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Hands On, Minds On: How Executive Function, Motor, and Spatial Skills Foster School Readiness

reviewed by Ilene S. Schwartz & Elizabeth Kelly October 11, 2018

coverTitle: Hands On, Minds On: How Executive Function, Motor, and Spatial Skills Foster School Readiness
Author(s): Claire E. Cameron
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807759090, Pages: 192, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Early childhood is a period of developmental firsts. Children take their first steps, use their first words, make their first friends, and have their first experiences in formal schooling. All of these monumental achievements open up expansive opportunities for exploration, growth, and development, but at the same time they present the challenges of absorbing new information and integrating that information with existing experiences, knowledge, and routines. This is a daunting challenge for all learners, however, as Cameron suggests in her excellent book, by using some well-planned and carefully embedded instructional strategies, most children can acquire the executive functioning skills required to thrive during this exciting developmental period. Cameron describes executive function as the connective tissue that enables learners to synthesize new information with existing repertoires. These skills are essential for empowering learners of all ages, but especially children, to thrive in situations in which they encounter new, sometimes contradictory, often complex information.

Executive function (EF) is a set of attention-regulation skills that make it possible to engage in goal-directed problem solving and other complex tasks (Zelazo, Blair, & Willoughby, 2016). Executive function is often described as the overarching construct that is made up of the three distinct but interdependent skills: cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control (Blair & Diamond, 2008; Zelazo, Blair, & Willoughby, 2016). Cameron skillfully defines EF and its three components in Chapter Three in a manner that is interesting to researchers and those responsible for the professional development of early childhood teachers, and also accessible to advanced students and practitioners.

Children who demonstrate robust EF skills are more successful when they encounter new learning challenges because their EF skills provide a secure cognitive foundation upon which to develop other critical skills. Cameron posits that there is strong evidence to suggest that EF skills predict important academic areas of achievement such as reading and math in elementary school (Allan, Hume, Allan, Farrington, & Lonigan, 2014).

Furthermore, strong EF skills serve as a protective factor for those students that enter school already disadvantaged by poverty or disability. Federal programs such as Head Start, in its Early Learning Outcomes Framework, and the Office of Special Education Programs emphasize EF as a foundational skill for children to develop in order to engage in all other types of learning. But children are not born with the skills to control their impulses, develop complicated plans, maintain intense focus on a single activity, or flexibly modify their agendas when the situation calls for it. EF is learned, just like many other complex skills, and any educator with a vested interest in promoting learning for our youngest generation should be aware of how to foster these skills.

Play is the occupation of childhood” is an often-cited axiom in early education. All play activities, however, are not created equally, especially when it comes to the development of valued skills such as EF. Play must include adult guidance, and “guided object play” is one of the most successful strategies to teach EF skills. In order to develop EF behaviors to their fullest potential, children must receive effective and timely guidance and instruction. When educators develop instruction for EF, they need to be intentional about the support and scaffolding they provide and evaluate the effectiveness of the instruction. We acknowledge the difficulty of identifying and planning instruction for behaviors that often fall into a “hidden curriculum.” However, by presenting the most up-to-date research, well-designed vignettes, and exercises throughout Hands On, Minds On, Cameron provides an excellent starting point for teachers and teacher educators who are eager to learn more about supporting EF development in children through hands-on activities. While there is a place for the use of computer-generated programs to promote children’s cognitive skills, there are still some things that children cannot learn from a screen. Children still need to learn to build with blocks, draw with markers, play board games, and climb structures. And they must do these things with embedded adult guidance and instruction in order to maximize learning in a way that maintains the motivation, joy, and independence that every child deserves to have while learning.

Although there is much to appreciate and applaud in Cameron’s book, there are a few areas that caused us concern. First, it is important to identify ourselves as researchers and practitioners who have spent our careers working with young children with developmental disabilities, specifically children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). With this as our context, we were troubled by Cameron’s discussion about school readiness. Although we wholeheartedly agree that early education is essential to help children have the best possible experience in school, kindergarten readiness is not determined by a checklist. Children are ready for kindergarten when they turn five. Kindergarten readiness is not the responsibility of the child; it is the responsibility of the school to ensure that the school is ready to welcome, educate, and support all children regardless of their ability or background.

This has serious implications for early learning and for elementary school programs. Educators at all levels of the system must work to create programs that meet children where they are when they enter the classroom. This means that any kindergarten teacher is likely to have some students with well-developed EF skills, some with rudimentary EF skills, and other scattered along this skill spectrum. Teachers must be prepared to embrace all of these students with the philosophy that “student failure is instructional failure.” This means that if a student is not learning what teachers want them to learn, teachers cannot blame underdeveloped EF skills; rather, they need to change instructional strategies. This is not meant to add an extra burden to teachers; instead it is intended to serve as a call to action for all members of the educational system that we must be aware of and responsive to the diverse needs of young children entering school. As Cameron points out on page 122, you get what you teach. Children who need support to learn specific skills, whether they are EF skills or specific academic skills such as concepts, letters, or numbers, perform better when they receive instruction targeting these skills. The results reported here remind educators that lessons (including instructional strategies) should be designed on the basis of child need, not teacher preference.

Our other disagreement with Cameron is over her discussion of the role of race, ethnicity, culture, and language in learning (see pages xvi-xvii). Although we agree with her that the role of poverty and the types of out-of-school opportunities that children access are important in understanding school success, educators must also understand the role played by race, ethnicity, culture, and language in what happens for children outside of school and the relationship that children and families have with school personnel. Although we know that SES influences children’s language development and their school achievement (e.g., Hart & Risley, 1995), research has also demonstrated that families from underrepresented groups have more negative interactions with all types of services (e.g., educational, medical, economic) designed to promote child welfare. Educators must be ready to meet families where they are and work with them to develop the relationships necessary to achieve a common goal: facilitating children’s achievement.

Cameron provides a useful and interesting text for those interested in a classroom-based approach to addressing the complicated issue of executive function in young children. Through an interesting review of the research on EF and related skills, she makes the case for why all educators working with young children should be assessing for EF and embedding EF instruction in their daily lesson plans. She suggests that EF needs to be removed from the hidden curriculum and added as a component to every curriculum. On this point, we could not agree more.




Allan, N. P., Hume, L. E., Allan, D. M., Farrington, A. L., & Lonigan, C. J. (2014). Relations between inhibitory control and the development of academic skills in preschool and kindergarten: A meta-analysis. Developmental Psychology, 50(10), 2368–2379.

Blair, C., & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: Promotion of self-regulation and the prevention of early school failure. Development and Psychopathology, 20(3), 899–911.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Zelazo, P .D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive function: Implications for education (NCER 2017-2000), Washington, DC: National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 11, 2018
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22532, Date Accessed: 10/19/2018 4:05:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Ilene Schwartz
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    ILENE SCHWARTZ is a professor and chair in the area of special education and the director of the Haring Center for Research and Training in Education at the University of Washington. She earned her Ph.D. in child and developmental psychology from the University of Kansas and is a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA-D). Dr. Schwartz has an active research and professional training agenda with primary interests in the area of autism, inclusive education, and the sustainability of educational interventions. Her recent publications include "Guidance or Compliance: What Makes an Ethical Behavior Analyst? Behavior Analysis in Practice" with N. Rosenberg in Behavior Analysis in Practice (in press), "Effects of Emergent Literacy Interventions for Preschoolers with ASD" with Hudson, et al., in Exceptional Children (2017), and "A Modified Dialogic Reading Intervention for Preschool Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder" with V. P. Fleury in Topics in Early Childhood Special Education (2017).
  • Elizabeth Kelly
    University of Washington
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH KELLY is a doctoral student in special education at the University of Washington. Her primary research interest is in partnering with educators, behavior specialists, and parents to deliver sustainable behavioral and educational interventions. She currently serves as a research assistant on a multiyear grant to develop a web-based behavior support and teaching coaching system for early childhood settings. In addition to her work at the University of Washington, she is a private behavioral consultant for families that have young children with developmental disabilities.
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