sense to delay gratification if you don't know what's coming around the corner, or you don't know if the resources will be there—or if you don't trust the adult who is talking to you," Carlson said.
In the process of finding better ways to test young children, the researchers are also highlighting ways to help students develop executive function skills in the first place. For example, in the "less is more" game, researchers found that if they replaced the actual candies with symbols or numbers representing the candies, 3-year-olds acted developmentally more like 4-year-olds, choosing the smaller portion to get more.
"Imagination is needed to become aware of and reflect on one's choices for responding, planning and problem-solving," she said. "The practice of pretending might promote cognitive flexibility. It puts some cognitive space between the child and the problem at hand."