What do Marshmallows have to do with Executive Function Skills?

Have you heard about the Stanford University marshmallow study? Many years ago, children between the ages of three and five were offered a marshmallow and told if they did not eat it, they’d be given another one. Those children who took the marshmallow and could not delay gratification had a higher rate of behavioral problems in school.

Executive functions are the cognitive abilities needed to control our thoughts, emotions and actions. That explains why we can’t say no to that chocolate chip cookie after a tough day at work. Just like the marshmallow test, these skills help us to say no to impulses and regulate our behavior.

Research tells us that executive function skills and social-emotional development are critically important and predictive to academic and life success.

What can you do with your child to nurture the development of these skills at every age throughout early childhood?

Infants and Toddlers

* Play peekaboo

* Say rhymes

* Read rhyming books aloud

* Talk about the object you are holding and try to keep their attention

* Sing songs with hand motions (Itsy bitsy spider)

* Play hiding games

* Take turns

* Encourage imaginary play (let them pretend to cook, clean or talk on the phone just like you do)

* Play simple matching games

* Play simple sorting games

* Talk, talk, talk about everything you see and do

boyton book rhyme-babies-1 rhyme-babies-7


* Put puzzles together

* Pass a ball back and forth

* Sing songs

* Play movement games

* Climb, balance and skip outside

* Play matching games

* Sort objects by color, shape or size

* Cook together and let them follow the recipe and measure ingredients

* Play board and card games

* Go for a nature walk

* Make up a guessing game in the car

* Play I Spy in the car or on a walk

* Sort everything in your grocery cart by color or shape

* Talk about your feelings and let them do the same

Young children love to play dress up and use their imagination, so give them lots of opportunities for pretend play. Maybe it is twirling around the room as a ballet dancer, moving and sounding like a dinosaur or dressing up as a teacher, firefighter or veterinarian. Let them play, explore and have fun investigating the world around them. It is through these experiences that they will learn how to listen and communicate, play well with others and solve problems.

Lisa Howard headshot circle

Lisa Howard, President & CEO

March Madness & Soft Skills


March Madness is over (thank goodness)! What a game last night!! North Carolina beat Gonzaga 71-65. It was a nail-biter for anyone who watched. As a die-hard Tar Heel fan, this game was tough to watch especially after Villanova’s buzzer beater win last year over the Heels. Marcus Paige said it best last night in a Tweet, “Watching as a fan is way more stressful than playing.”

Both teams battled through poor shooting, Joel Berry II played with two hurt ankles, Williams-Goss played through injury, there were too many foul calls, missed foul shots and it was a sloppy, ugly battle between two No. 1 seeds.

Both Roy Williams and Mark Few along with their players took the high road and refused to blame the officiating crew. In fact, Mark Few said, “Those were three of the best officials in the entire country—NBA, college or anything.” The coaches and players showed qualities that matter on and off the court. They exhibited “soft skills” like: grit, perseverance, optimism, humility and self-control.

As parents, we can turn the pregame parties and post game celebrations into real life lessons for our children that will stick long after the buzzer sounds. We can use the game as a “teachable moment” to:

  • Let our children struggle and fail so they can learn to manage failure and learn from mistakes.
  • Give our children opportunities to experience disappointment and frustration. Encourage them to keep trying and to do their best.
  • Encourage our children to practice and work hard. This is what develops grit, perseverance, patience and discipline.
  • Show our children how to be courteous and humble and take the high road no matter what life throws your way.

Research tells us these “soft skills” are highly predictive to success in school, life and the workplace. And these skills begin during the early childhood years. Last night was a great night to be a Tar Heel, but it was also a great night to be a Zag.

Lisa Howard headshot circle

Lisa Howard President & CEO

Where is the “R” in STEM?

_H1A9951g (2)

Reading is foundational to many jobs in today’s economy, and it will be increasingly critical for the jobs that sustain our economic growth. According to an analysis by economists at Georgetown University, reading comprehension ranks third in “high intensity” use of broad skills across all occupations. A 2016 study found that workers had to be able to understand complex reading materials even in occupations that require no formal education.

blog pic 32317 blog pic 32417


The U.S. is missing the mark. According to a 2015 ACT college and career readiness report, nationally only 26% of high school students met college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. One out of three (34%) met none of those benchmarks.

This problem cannot be fixed in middle and high school. By that time it is too late. By fourth grade, students are expected to be able to “read to learn.” Those with poor reading skills fall further and further behind. The research is clear that students must develop reading skills early to compete in the knowledge and technology driven economy.

If we want to set our children up for success, we must ensure they have high quality early education. Without a strong foundation, many children enter elementary school behind. In fact, a recent Business Roundtable report states that third graders who have not mastered a basic level of reading—are nearly 6x more likely to dropout.

STEM skills matter and need to be integrated with the development of strong reading skills from the early childhood classroom through third grade.

Take action today! Business and civic leaders have credibility and influence and can play a vital role in promoting a state policy agenda to ensure every child is on track and reading by the third grade.

Lisa Howard headshot circle

By Lisa Howard, President and CEO

Child Care Deserts

A report recently released by The Center for American Progress, “Child Care Deserts: An Analysis of Child Care Centers by ZIP Code in 8 States,” examines the location of child care centers and reveals that 42% of children under age 5 live in child care deserts. Eight states responded to the request to share administrative date on child care centers. These eight states represent one-fifth of the U.S. population under age 5.

The Center for American Progress defines a child care desert as any ZIP code with more than 30 children under age 5 that contains either zero child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many young children as there are spaces in centers.

In Virginia, 40% of families live in a child care deserts. Virginia has one of the highest child care desert populations in the study.



When compared with its neighbor North Carolina – which has a larger population – Virginia has roughly 1 million more residents living in child care deserts. While the majority of Virginia’s population is suburban, most ZIP codes in the state are rural and include the homes of more than 2 million Virginians. Similar to many other states in the study, these communities have the highest likelihood of being child care deserts. As a result, two-thirds of Virginia’s children under age 5 living in rural areas reside in a child care desert.

Read more about this study on www.childcaredeserts.org.


PISA study finds U.S. students falling behind internationally in math, science and reading.

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study finds American students underperforming their peers in several Asian nations. The U.S. was below the international average in math and about average in science and reading.

“We’re losing ground — a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world,” said Education Secretary John B. King Jr. “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

The successful children are those who are exposed to good teaching more often. Having pupils turn up is a start. In poor countries this often means expanding access for girls. In richer countries it means cutting dropout rates and truancy. Having teachers turn up also helps. Read more from the Economist on What countries can learn from PISA tests.

Governor McAuliffe Announces Third Round of Federal Preschool Expansion Grants

Governor Terry McAuliffe announced this week that Virginia will receive $17.5 million through the federal Preschool Expansion Grant. These funds will allow the Commonwealth to continue to serve at-risk four-year-olds in high-quality pre-kindergarten programs across the state.

“Providing our children with high-quality preschool education is essential to giving every Virginia student the start he or she needs to succeed in school and prepare for a successful career in the new Virginia economy,” said Governor McAuliffe.

Read more of the release here.

How do U.S. students rank in Math and Science?

The Trends in Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) released yesterday provides data on mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students compared to that of students in other countries.

The most recent TIMSS data collection was in 2015 and included students in grades 4 and 8. In TIMSS 2015, more than 60 countries and other education systems, including the United States, participated in TIMSS at grades 4 and 8.

The U.S. average scores in science and math at grades 4 and 8 were not measurably different since the last participation in 2011 and 1995, respectively.

In mathematics, the U.S. was among the top 20 education systems in Grade 4 and among the top 19 in Grade 8.

In science, the U.S. was among the top 15 education systems in Grade 4 and among the top 17 in Grade 8.

Click for further information about TIMSS 2015. Results from the 2015 TIMSS can be viewed on the Results page.

President Obama has articulated a clear priority for STEM education: within a decade, American students must “move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math.”

Read the U.S. Department of Education’s Five-year STEM strategic plan here.


Advocacy in Education: Four Key Efforts by UVA’s Curry School of Education

The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education is focusing on four major efforts to improve early education:

1.    Creating a First-of-Its-Kind Preschool

2.    Assessing Kindergarten Readiness Statewide

3.    Building Strategies for Early Childhood Reform Statewide in Louisiana

4.    Assessing Interactions in Kyrgyzstan’s Early Education Classrooms

The US Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr., addressed Curry School students last week during a Distinguished Speakers program. King stressed, “Giving children a strong start in early education has profound effects on their lifetime success.” Read more about the efforts underway by the Curry School including The New E3 School in Norfolk, a partnership between UVA CASTL and E3: Elevate Early Education: A Legacy of Advocacy in Education: Four Key Efforts by The Curry School


Virginia’s Plan for Well-Being: Preparing Virginia’s Children to Succeed in Kindergarten.

Virginia’s Plan for Well-Being is a call to action for Virginians to create and sustain conditions that support health and well-being. The plan lays out 13 priority goals that address issues significantly impacting the health and well-being of the people of Virginia. Read more about the plan and how early education plays a role here.

How well does pre-Kindergarten prepare children for elementary school and beyond?

The results of a recent evaluation of Tennessee’s statewide pre-k program by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute provides an opportunity to understand why some early education programs are effective and others are not. What can we learn from this study that will help to inform the practice in early education programs? The Starting Early Policy Brief is a must read. It walks us through the Tennessee evaluation findings and recommends a three-pronged research agenda that will help us to better understand:

  •  What skills are truly important for long-term success; 
  •  Classroom practices that are linked to those skills; and, 
  •  How to measure to determine if a classroom is high quality and remains high in the long run.