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Press Release

Boosting EF might enhance school readiness

Study finds pre-school program, developed by Metro State & McREL, improves children's executive functions and cognitive control


Contact: Angelia McGowan at Metro State, 303-556-5133

Posted: December 6, 2007



(Denver, Colo.) — An innovative curriculum for preschoolers developed by two Denver-based organizations, Metropolitan State College of Denver and Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), improves key cognitive functions and self-control among at-risk students, according to a new study released by a group of American and Canadian researchers in the Nov. 30 issue of Science magazine.

The study of the Tools of the Mind (Tools) curriculum, which was developed by McREL Principal Researcher Elena Bodrova and Metro State educational psychologist Deborah J. Leong, focused on children's "executive functions" (EF) such as resisting distraction, thinking before speaking, and mentally holding and using information.

"Many children start school unprepared to learn not because they do not know their letters or numbers but because they lack one critical ability - the ability to regulate their cognitive, social and emotional behaviors," says Leong, who serves as director of the Tools project at the Center for Improved Early Learning at Metro State. "This study validates the importance of these executive functions.

The researchers noted that these abilities are more strongly correlated with young children's school readiness than intelligence quotient (IQ) or reading and math skills. However, many children enter school lacking these skills, and teachers, who typically receive little instruction in how to develop these skills, remove children from classrooms at "alarming rates" because of their lack of self-control.

The Tools curriculum includes 40 activities that help young children develop cognitive control skills by, for example, encouraging children to tell themselves out loud what they should do, engaging them in dramatic play, and developing their memory and attention skills. Tools has been implemented in schools in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon. In Colorado, it is being used in 87 preschools that are part of Jefferson County Public Schools through a training program at Metro State Center for Improving Early Learning.

For the scientifically based study, researchers randomly assigned 147 five-year-olds in a low-income, urban school district in New Jersey to be taught with two different curricula over a two-year period. Half of the children received the Tools curriculum and half received the district's Balanced Literacy (dBL) curriculum. Researchers found that even though the two curricula covered the same content, the children in the Tools group scored significantly better on two computerized tests of cognitive skills than the children in the dBL group (84 and 65 percent, respectively).

In addition, researchers were surprised at the level of persistence the children in the Tools group showed on the tests. When they made mistakes, they kept trying, while children in the dBL group often quit quickly. Also surprising was how Tools students were able to transfer the skills they had learned to a new context; many of the children were not computer literate, but they were able to perform well on computerized tests.

According to Bodrova, this study shows how, for at minimal cost, executive functions can be taught to preschoolers and that doing so can increase their chances for academic success. Previous interventions designed to develop executive functions have been cost-prohibitive because they require computers and highly trained professionals.

The study, conducted by researchers Adele Diamond and Sarah Munro from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., and Steven Barnett and Jessica Thomas from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., appeared in the November 30 issue of Science magazine (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/318/5855/1387). A subscription is needed.

For a copy of the article, B-roll footage of Tools in action or to schedule an interview with Dr. Leong, please contact Angelia McGowan at Metro State, 303-556-5133. To schedule an interview with Dr. Bodrova, please contact Bryan Goodwin at McREL, 303.632.5602.

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About Metropolitan State College of Denver

Metro State is a fully-accredited, four-year institution, serving more than 21,000 students. It has the second-largest undergraduate enrollment in Colorado and is one of the largest four-year public colleges in the nation. Metro State enrolls the highest number of students of color among four-year colleges in the state. It boasts 60,000 alumni, 90 percent of whom stay in Colorado after graduation. Visit Metro State at www.mscd.edu.

About McREL 

McREL is a Denver-based, nationally recognized, private, nonprofit organization that is dedicated to improving education for all students through applied research, product development and service. In 2006, McREL provided guidance to educators and policymakers in 42 states and three foreign countries. Visit McREL at www.mcrel.org.

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