A collaboration between Kelvy Bird and Phil Zelazo

Kelvy Bird is an internationally renowned generative scribe, who visually depicted the content of a recent lecture by Co-Founder Phil Zelazo.  Zelazo presented the lecture at the 17th annual Mind & Life Summer Research Institute in June, 2020. The theme of the Summer Research Institute, conducted online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was “Cultivating Prosocial Development across the Lifespan: Contexts, Relationships, and Contemplative Practices.”  Zelazo’s lecture was intended to introduce participants to the emerging field of Developmental Contemplative Science, which provides a framework for the study of prosocial development. Prosocial development includes the development of empathy, compassion, and civic engagement, and prosocial behaviors include sharing, helping, and nurturing, among many others. Zelazo also provided evidence that supporting the development of children’s reflection and Executive Function skills is essential for helping children to be empathic and kind.

About Developmental Contemplative Science

Developmental Contemplative Science brings together key features from Contemplative Science and contemporary Developmental Science. Contemplative Science focuses on contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, and examines their impact on attention, self awareness, health, and well being. Here are two key insights from Developmental Science.

(1) The brain is an inherently adaptive organ, and new skills emerge in the context of complex interactions between children and their environments. When we do particular things, we activate specific brain networks.  These brain networks then adapt, through experience-dependent processes including synaptic pruning, dendritic thickening, and myelination. There is neuroplasticity across lifespan, but there are periods during development when it is relatively easy to acquire particular neural functions.

(2) Reflection and Executive Function skills are key skills that emerge from these complex interactions, and they are important because they allow for agency and self-determination. Whereas basic cognitive functions such as language and memory emerge relatively early in development, and are relatively well developed by the toddler years, there are major increases during the preschool years in the efficiency and effectiveness of reflection and Executive Function, which allows for the deliberate attentional self-regulation of more these basic cognitive functions.

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Even small amounts of focused mentorship time can measurably improve EF skills

Research suggests that the development of reflection and EF skills depends importantly on scaffolded, autonomy-supportive mentorship.  Autonomy-supportive mentorship involves (1) meeting children where they are by providing children with appropriate challenges that are neither too easy nor too hard, (2) allowing children to learn by doing and by successfully overcoming these challenges, and (3) adaptively increasing the challenges so that children continue to be engaged and learn. Parents can provide children with opportunities to practice specific EF skills, but it is also important to provide children with opportunities to notice problems, pause, and consider their goals and their options for attaining those goals. This helps children to become reflectively aware of their own EF skills, and the situations in which they are needed, which is important for helping them use these skills in new situations.

In one study, we found that a single brief (~20 min) session of reflection training improves children’s EF skills and flexible perspective taking in children, and changes their neural activity. In other research, we found that engaging in age-appropriate mindfulness activities (e.g., listening to the sound of a bell as it fades) supports reflection training, adds a trauma focus, and can be used in schools. The consequences of supporting the development of reflection and EF skills are potentially far-reaching, and may lead to improvements in children’s problem solving, emotion regulation, and their school success, as well as their perspective taking, empathy, and prosocial behavior.

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