Sunday, November 16, 2014

Executive Function & 21st Century Skills - Part 1: Making Choices and Environmental Design

This post is the first in a series about how children move through environments and the role of self-directed activity, classroom schedules and room arrangement, and what "counts" as choice time in school and at home.

A young child moves across the room to put away her supply box.  For some of us a simple task. For the young child, a potential obstacle course where many things can happen along the way - an accidental bump of a peer turns into a conflict; a joyful conversation with a friend ensues; difficulty figuring out how to get from one side of the room to another during a high traffic time.  We take for granted what goes into getting from one place to the next.  But young children need time and modeling to make these excursions successful and also develop important cognitive and motor abilities while doing so.

Executive function skills support planning, completing and evaluating tasks, and oversee communication exchanges (Cognitive Connections - Sarah Ward, FAQ). Executive function is like the air traffic control system for the body and mind (The Art of Control). It helps us to understand a series of steps such as: come into the classroom, put my things away, wash hands, go to the rug - and to make choices about how to approach tasks.  Many children need previewing and practice for their executive function systems to work efficiently and for some children, this must be an important part of their day - and not just with arrival and clean up routines (See Boss of the Paints post).

I had a rich conversation last week with a teacher who was examining her classroom with a focus on helping children make choices from materials on shelves during the "free choice" parts of her day. While observing I noticed that children wandered from shelf to shelf, area to area, but many things were "closed" and not really available - and children did not seem to know how to choose. We talked about modeling choice-making very deliberately:

1. Demonstrate how to walk around the room and think about what you would like to do.  Use quiet "voice over" narration as you model: "Hmm, I wonder what I will do today?  This looks interesting. I think I will carefully take this out and put it on the table."
2. Model careful use of the material.
3. Then model the clean up. "I think I am finished.  I will put this all back so it is ready for the next person." Get up and show how to put things away.

This kind of choice making has another benefit - developing self-direction - crucial for a robust executive function system. Shelf organization can support executive functioning. Children need to see what is available and distinguish between adult storage and kid-friendly materials. When materials are piled up or not readily visible children have difficulty accessing items and aren't sure where things go at clean up time.  The arrangement below can be problematic.

Shelves with materials in open baskets or trays, one item in one space on a shelf, make it easy for children to find, choose, and put things away - and often less is more.  Offering a few puzzles or manipulatives in rotation adds novelty to your routines and allows children to gain mastery with the materials they do choose. 

So why does this all matter? The Framework for 21st Century Living advocates for a skill set linked to optimal learning, life, and career success - and all the skills are linked to healthy executive function.

This skill set includes things like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, flexibility, adaptability, initiative, self-direction, productivity, and accountability.
While the phrase, "21st Century Skills" is always puzzling to me as these are skills we have always needed, it represents things we want to support in children and in ourselves. However, it seems that in the current education climate we focus mainly on productivity and accountability when in reality the skills are inter-dependent and must be fostered in concert with each other.

So think about this:
Are there opportunities during the day for children to practice decision making? Do children move from choice to choice during a "free choice" or "center time" on their own? Or must they wait for a signal from the teacher?  Is the self-regulation in the classroom really just adult regulation of children?

If children are to develop the kind of self-regulatory skills we hope they will have, they must have the chance to practice moving and choosing, but with modeling of how this looks first so there is freedom within a structure. At home we can think about how to give children blocks of unstructured time where they can play in a safe environment, and organize spaces for choice.
(See Self-Directed Executive Function and  The Art of Control.)

See also this blog on Routines that has wonderful ideas for home and school related to helping children organize their thinking and becoming self-directed.

In future posts I will address how our schedules can help promote more child directed experiences, and how we can set up environments to support choice while still adhering to the skills and curriculum we want to cover in a given school year. The Somerville Early Education Pinterest Site has new pins related to shelf arrangements and executive function tips.