How does cognitive psychology help improve education

The importance of the executive functions and their everyday support in kindergarten

Carmen Deffner, Sabrina Braunert and Katrin Hille

1. Introduction

The ability to regulate oneself is an important basic skill for life in society and the achievement of one's own goals. However, it is particularly difficult for younger children to stick to one thing and not be distracted, to memorize rules, to deal with their feelings appropriately or to empathize with others. Executive functions underlie these things. We use them to control our emotions, thoughts and behaviors. They develop from childhood to adulthood.

Numerous studies show that executive skills can be encouraged at an early stage and have a far-reaching influence on the child's socio-emotional skills and success in school (Rhoades et al. 2009). It turns out that the educational setting in kindergarten and the actions of the skilled workers with regard to the development of executive skills are of particular importance.

In the following article the terminology of the executive functions, their development as well as their lifelong meaning will be described and finally the everyday integrated promotion of the executive system will be considered with a look at the practice.

2. Basics: What are executive functions?

The concept of executive functions comes from the neurosciences. It describes mental abilities with the help of which we control our emotions, our thoughts and our actions. The executive functions are located in the prefrontal cortex, also called the frontal lobe. This is often compared to the human control center or an orchestra conductor. Working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility together - but as systems to be viewed independently of one another (Miyake et al. 2000) - form the executive functions that enable people to self-regulate. This means that spontaneous impulses for action are checked in a control loop by pausing briefly with regard to their appropriateness and goal orientation.

The working memory is responsible for storing and processing information and functions as a mental notepad. With the help of working memory, we can, for example, memorize rules, do mental arithmetic or make plans with which we can achieve our goals. It also enables us to think about complex processes, such as language or the linking of new experiences with existing knowledge.

Inhibition describes the ability to withstand spontaneous impulses to act and to fade out disruptive stimuli. It is our mental stop sign and ensures that we stick to the matter and behave according to the motto "think first, then act". In this way, the inhibition supports appropriate and targeted behavior and provides a basis for the regulation of emotions.

Cognitive flexibility is based on working memory and inhibition and describes the ability to adapt to new requirements and to be able to act outside of the usual behavioral patterns. As with a railroad switch, which makes it possible to continue a journey in different directions, the cognitive flexibility makes it possible to act free of rigid patterns and to view problems from different perspectives or to switch between them. In addition, this aspect is an important prerequisite for social and empathic action.

3. Development of executive functions

The development of the prefrontal cortex (frontal lobe) is not complete until around 25 years of age. A particularly rapid development can be seen between three and seven years (Gogtay 2004). In general, however, the development of executive functions is also subject to social and genetic aspects. The three areas are not developing at the same time. Sometimes more happens in one area, sometimes in the other (Davidson et al. 2006; Huizinga et al. 2006).

A clear development of the working memory becomes visible from the age of three. Easily memorizing and retrieving information improves well into elementary school age. The storage capacity increases into early adulthood.

At six months, the baby pauses briefly when he says "No!" hears, and does not immediately reach for the target. At four to five years of age, children can inhibit themselves if they can put off the satisfaction of a desire or desire more easily and longer. By about 12 years of age, the ability to inhibit reaches the level of an adult.

Even in the first year of life, babies show a certain cognitive flexibility: they can choose an alternative path if something does not lead to the goal on the first try. From the age of three to four it is then possible to switch between two simple rules if they do not change particularly unexpectedly and quickly. Cognitive flexibility also continues to develop into young adulthood.

Part of cognitive flexibility is the ability to change perspective. Three-year-olds already have a rough idea that others think differently from themselves and do not know everything they know. From around the age of four children begin to understand that reality and thinking can differ from one another (false belief). Between 3.5 and four years of age, children go through an unstable phase. Sometimes they show understanding that their own knowledge and thinking are different from others, and sometimes they don't. In elementary school age, the knowledge of children that people interpret the world differently is then largely consolidated.

4. Importance of executive functions

Skills such as regulating oneself and one's emotions, planning one's actions, sticking to something and being able to show appropriate behavior and empathy in social situations are the basic prerequisites for achieving goals, successful social interaction and ultimately a happy life. This is shown, among other things, by the long-term study by Moffitt et al. (2011), who has accompanied 1,000 test subjects for over 40 years as part of a large-scale study and highlights the significant influence of self-regulation on people's quality of life. It shows that children with good self-regulatory skills have better school-leaving qualifications in adulthood, are healthier, are less likely to commit criminal offenses and achieve a higher socio-economic status.

4.1 School suitability and school learning performance

Different studies show: Executive functions are related to school suitability and school performance.

In addition to preliminary skills for writing writing, social-emotional skills (emotion regulation, prosocial behavior and aggression control), adaptability to the requirements of school and teaching activities, motivation and mature learning skills are criteria for school aptitude.

In a long-term study, Karen Biermann and colleagues examined 350 children aged 4.5 years who were taking part in a program that also promoted executive functions, among other things. The study showed that children with low baseline scores for executive functions not only improved those functions after participating in the program, but also had higher scores for interpersonal skills, lower scores for aggression, and improved precursor skills for written language acquisition. The researchers come to the conclusion that strengthening executive functions in kindergarten age means strengthening school ability and that this can be a preventive measure to reduce socio-economic disadvantage (Biermann et al. 2008).

In a study by Duckworth and Seligmann (2005), 8th grade students with well-trained executive functions showed better results than students with less well-trained ones. They scored higher on the proficiency test, were absent from school less often and spent more time on homework, watched less TV and started homework earlier. One explanation for these results is that the schoolchild must be able to focus their attention on the essentials in class, i.e. to block out disturbing stimuli. Only then can it take up lesson content, link it to what already exists and thus expand its knowledge. If an attempt at a solution fails, it has to look for alternatives, i.e. flexibly look for other options and solve the task at hand on the second or even third attempt. Furthermore, the appropriate handling of emotions is required in the class. For example, being able to recover quickly after an argument in the playground means being able to focus on the class again after the break instead of thinking about the anger you have experienced.

4.2 Social-emotional competencies

Forming friendships, showing consideration for one another, finding compromises and finding common solutions, and being competent members of the family and society all require well-developed self-regulation. It is of central importance to perceive one's own feelings and those of others, to express oneself verbally and non-verbally and to be able to adapt to the respective situation. This also includes the ability to put your own needs in the background and put yourself in the shoes of others. These aspects are considered the basis for social interactions.

The early childhood setting kindergarten offers children a variety of opportunities to deal with their emotions, to plan their actions and to put themselves in the perspective of others: They can practice acting as competent play partners. Children who have poor executive skills are less preferred as interaction partners and thus experience a small number of opportunities to practice and develop their self-regulatory skills. Study results by Trentacosta and Shaw (2009) show a poor self-regulation ability in early childhood with a rejection by peers in later childhood and consequently predict antisocial behavior in early adolescence.

5. Promotion of executive functions

Young children often still have problems adapting their behavior to the respective situation. They cannot sit still, talk in between, follow constantly changing impulses to act and are not yet able to put themselves in other people's shoes. That shouldn't worry us too much, given that the development of executive functions can be influenced (especially between the ages of four and six). Specially arranged or additive units are not necessarily required for funding. The children's self-regulatory skills are easily integrated into everyday life and, above all, can be promoted in a child-oriented manner.

5.1 Funding options / funding approaches

Studies by Diamond and Lee (2011), among others, describe several approaches that have been shown to promote executive functions. These are summarized in five areas:

  • Computer-based funding
  • Promotion through sport and exercise
  • Promotion through traditional martial arts and mindfulness
  • Promotion through school concepts
  • Funding through additive programs

CogMed, the computer-based training for the promotion of working memory, represents a purely cognitive approach to promotion. Studies show that training effects of the working memory can be seen in exercises with increasing demands. The improvement in working memory was still demonstrable after six months (Shinaver III et al. 2014).

Sport and exercise promote executive functions. They require the ability to concentrate, the targeted focus of attention as well as the fading out of disruptive stimuli and adjusting to new situations. Within sporting activities, it is endurance loads (e.g. jogging), short and intense loads (e.g. sprints) and coordinatively demanding movement tasks (e.g. gymnastics) that contain the above-mentioned aspects with a beneficial effect on the executive functions (Kubesch et al. 2009; Best 2012).

Traditional martial arts such as Tae-Kwon-do contain, in addition to their technical requirements, which are exclusively defensive in nature and require a high degree of self-control, two other components that are conducive to executive functions. On the one hand, the teacher is the highest person of respect and is considered a model to be respected. On the other hand, physical training includes psychological and philosophical aspects that emphasize respect, humility, trust, responsibility, honesty and perseverance as their maxims. The study by Lakes and Hoyt (2004) shows an improvement in executive functions and mental arithmetic in children who are five to eleven years old who practice Tae-Kwon-do. The effects were higher in older children than in younger children and higher in boys than in girls.

Mindfulness training in seven to nine year olds led to better results, especially in children who initially had poor executive functions. They caught up with average and improved in all three dimensions of executive functions, in the ability to change attention, and in error monitoring. Both teachers and parents reported this improvement (Flook et al. 2010).

Tools of the Mind is a kindergarten and preschool concept practiced in the United States. The focus is on the role play, so-called scaffolding (i.e. visual aids and private speech are offered to the child so that they can instruct themselves) and the principle of the zone of next development according to Vygotsky. Study results show that children who are taught according to the Tools of the Mind curriculum can cope better in situations that particularly require executive functions.

Maria Montessori's school concept, known in the German educational system, defines the skills of self-discipline, independent activity, diligence and peaceful coexistence as development goals. The fact that each material is only available once, concrete mindfulness exercises such as walking meditation and the principle of child-to-child teaching are considered features that have a particularly beneficial effect on executive functions. Study results show that five-year-old Montessori children display better executive functions, better math and reading development, and more fairness and a sense of justice (Lillard / Else-Quest 2006).

The PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) add-on program is an additional training course. It aims to train children in self-control, emotional management and interpersonal problem solving. The basic idea is to encourage the children to pause: think first, then act! In order to achieve this, trained teachers offer exercises for verbalizing feelings and for self-control according to the curriculum. Study results show that seven to nine year olds improved their inhibition and cognitive flexibility after just one school year. Children whose inhibition improved after this school year showed less internalized or externalized problem behavior a year later (Riggs et al. 2006).

5.2 Funding principles

Diamond and Lee (2011) work out certain implementation principles in their study that have proven to be important in order to have a beneficial effect on executive functions:

  • First of all, the continuous promotion of executive functions along the child's level of development is important. If children are not challenged enough, there are no effects; if they are overwhelmed, they experience this as stress, which has been shown to have negative consequences for the development of executive functions.
  • Repetition is important. Daily, regular practice in small, manageable units is more successful than programs that, for example, only take place weekly. Everyday offers that can be integrated into the daily routine without much effort are particularly suitable.
  • The joy of doing should always be in the foreground for the children. They then experience their skills strengthened, self-effective and socially involved. The offers are optimally oriented towards the interests of the children. Ultimately, it depends less on the content of the offer than on the degree of challenge with regard to the executive functions required.
  • Physical activity strengthens executive functions. Even more effective are offers which, in addition to the actual exercise requirement, stimulate the executive functions by, for example, challenging attention, self-control and planning skills.

As is so often the case here, the earlier the better. It has been proven that early support for disadvantaged children is most effective. Since all children can be reached in kindergarten, this setting should be used for the early and continuous promotion of executive functions.

6. Further training opportunities for educational professionals

"EMIL" is a project of the Baden-Württemberg Foundation.This day-to-day integrated kindergarten concept was developed by the ZNL Transfer Center for Neurosciences and Learning at the University of Ulm and is now made available free of charge to educational specialists throughout Baden-Württemberg. In the EMIL qualification, the specialists acquire the basic knowledge about the executive functions and their everyday, playful and diverse support. They get to know strategies with which they can support the promotion of self-regulatory skills in everyday kindergarten life.

The EMIL concept has been evaluated and is showing success: not only do the children develop their skills, but also the work of the educational staff and the group atmosphere are changing. Interviewed educators describe that they are generally more relaxed, that they do not always intervene immediately and that they more often return questions to the children as suggestions. As a result, the educational specialists experience less stress in everyday kindergarten life. In the case of the children, they find that they are more helpful, more independent and deal more carefully with one another.


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Carmen Deffner
ZNL Transfer Center for Neuroscience and Learning
Ulm University
Parkstrasse 11
89073 Ulm
Email: [email protected]