In this blog post, I’m going to describe three functions of the frontal executive network of the brain that directly translate into academic success: the ability to inhibit, to memorize complex information, and to think flexibly. These abilities improve as our children mature. Good news for our kids: research demonstrates that adults can lend children simple structures that allow their brains to work as efficiently as if they possessed a more mature frontal executive network system.
In the 70s psychologists wanted everyone to get rid of our inhibitions. “You’re inhibited” became a character slur for the un-cool. To a neuroscientist studying children’s brain development, inhibition is a great thing, referring to the executive network’s ability to suppress input that distracts from the task at hand. The input could come from a student’s own body “I need to stretch,” “the girl next to me is really cute…” , the students’ own thoughts “everyone else has already finished this test!”, or from the outside world such as a noisy classroom. Researchers use a clever strategy called the “day/ night task” to study the emergence of this ability in young children.
A child is asked to look at a picture of nighttime and say the word “day,” and a picture of daytime and asked to say the word “night.” Three and four year olds have a terrible time with this. But by age 6 most children can do this task with ease. Researchers noticed that the older kids tended to pause prior to responding, as if they were rejecting their first impulse, and then switching to the appropriate answer. So they gave the three and four year olds a structure, singing a little song “Think about the answer don’t tell me..” before allowing them to respond. Guess what? When the young children had to wait until the jingle was over, they gave the correct answer just as often as the six year olds!
Same child, same brain, better answer: because an adult had lent them a structure that allowed their brains to work as effectively as if their frontal networks were more mature.
Here’s another remarkable example. Many adults with frontal lobe tumors have terrible memories. Give them a list of words to remember and compared to a healthy adult, their scores are abysmal. The difference is that a healthy adult will take a long list of words and organize it into meaningful sub lists- the information is easier to memorize that way. Tumors in the frontal lobe often interfere with the executive function of organizing such information as it goes into our memory system.
When researchers from the University of California Berkeley organized the list before they asked tumor patients to memorize it, the patients were able to recall as many items as healthy adults taking the same memory test.
Same list of words, same brain, better function: because researchers acted as an external frontal network, lending patients a structure that allowed their brains to work as effectively as if they did not have a diseased frontal lobe.
The ability to “think flexibly” or ignore the way you have been doing something, and shift to a different way of doing something is called “set shifting.” And at the moment of “shift” a particular area of our brains becomes very active- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or DL-PFC). Researchers use card sorting tasks to study this ability in young children. Toddlers have a difficult time shifting from one way of sorting to another. Is there a way to make set shifting easier for children? Yes. Here’s another example of a fairly simple external structure that boosts children’s executive ability. Natasha Kirkham and her colleagues at Stanford discovered that when the cards are placed face down in the tray when sorting, it is significantly easier for children to correctly shift to a new way of sorting the cards. When the cards are placed face up in the tray, and the children can see the last card while thinking about how to sort the new card, the task is much harder and 50% less 4 year olds are successful!
Same brain, same task, better performance because of a simple external structure.
Just so we don’t become too self satisfied reading this as parents- set shifting, memorizing complex information, and inhibition are still difficult for adult brains. The point here is that it’s much harder for our children to do these tasks that are so important to being successful learners. And we as parents can lend children our more developed executive abilities to make studying easier for them.
“Just back off and let your child learn to study independently”
In the next several blog posts I am going to present simple structures that we can lend to our children during homework time (and that teachers can lend them during class time) that will allow them to learn information more efficiently. These structures include assisting children to organize information before they memorize it, reducing external distracters by creating an optimal study area, and improving their ability to prioritize by creating dedicated study times. Techniques for improving executive function by increasing sleep, helping kids modulate anxiety, and improving exercise will also be shared.
As parents we are often told “Just back off and let your child learn to study independently.” It has some intuitive appeal. If we as parents stop helping our child with their homework, they will “do it on their own.” Maybe. But based on the research, the statement “Just give your child a few simple structures and let them study successfully” sounds a lot more compelling.