Researchers at UOW have developed an innovative way to enhance the executive functions of preschoolers, which are vital for school readiness and academic success.
Dr Steven Howard, an expert on the cognitive development of children from UOW’s Early Start Research Institute (ESRI), created a children’s book that disguises ‘brain training’-like cognitive exercises in a common preschool activity – story time.
The book, Quincey Quokka’s Quest, asks children to help the main character, Quincey Quokka, through a series of activities that require them to remember and control their thinking and behaviours.
In a collection of three studies on the efficacy of the book for improving young children’s executive functions recently published in Educational Psychology Review, more than 100 children from seven preschools based in the Sydney and Illawarra regions were read the picture book once or twice a week for five, seven or nine weeks.
For some of the children, the same book was read, but without the ‘brain training’ elements, to determine whether these activities led to improvements over and above traditional reading.
The results showed improvements in working memory – the equivalent of up to nine months of normal development in as little as one month. Children’s ability to shift their attention between information and tasks was also boosted after this short intervention period.
“While the magnitude of these effects after only a short time are very promising, what is especially important is that the improvements in key executive functions were maintained two months later, even after having stopped reading the book with the children,” Dr Howard said.
Executive functions enable us to activate, manipulate, and sustain information in mind (what’s referred to as working memory), as well as control urges, resist distraction, and flexibly shift our attention between information and tasks.
Dr Howard said research has shown that early executive functions strongly predict long-term trajectories of health, wealth and criminality into adulthood.
“For children with low self-regulation in the preschool years, the likelihood of poorer academic outcomes in school and poor physical health, substance abuse, financial difficulties and criminal offending in adulthood are overwhelming.”
Executive functions set the stage for school readiness, academic achievement, early literacy and numeracy skills, social and emotional competence as well as physical health, Dr Howard said, and deficiencies in executive functioning have been implicated in a number of developmental disorders, such as ADHD.
With the computerised ‘brain training’ industry worth more than $1billion, Dr Howard said the study shows there are low-cost ‘analogue’ alternatives that can enhance executive functioning.
“These results prove embedding cognitive activities in the context of everyday routines can have a dramatic impact. For example, parents, caregivers and educators can incorporate cognitive training exercises into a number of daily activities at little to no cost.
“This only requires the know-how to engage children’s executive functions and while Quincey Quokka’s Quest has been shown to be an effective example of this, these benefits are by no means expected to be restricted to this book.”
Dr Howard said this approach allows for executive function training to be seamlessly integrated into children’s existing home and preschool routines, unlike the majority of existing interventions that are an addition to regular activities and must be accommodated and incorporated into a child’s (and parent’s) day.
“Actually, there are all sorts of things we currently do that likely have similar benefits – we just often do them incidentally, rather than intentionally. Games like Simon Says and Statue are good examples of this.”
(Source: University of Wollongong, Educational Psychology Review)