Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.'s  picture
Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.
Developmental Psychologist
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Teaching Children to Train Their Minds

Teaching Children to Train Their Minds

With practice, kids can improve concentration

These days, when it seems every other child is being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), parents and teachers alike are wondering whether it is possible to help a child develop more discipline, pay more attention to details or learn to focus better to stay on task.

Recent groundbreaking work by Adele Diamond, Ph.D., one of the founders of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscience who holds the Developmental Cognitive and the Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, demonstrates that young children’s discipline, self-control, creativity and flexibility can be improved through training and practice. Executive function is the name for a group of mental tasks—cognitive control skills—that help us resist impulses, ignore distractions, make connections and think outside the box to solve problems. Executive function skills develop in children and help them focus, stay on task and do what is most appropriate.

Diamond, along with Kathleen Lee, a research technician in Diamond’s lab, reviewed how executive function could be taught to children in the latest issue of Science, showing that physical activities, computerized games and specially adapted school curricula are among the activities shown to improve cognitive control skills in 4- to 12-year-olds.

Several studies indicate that children who participate in physical activities such as vigorous aerobic exercise (for example, running, jumping rope or basketball) had increased cognitive flexibility. Exercises promoting mindfulness practices, such as tae kwon do or yoga, have also been shown to improve, for example, reaction time, task accuracy or flexible thinking. According to Diamond, “The more physically fit you are, the better your brain works and the better you are able to attend and remember.”

Also, customized computerized training has been shown to improve working memory or reasoning. The most frequently studied of these training programs is called CogMed, which uses computer games that get progressively more difficult depending on the child’s current performance. In this way, the program stays engaging and challenging for the child. Although initially developed to help ADHD children, CogMed studies have also demonstrated effectiveness with a wide range of children, since most everyone can use help with improving working memory.

Schools that adopt a play-based school curriculum have demonstrated that play improves a child’s capability to plan, make their own choices and persist in staying on track; these have also been shown to improve executive function. Successful school-based executive function development programs include Tools of the Mind, which helps to develop cognitive skills through structured dramatic play and Montessori, which emphasizes self-discipline, independence, orderliness and peacefulness. Such programs are integrated throughout the school day, which helps to reinforce learning, rather than being a discrete “lesson.” In fact, one study demonstrated that children who were in the Tools of the Mind classrooms did better on academic outcome measures than children who had more time devoted to direct academic instruction. As Diamond notes, “Teachers feel great pressure to get in as much academic time as possible, so you see a lot of sitting in seats, listening for extended periods of time. But music, dance, arts, exercise and social dramatic play have been shown to be just as important, if not more important for academic success.”

Although there are a variety of approaches that have proven effective in promoting executive function, successful programs have some common features:

1. They don’t expect children to sit still for long periods of time.

Children (and adults!) need breaks to get up and stretch. Further, children learn better through active, hands-on learning. According to Diamond, “We put children in school and have them sit and listen. Instead they learn better by doing and being actively involved. This is especially important for boys, who find it harder [than girls] to sit still for long periods of time.”

2. They reduce stress in the classroom.

More learning occurs in joyful classrooms, as children are less stressed. It is important for schools to try to reduce external causes of stress and to teach healthier ways to handle stress. When children are having fun, their mind is more open to creativity and problem-solving.

3. They give students a sense of social belonging and encourage children to help one another.

Research shows that reasoning and decision-making suffer when we feel lonely. Programs such as Tools of the Mind and Montessori emphasize working together and flexibility in social dramatic play roles, which lead children to feel more belonging. Children progress much faster when children teach children than when adults teach. And children learn to work as a social group when engaging in many physical activities such as dancing and karate.

4. They provide opportunities to repeatedly practice at progressively more advanced levels.

According to Diamond, “What is key in improving executive function is practice. As Aristotle said many years ago, ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’ All of the [successful] programs emphasize practice and challenge. When the difficulty level and challenge keeps incrementally increasing, it pushes you to keep getting better and better.”

5. They value persistence.

It is also important that children learn to finish what they start. Even at home, children can learn persistence through playing board games to completion or finishing chores. If a child in Tools of the Mind announced he wanted to play a race-car driver, the teacher holds the child responsible for staying with that plan for a while, rather than deciding a minute later to be an astronaut. By the end of the school year, 4-year-olds in Tools can sustain dramatic make-believe play on their own for 20 to 30 minutes.

LEArn More:

“Think About the Answer, Don’t Tell Me”: a video of Adele Diamond’s Day/Night Task, which helps children to pay attention

Related Reading:

“Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” New York Times

Video of Adele Diamond explaining the prefrontal cortex and executive function