Executive function is getting a lot of attention these days particularly in schools, museums, and libraries. Located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that keeps track of goals, engages in abstract problem-solving, and moderates appropriate behavior, executive functions weave, mediate, and integrate both cognitive and social capacities.
While developing early in life and rapidly during the preschool years, executive brain functions are not important just for children. Throughout life, we need to regulate emotions, delay gratification, and make plans. During adolescence some executive functions improve, becoming more efficient and effective with increased mastery over thinking, emotions, and behavior. During the 20’s, executive function skills are at their peak and begin to decline in later adulthood.
Models for executive function break down and describe them with some variation. The executive functions explored in Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind In the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Children Needs are: focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, and self-directed and engaged learning.
Evidence of executive function is apparent in the focus and inhibitory control displayed in persistence in following an activity to its natural conclusion or sticking with something after a setback. Taking another perspective and putting oneself in another’s shoes involves cognitive flexibility. Making connections is critical to making sense of a situation and relies on recognizing similarities and differences, using rules and applying and recombining elements in various and inventive ways.
Involved in language, play, learning, and social interactions, executive functions have a definite place in museums. Recently, IMLS released Brain-Building Powerhouses: How Museums and Libraries Can Strengthen Executive Function Life Skills with Mind in the Making and Families and Work Institute. A study on executive function skills in museums and libraries, it explores what they are, why they are important, how children develop them, and how museums and libraries promote them.
The report identifies 6 assets museums and libraries can leverage to support executive function skills from Family Engagement to Community Partnerships. Museums are incorporating information on executive function skills into programs for parents, programming where children practice science skills, and kits. Portland Children’s Museum has developed a handbook summarizing 7 skills.
These and other efforts to deliberately incorporate executive function skills cluster into two general areas. First, handbooks, webinars, text, and handouts focus on and summarize the content of executive function skills. Print materials in text panels and handouts provide explanation, tips, and prompts for parents and caregivers. Materials cover recent research, developmental information, and examples about how activities and experiences can support development of specific life skills.
The second cluster of museum efforts to incorporate executive function skills is around programmatic tools and strategies. Kits, programs, research-based exhibits weave executive function skills into museum experiences. Some museums offer informal play-and-learn groups and formal parent training to develop parent and caregiver awareness and skills.
Both areas of activities are good and necessary for encouraging executive function skills in museums. They serve as groundwork in bringing the content into the museum, building awareness of how and why these skills are important, and supporting parents and caregivers in valuing and encouraging these skills in children as they explore and play. Both help in building a case for support around a museum's intention and potential to make a difference in the lives of visitors and the community.
Most museum efforts to encourage development of executive function skills, however, overlook the enormous and indispensible asset of prepared and engaged staff. In fact, in Brain-building Powerhouses, staff are not identified as one of the 6 assets that museums and libraries can use to promote executive function life skills.
Gallery guides, museum educators, on-floor educators, docents, and volunteers who interact with children and adults–daily and hourly, from arrival to departure–have the potential to make connections to these life skills that even the best signs, tools, and media cannot. Informed, practiced, and on the spot, staff are able to customize a response, gesture, or comment to a child or adult and the situation. Moreover they can model and scaffold for parents and caregivers, augmenting and making visible what is in the text and what it looks like in reality.
Because experiences are often planned to be self-guided, museums may not recognize the steady stream of opportunities for knowledgeable and well-trained staff to support and advance development of executive function life skills. Virtually every visitor encounter is an opening to model or respond in helpful, focused ways. Children wait in line at admissions, use a new tool in the maker space, scale the climber, or monopolize the green screen. Getting separated from a parent or jumping the line at the crane may be a self-guided experience; it can also use informed guidance.
Clearly parents and caregivers play a critical role in fostering a child’s focus, self control, persistence, and keeping information in mind during a task or activity. Is it realistic, however, to expect adults to read text, absorb relatively complex content, and respond accordingly as their child abandons an activity? Grabs a tool from someone else? Faces a meltdown? What about when their hands are full with 2 or 3 children?
Well-prepared staff who are familiar with the research on executive function and the related life skills serve a function nothing else is able to. Not supervising a child, they can observe and notice related behaviors, identify opportune moments for engagement, and scaffold these skills. They can reflect on the interactions and discuss later with other staff. Modeling and scaffolding for parents and caregivers is a powerful way for them to understand what self-regulation or working memory looks like and what they might do in situations when prompts aren’t present. Even brief follow-up conversations with parents and caregivers can help make these connections.
Admittedly, the investment in preparing staff well is considerable. Furthermore, not all staff may have the capacity to engage with visitors around brain development and executive function skills. In fact, only half the museum respondents to the IMLS study felt staff has the capacity to converse with families and children about brain development.
If this is where museums hope to have a positive impact on their visitors and, ultimately, on their communities, they need to take action on multiple fronts. Text, handouts, posting information, and weaving experiences into exhibits to support these important skills are only part of an approach that can be considered comprehensive and potentially effective. Without staff prepared to engage, respond to, and support executive function life skills, the approach remains a well-intentioned museum interest. Fortunately, some training in this area beyond introductory is occurring in museums. Mind in the Making and Boston Children’s Museum are developing training for museum staff. Museums can also conduct small-scale experiments with trained on-floor educators in a particular exhibit to interpret messages and model interactions. These results would provide informed guidance in expanded staff engagement.
A wholehearted approach is what I think is intended by one of the action steps in Brain-building Powerhouses: Embed a priority to develop executive function life skills into all aspects of the operations: planning, facilities, staff training, communications, guest services, etc.
In my mind, that's the top action step if museums are serious about delivering results for executive brain skills and–in fact for any area museums consider important such as creativity, the importance of play, science learning, early development, literacy, etc.
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