By Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD and Philip David Zelazo, PhD
The notion of reflection is rooted throughout Montessori methods. The environment and pedagogy are designed to cultivate children’s awareness of their work and self-motivated learning. Reflection is also the key to developing life skills known as “executive function.” Educators and employers are increasingly hearing about the importance of executive function (EF) skills for preparation for kindergarten entry, college, and the workforce. EF is the neuroscience term for the cognitive skills that make it possible for us to pay attention, plan for the future, and generally control our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These skills are critically important for school success. With poor EF, children have a hard time listening to instructions, staying on task, and thinking about a problem from a different angle. Indeed, research has shown that EF predicts academic achievement, college graduation, and physical and financial wellbeing in adulthood. In many cases, it was a better predictor than intelligence (IQ). EF also appears to be the key to resilience: When children experiencing extreme poverty nevertheless have good EF skills as preschoolers, they go on to read at grade level and perform well in school.
This growing body of research evidence would not be possible without being able to measure EF reliably and validly. Measurement can be challenging, however, when considering we would want to assess the early emergence of EF in toddlers and the often-delayed skills of children from low-income families. Moreover, given that EF skills develop gradually into one’s twenties, it would be ideal to have a measure that can be used across the lifespan, without having to switch to different assessments for older children and hope that they are measuring the same thing. This was the impetus for us to develop a measurement tool that would be sensitive to incremental changes in EF beginning at 2 years of age.
Our starting point in the lab was to develop the Dimensional Change Card Sort. This task is one of the most commonly used research tools to measure EF in the preschool period. Children are shown two trays and asked to sort cards into the trays according to a rule (e.g., red ones go here, blue ones go here) and then told to switch to a new rule using the same cards (e.g., flowers go here, cars go here). This is tricky for young children because to make the switch, they need to reflect on the game: they have to hold the new rule in mind (“working memory”), suppress the old rule (“inhibitory control”), and recognize there are two ways to play this game (“cognitive flexibility”). No matter which rule you start with, the basic finding is that most 3-year-olds fail to switch, whereas most 5-year-olds switch flexibly to the new rule. Alongside its many strengths, the DCCS was limited in its ability to sensitively capture gradual changes in EF within the preschool years, and it left us wondering about the beginnings of EF in younger children who, despite getting a score of zero on the task, surely had some nascent EF abilities.
Next, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, we developed a scale around the DCCS, including several easier levels and several harder levels, ordered in complexity. The outcome of this research is an App released in 2014, the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFSTM App). The MEFS captures the development of EF from age 2 and up, with norms and user-friendly administration on a tablet. It is adaptive to the child’s current ability level, and takes 4 minutes on average to complete. Scores are stored in a secure cloud server and immediately available to administrators through a web portal. Children’s performance on the MEFS is correlated with lengthier laboratory batteries of EF measures, and with school readiness assessments. It also predicts academic outcomes in reading and math into first grade, over and above IQ. (We are awaiting longitudinal results of third-grade outcomes.)
Today, we make the MEFS available to others through our company, Reflection Sciences, along with training in how to administer the tool as well as professional development about EF and how to use your data to make informed decisions. Researchers use the MEFS in ways that continue to validate it (e.g., its neural correlates), as a pre- and post-test for an intervention study, or if they simply want a quick reliable measure of EF to include in a study. Educators are using the MEFS for a variety of purposes. Some public schools use the MEFS as a universal screening tool for rising kindergartners, to assist with classroom placement, integrating children with varying EF skills, and to know from the first day of school which students are most likely to need additional supports in this area. Several districts and non-profits are using the MEFS to help them evaluate a program or curriculum. For example, if they are trying a new socioemotional skill-building program and want to know if it is having the intended effect of improving children’s underlying EF skills, they might compare the MEFS scores of students who received the program to those who did not, or examine the average MEFS scores year over year to see if their national percentiles are going up as a result of the program. These data can help administrators make informed decisions about program investments to best achieve their goals.
In the case of Montessori schools, researchers have found that classroom environment and pedagogical practices that are true to the Montessori method are associated with better EF in students. We believe this is because traditional Montessori education embeds reflection into nearly every task, cultivating the ability to pause, remember your goal, consider your options, persist at a task, and wait for your turn with the limited materials. Thus, MEFS scores are likely to be higher among students in classrooms that adhere closely to these principles, as measured by the Developmental Environmental Rating Scale (DERS). To test this idea, Reflection Sciences has partnered with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector to offer the MEFS to schools throughout the United States. To learn more please visit the DERS/MEFS Network site.