How is your executive functioning today?
Posted on the 24th March 2015
So last week a colleague asked me to explain how the Thinking Friends program supports even the youngest children in the early years to develop “executive functioning.” That got my head whirling a bit as there are so many levels to what we are doing with these farm animals. Much like in Orwell’s Animal Farm, these animals are best when they are working together!!
First, here is a brief introduction to Thinking Friends, then to a long foray (with apologies) into mental models, mental “cognitive” operations, inter-dependencies between cognitive processes, and finally executive functioning. It is a long ride here.. so drink your tea, coffee or whatever floats your boat… !
Thinking Friends are eight animal characters, living life on a farm, with each animal having the personality, respectively, of a single fundamental thinking/cognitive skill (sequencing, defining, describing, cause and effect, comparing/contrasting, classifying, examining parts of objects/spatial reasoning, and using analogies) and style. As children engage with the Thinking Friends, they learn to identify and think about their own thinking (metacognition) in early childhood, using these explicit lessons about their thinking, allowing them to become more skillful thinkers and successful learners as their young brains mature. At the same time, children are becoming more empathic, attuned to the different ways others think and problem solve.
Development of Executive Functioning and Metacognition using an Explicit Cognitive Model
Children so easily play with blocks of different colors, sizes, and shapes. From these primitive forms they create and test their own worlds. Later, through parallel play and then deliberately with playmates, they form unique structures and whole narratives that animate otherwise lifeless wood or plastic. At these earliest ages, they are acting as scientists in that they are systematically investigating and defining their context (see: Scientist in the Crib).
They are not just randomly throwing blocks around the room: they are creating mental models of how objects work together and fall apart or get knocked over (fun!). They are building conceptual mental models, schemata, neural networks, and discarding them just as easily. Every day. There is great joy to be had in watching children testing, discarding, and even mastering their models as if they were in a lab.
Organizing using Mental Operations
In order to be successful “model” builders, children learn to organize and manage “projects” large and small that they create or that are offered by parents, siblings, peers and child care providers. They are learning at a deep level to manage their minds, emotions, bodies, and words “as markers” for objects and concepts, and resulting actions. This growing capacity of unconscious executive functioning supports such dispositions as increasing focus, risk taking, and perseverance, while decreasing impulsivity that hampers discovery and learning. Over the history of research and theories of human development, it is hard to imagine a more significant area of focus for supporting children in their natural capacities to explore and learn than by facilitating their capacities for executive functioning. But how?
Primarily, the answer has been through a focus on language (literacy). Many approaches rely on enriching a child’s vocabulary as the primary vehicle for becoming more reflective about not just “what” they are doing (the content) but “how” they are doing it (process). Yet, all languages are co-structured by cognitive processes. These processes have been defined as the very few “mental operations” (Piaget and Inhelder) that structure behavior and language: sequencing, categories, casuality, attributes, comparatives, whole-part spatial relations, etc. Try to imagine any language without these cognitive structures. It would be like trying to imagine the human body without a skeleton. Try to imagine any language without thought. Vygotsky had it right: Thought and Language.
Executive functioning is a broad category of processes and behaviors (or dispositions), yet the above named mental operations or “cognitive processes” may be understood as the foundation from which springs an evolving metacognitive awareness. A question rarely raised is one central to our work: how does a child hold a conscious “meta” cognitive stance without being explicitly introduced to “cognitive” processes? While early childhood educators are well aware of the importance of cognitive processes, a focus on cognition (meta or not!) has taken a back seat to language development. Cognitive and language development need to be co-developed.
Cognitive Processes working together
Returning to the brief discussion above about “models”, we recognize that fundamental cognitive processes are not discrete, or somehow function separately. Try categorizing without comparing. Or try comparing without describing attributes. Each cognitive process is deeply entwined with and thus interdependently functioning with the others. This is why we use a model of cognitive processes. Unfortunately, research on the interdependency of cognitive processes is scant simply because researchers cannot so easily control for so many variables over time, so they study “category structure” or “causality” in relative isolation.
To Sum up
This discussion of models, executive functioning, cognitive or “mental” processes, and a cognitive model for children is the foundation for the Thinking Friends approach our team has developed. These “thoughtful” friends are eight farm animals, each respectively animating a clearly defined cognitive process, such as Cowsie “Cows n Effect” for cause-effect reasoning, or Snaky Sequencer. The farmer, “Farmer Framer” is the metacognitive source for guiding the more expansive “executive functioning” of the team of thinkers. Through stories, children become conscious of and fluent with a model of eight basic cognitive processes. They develop an actual meta-cognitive language for using these friends as mental avatars in their own world of thinking, feeling, learning, and discovery.