Four-year-old Lola lives with her mother and three siblings in an impoverished, high-crime neighborhood, where even walking to school can be dangerous. Lola’s mother works two jobs, but as a single parent, she barely earns enough to pay for childcare and living expenses. Lola’s mother notices that Lola has trouble managing her emotions and following directions, and is struggling to learn letters and numbers.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, children like Lola who grow up in poverty are more likely to struggle in school than peers from higher income families. Although this “achievement gap” has been gradually shrinking since the 1970s, low-income fourth-graders still lag roughly 1.5 years behind their classmates.
Executive Function and the Achievement Gap
The achievement gap may be related to differences in children’s Executive Function (EF) skills. This set of brain-based skills serves as a mental “air-traffic controller,” helping children regulate their thoughts, feeling, and behaviors. They are important for problem-solving, paying attention, and mastering academic skills.
Even before they start school, low-income children tend to score lower on measures of EF than higher-income peers. According to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, this may be related to the fact that low-income children are more likely to experience sustained stress, inconsistent caregiving, and relatively unstructured environments – all of which can impact EF development.
Preschool is a prime time for children to build EF skills and prepare for academic success. A number of classroom-based programs (such as the Tools of the Mind curriculum) have shown evidence of boosting preschoolers’ EF skills. These types of programs have great potential, but typically involve changing just one aspect of the school environment (such as the classroom curriculum or teacher training). An alternative approach is to consider how a system-wide change in the school environment might support all aspects of child development, including EF and the achievement gap.
The Child-Parent Center Program
The Child-Parent Center (CPC) Preschool to Third Grade program implements practices at all levels of the public school environment to support children’s development. Rather than solely targeting EF skills, the program strives to support the development of the whole child – academic skills, socioemotional skills, and general well-being. Below are some key elements of the CPC program that may support EF development in early childhood.
Effective Learning Experiences and Professional Development
Research has shown that high-quality learning environments can boost children’s EF. The CPC program promotes effective learning experiences for all children. CPC Head Teachers are expert educators and must hold at least a Bachelor’s degree. Full-day programming and small class sizes ensure that each child receives individual attention and personalized instruction. Throughout the school day, children participate in both teacher-directed instruction and child-initiated activities, which allows them to learn critical material while also exploring their interests. The CPC program also provides extensive professional development, including summer teaching institutes, online learning modules, and coaching/mentoring. These activities are designed to improve teaching quality and build strong professional learning communities.
Aligned Curriculum and Continuity
The CPC program strives for maximum consistency in children’s educational experiences from preschool through third grade. This is accomplished through aligned curriculum (ensuring that the skills taught in each grade are consistent with children’s developmental level and with skills taught in previous grades) and continuity (ensuring that other aspects of the school environment – such as opportunities for parent involvement – are maintained over time).
Parent Involvement and Engagement
Parents play an important role in supporting children’s EF. The CPC program builds strong school-family partnerships through a customized parent involvement and engagement system. A dedicated Parent Resource Teacher plans regular activities that are designed to address the needs and interests of parents at their school (e.g., child development workshops, parent reading groups, parent advisory council meetings). Parents also have the opportunity to volunteer in their children’s classrooms and at school events.
Lola’s mother enrolls her in preschool at their local CPC. Lola responds positively to the structured, child-centered environment and receives individualized support from her teacher, Ms. Reynolds. Lola’s mother also gets involved in the CPC parent community. She learns strategies to support Lola’s development at home, and even enrolls in a GED completion class. Over the next three years, Lola’s mother notices improvements in Lola’s emotional wellbeing, ability to follow directions, and academic skills.
The CPC program facilitates high-quality learning experiences from preschool through third grade. These experiences may enhance low-income children’s EF by providing them with a structured, predictable learning environment and individualized support. CPC’s emphasis on the achievement gap and parent involvement may also enhance parents’ ability to support children’s EF skills at home.
Several pieces of evidence suggest that CPC participation may positively affect EF:
- Children at Minnesota CPC sites have been assessed using the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS App™). Preliminary results have shown that children who have attended CPC programs for longer periods of time show stronger EF skills than their same-age peers who have spent less time in the program.
- CPC classrooms are characterized by high levels of child-initiated activities and task orientation (children staying on task and actively engaging in classroom activities). Research has shown that children who participate in classrooms with these characteristics are more likely to graduate from high school.
- Long-term research has shown that CPC graduates are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system compared to peers from similar backgrounds who did not attend CPC. These positive outcomes may be partially related to improvements in EF after participating in CPC, though additional research is needed to investigate this idea.
The CPC program has recently been expanded across the Midwest, and researchers are continuing to explore how the program affects EF development. This research will help us better understand how comprehensive programs like CPC might enhance children’s EF and help to reduce the achievement gap.
1Faber, J., Hayakawa, M., Reynolds, A. J., & Carlson, S. M. (April, 2017) Child-Parent Center Intervention Impact on Executive Functioning. Poster symposium presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Austin, TX.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu
Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children. Science, 333, 959–964. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1204529
Graue, E. Clements, M.A. Reynolds, A. J. & Niles, M. D. (2004). More than teacher directed or child initiated: Preschool curriculum type, parent involvement, and children’s outcomes in the Child-Parent Centers. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12(72).
Hansen, M., Levesque, E.M., Quintero, D., & Valant, J. (2017). Have we made progress on achievement gaps? Looking at evidence from the new NAEP results. Brookings Institute. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/04/17/have-we-made-progress-on-achievement-gaps-looking-at-evidence-from-the-new-naep-results/
Human Capital Research Collaborative. (2016). CPC P-3 program manual. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
Reynolds, A. J. (2000). Success in Early Intervention: The Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
About the Authors
Christina Mondi-Rago is a doctoral candidate in Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota and a dissertation fellow through the Doris Duke Fellowships for the Promotion of Child Well-Being. Her research with her advisor, Dr. Arthur Reynolds, examines the effects of early childhood interventions on lifelong mental health and wellbeing and the achievement gap. Ms. Mondi-Rago also conducts psychological assessments and therapy with children and families. She holds an M.A. in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.
Julie Vaisarova is currently earning her Ph.D. in Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her research primarily focuses on the development of creative thinking and the involvement of executive function skills in this process. She is also broadly interested in how children’s experiences in preschool and early elementary school can shape their academic, social, and creative development. Julie is passionate about teaching, and has taught undergraduate child psychology courses at the University of Minnesota. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Scripps College.