Educators working to address childhood adversity often find themselves facing a dual challenge: developing the ability to focus and exhibit self-control in both children and their parents. In Washington state’s Innovation by Design Initiative, organizations like Childhaven are striving to break the cycle of intergenerational hardship by promoting executive function skills such as attention, impulse control, decision-making, and resilience in adults and children simultaneously.
Vicki Nino Osby, the senior vice president for program operations at Childhaven, explained that many of the children they serve come from homes where their parents also experienced toxic stress and trauma during their own upbringing. This makes it even more challenging for parents to instill good executive function skills in their children when they lack these skills themselves.
Research has shown that warm and supportive relationships with adults, particularly parents and teachers, can mitigate the negative effects of stress on children’s social and cognitive development. In a separate study on self-regulation in the Seattle area, Liliana J. Lengua, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, discovered that children in high-stress and low-income environments exhibited lower levels of self-control. However, she also found that supportive parenting could counteract these effects, and children with better self-control received more positive responses from their parents.
Nell Robinson, the parent-skills training manager at Childhaven, understands the importance of this firsthand. She works with caregivers ranging from teenagers to grandparents and extended family members, some of whom have already lost custody of one child and are fighting to keep another. As part of a pilot project at Childhaven that utilizes games to enhance executive function skills in both students and their caregivers, Robinson is training eight parents to build these skills by playing games with their children at home.
During a program session, Robinson coached Marjory Jones, a mom whose name has been changed for privacy, as she interacted with her nearly 3-year-old son, Tyrell. Despite initially playing with clay, Tyrell eventually became disinterested and his mother repeatedly tried to coax him into participating in different activities. By the end of the session, Ms. Jones showed visible signs of frustration. Afterwards, Robinson discussed the session with Jones and walked her through a survey aimed at identifying parenting-related stress.
In the survey, Jones expressed feelings of love for her child but acknowledged that he doesn’t always learn things as quickly as she expected. She also mentioned sacrificing her personal life for her child and feeling like she never gets a break. Jones admitted that she tries to follow parenting tips but often forgets them or struggles to make them effective.
By attending additional coaching sessions, Jones will learn how to engage in play with her son, manage her own stress, and be more attuned to her child’s cues. The training program has already helped reduce stress for Wences Ramirez and his 4-year-old son, Diego, who were the first pair to go through the program.
Looking Ahead: How to Enhance Learning in the Face of Obstacles
After spending weeks immersed in learning new games and playing them alongside his son, Ms. Robinson observed, "He’s now more attuned to [Diego’s] cues and is more willing to provide encouragement. What intrigues me is that this father has started making his own connections." Earlier this month, Mr. Ramirez consulted Ms. Robinson on how to introduce Zingo, a memory game that involves basic addition. "Follow the rules, but if he gets stuck, get stuck with him," advised Ms. Robinson. "It’s not about imposing your goal on him… You want to genuinely praise him for the skills he’s demonstrating—such as memory and reasoning." Mr. Ramirez echoed this sentiment, stating, "The praise has been extremely beneficial; it has greatly improved our relationship." He also mentioned that he has developed stronger relationships with his 100 employees because he now responds to their requests for feedback, rather than assuming they are "fishing for compliments."
Mr. Ramirez proposed several different strategies for playing the game, taking into consideration what he believed Diego would enjoy and the potential areas where the boy might become frustrated. "I can’t wait to give it a try," expressed Mr. Ramirez. Ms. Robinson emphasized that learning to play these games provides parents and children with an opportunity to grow together. In the case of Diego’s father, "it wasn’t just a lightbulb moment—it was an explosion!" Ms. Osby concurred, adding that the goal of this intervention is to utilize the development of the parent’s and child’s individual executive-functioning skills to also foster a stronger bond between them. "Dad went from simply handing his child a phone app in the backseat to keep him calm," she explained, "to thinking ahead and creating an engaging pattern of interaction with his son."
Practice in Play-Groups
As part of Washington state’s innovation initiative, Ms. Lengua will commence working in the upcoming fall season with the six-county Educational Service District 112 to teach mindfulness strategies to parents attending play-groups at three Early Head Start centers in the Vancouver area. This initiative was mentioned by Corina McEntire, the professional-development manager for the service district. After the interventions, Ms. McEntire plans to collaborate with the Vancouver school district, which has a total of 22,100 students, to monitor and analyze the long-term effects of executive functioning on the students’ academic preparedness and social competence.
"It’s truly exciting to have such a close partnership with researchers and be able to apply their findings to our work on the ground," expressed Ms. McEntire.