Simon Says: Minnesota research focuses on helping homeless kids learn

Ann Masten (Photo by Dawn Villella, courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

Kindergarten teachers call it sitting still in a circle or waiting in line; researchers call it executive function. It’s what keeps you here reading this article, instead of checking Facebook or rolling off your chair. And according to University of Minnesota child development professor Ann Masten, it’s part of why some students living through stressful situations continue to do well in school.  

The other great thing about it: it’s malleable, especially when kids are little.

On January 20, Masten spoke at the U of M to an audience of students, educators, researchers and housing advocates about resilience. Masten is one of the researchers behind those “research-based programs” that educators love to talk about. She and Institute of Child Development faculty Philip Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson recently received a grant from the National Center for Education Research to develop kindergarten readiness programs that target that malleable and oh-so-important brain skill, executive function.

Her presentation was part of a series of housing forums put on by the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

In the late 1980s, Masten partnered first with shelter workers and later with Minneapolis Public School staff to learn more about a new and growing demographic: homeless families. Since then, Masten has observed the number of homeless students grow bigger and their stories grow sadder. She and her collaborators were able to show that Minneapolis homeless students do worse on state tests than other low-income students – a trend tracked by few other districts. Last year, 8.3 percent of Minneapolis students were identified as homeless or highly mobile at some point.

She noticed something else, too: some of the homeless kids were fine. They did well in school, they played nice, and they sat still.

“How is that possible?” Masten asked Friday’s audience. “This is the type of child we’re trying to understand.”

Nothing in the schools predicted the variability, so Masten and her collaborators looked elsewhere. Their research identified three factors – parenting, stress levels and cognitive skills like executive function – that help determine how resilient a child will be.

“The most powerful protective factors are in the child’s lives,” she said. And they’re fairly easy to influence.

Masten said executive function is a key way good parenting “goes to school.” It’s developed through strategies parents use to keep kids on task or through games like “Simon Says” or “Red Light, Green Light.”

Now Masten’s team is putting their research into practice, by developing interventions that will help kids build resilience to the hard times many of them will inevitably experience.

Masten is doing things like recording and coding parents’ interactions with their children, and testing children’s executive function skills. Last August, Masten and area shelters tested a kindergarten booster program they developed called Ready? Set. Go! As a result of that work, she and her Child Development colleagues received a grant from the National Center for Education Research to continue developing strategies that would work in any preschool – and in any shelter.

That last part is not to be forgotten, Masten said, “We will have trouble addressing achievement gaps in this country until we address mobility disparities.”

Also not to be forgotten: the power of collaboration and good data. “Something special happens when you put people all around a table to solve a problem.”

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    Alleen Brown's picture
    Alleen Brown

    Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.