Part 6 - Engineering for Equity: Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2

Applying an Equity Lens to Investigate the Intersection of Engineering and Executive Function Skills

Nosotros venimos de muchos lugares diferentes y siempre logramos adaptarnos. No nos limitamos, siempre pensamos en lo que podemos hacer. Aunque tengamos poco, siempre lo compartimos y envolvemos y ayudamos a otras personas. Relacionado al aprendizaje, los padres Latinos valoran el aprendizaje y le gusta que sus niños aprendan más de lo que ellos han aprendido—que lleguen mas lejos que lo que hemos podido hacer. [We come from many different places, and we always manage to adapt. We don’t limit ourselves. We always think about what we can do. Although we might not have much, we share what we have, involve ourselves, and help others. Related to learning, Latino parents value learning and want their children to learn more than they have—to go farther than we have been able to go.] —Program participant

Welcome back to the Engineering for Equity blog series. In today’s post, we continue reflecting with our collaborator Dr. Shauna Tominey on how our equity discussions over the last year are informing new efforts to investigate the intersection of engineering and executive function skills. In the last post, we introduced the Diálogos project and our goal of collaborating with parents of preschool-age children from Latinx families to co-construct our understanding of this intersection through a dialogic process.

The study of executive function is steeped in a deficit tradition of “fixing” children and their families, encouraging compliance toward specific and narrow standards, and neglecting to consider cultural relevance. Given this, we are aware that it will be challenging to explore ways that engineering activities can support executive function development for young children without reinforcing these deficit perspectives and traditional power hierarchies between researchers and families. Here we share an initial set of principles that we hope will help us avoid these pitfalls.

Families are already thinking about and supporting executive function development

In our experience, many efforts related to executive function development are situated in a basic formula: “children from poor communities and communities of color have problems with executive function that make them behave and perform poorly in school. In order to achieve equity in education, we need to fix these children and their families by improving their executive function skills.”


In our prior post, we talked in detail about the problems inherent in this type of deficit-based approach, even when educators or researchers claim to be using equity-oriented or culturally responsive approaches to address the so-called problems. So, what is the alternative? To begin, we reject the notion that children and families from Latinx communities in our region are “impoverished” in terms of their executive function development or the strategies for supporting this development. Executive function is a skill that all children are developing and benefit from developing, rather than a capacity that is lacking in certain communities or a marker of children that are “at risk” or “deficient." As we know from other research fields, these perceptions have important implications. For example, researchers have highlighted how perceptions of children’s behavior related to race or gender are connected with higher suspension and expulsion rates (Gilliam et al., 2016; Meek & Gilliam, 2016). The social or learning context can also have an important impact on how children are able to utilize their executive function skills (Burke Harris, 2019; Ready & Reid, 2019), highlighting the danger of making assumptions about a child’s executive function from observations in one context (e.g., school). Similar to our approach with engineering, we are interested in building meaningful relationships with families and hearing from them about where and how children and their families are thriving and how can we amplify and support these strengths.

In recent conversations we’ve had with English- and Spanish-speaking parents of preschool-age children, we learned a tremendous amount about parents’ awareness of the multiple aspects of their children’s development and the many strategies they use to support them. Even though families didn’t explicitly use the term executive function, many parents talked about related areas of development or situations where executive function is at play, such as helping their children deal with frustration or becoming more flexible thinkers. For example, one mother shared strategies for how she helps her child understand and manage his emotions:

It helps trying to figure out what we were feeling and getting familiar with self-awareness. We were doing children’s yoga, volcano breaths, and other movements that we can do to take the moment to reflect. I have been working with him to verbalize and get him to express himself. We all have emotions!

Families should decide what makes sense for them and their children

Just as many efforts to support executive function and STEM learning for children and families are rooted in a deficit perspective, many programs and studies begin with the implicit assumption that researchers and educators know what is best for families and their communities.

Underlying this approach is the assumption that we have highlighted before: that there is one “right way” to be a parent and support children’s development, related to executive function or otherwise. Although we don’t often admit it, this assumption is equivalent to the idea that if families from institutionally marginalized communities could just be taught to think, act, and learn like White, middle-class families, the problems within the education system would be solved (Gutiérrez, 2013; Philip et al., 2018; Yosso, 2005). Instead, we begin with the assumption that there are multiple approaches to supporting children’s development based in the knowledge, practices, and values of different cultural communities (e.g., Wang et al., 2020). Our hope is that by collaborating closely with Latinx parents and caregivers, we can learn from and with families about approaches for supporting executive function skills that align with their values, support their broader goals for their children, and affirm their cultural knowledge and traditions. In other words, this project is more about co-developing goals and strategies with rather than for families.

Beyond programming, we also believe it’s important for us as education researchers to rethink the relationship we have with families throughout the research process. In the field of community health research, scholars have highlighted how research must be grounded in the needs and goals identified by the community, not by outside “experts” (Israel, 2013). So, as we embark on this new project, we need to ask ourselves: who should determine the direction and focus for the next decade of research on the intersection of executive function and engineering? Are the priorities we as academics have identified the most important for the Latinx families we hope to serve? Will our iterative and dialogic approach to collaboration with families help shift this balance or simply justify the preservation of existing systems and structures? Can we let go of our “epistemic arrogance,” as a colleague so aptly described it in a recent conversation? And can we inspire and create pathways for the next generation of researchers and scholars from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds and lived experiences who will reflect their communities and carry on this work in ways that increasingly center family voice?

Our thinking and exploration in this area has been ongoing and filled with missteps. In past work, we’ve explored culturally responsive approaches to research in an effort to better connect with families from different cultural backgrounds. More recently, we’ve been inspired by calls to elevate the voice and power of community members within the education system (Curry-Stevens et al., 2014; Garibay & Teasdale, 2019; Levitan, 2019; Tolbert et al., 2018)—to let the research be a conduit of family perspectives, rather than a translation or a distortion. For the Diálogos project, we looked to community-based participatory research approaches (Israel, 2013; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2008), including working with a group of parent leaders in the Latinx community to help guide the focus of the proposal and designing the research methods using participatory, dialogic approaches (Civil et al., 2005; Quintos et al., 2019). But we know it’s not enough. The challenge remains of how to conduct research and develop knowledge that truly reflects, serves, and is motivated by the communities within which the research takes place.

Executive function is a small part of supporting children’s learning and development

In embarking on this most recent project, we have joined the growing chorus of those emphasizing the importance of executive function for STEM learning and child development (Gropen et al., 2011; NVF, 2020). From families’ perspectives, we understand that this academic and arguably reductive concept is only a small part of the goals they have for their children. The term executive function originates from the cognitive neuroscience field and is often defined as “a set of mental processes, located in the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, that are used to carry out goal-directed behavior” (Jones et al., 2016, p. 8). But families don’t experience life as a set of “mental processes.” Instead, they help their children navigate daily challenges that involve all aspects of mind and body—like getting ready for school in the morning, making friends, or helping out with household chores.

This point was driven home in our recent conversations with parents about how they support their children’s executive function development and the skills they think are important for their children to succeed in school and life. The stories families shared were about broad development domains and concrete daily situations—many of which involve but are not limited to executive function. For example, one mother shared how she has been working to help her daughter deal with frustration when something doesn’t turn out like she wants:

La frustración. Si está haciendo algo y no le sale como ella quería se pone así. Se pone insoportable. Cuando se molesta sí sabe que se puede sentar en su silla o agarrar uno de sus peluches. Pero cuando se frustra pierde todo. [Cuando esto pasa] le doy su espacio un rato y luego la abrazo. Le digo: “Sé que esto es difícil, vamos a intentarlo más tarde.” Y la conforto. [Frustration. If she is doing something and it doesn’t turn out the way she wants, she gets frustrated. She can be unbearable. When she gets mad, she knows that she can sit in her chair, or she can grab her stuffed animal, but when she gets frustrated, she loses everything. [When that happens] I give her space, and I tell her, “I know this was hard, so let’s try it again later.” And I try to comfort her.]

For our new project, we anticipate this will be a tension as we try to connect with and inform the literature on executive function and STEM while also acknowledging and supporting the whole child and whole family in ways that align with their daily experiences. To this end, we hope to work towards an inclusive and pragmatic conceptualization of executive function, recognizing the multiple aspects of development that it relates to and connects with. Similarly, we hope to help families recognize and practice the executive function-related skills required for preschool-age children to accomplish complex tasks involved in collaborative STEM learning.

In our proposal, we defined executive function as the set of self-regulation skills that allow young children, with the support of their parents, to engage effectively in STEM learning activities by focusing attention and ignoring distractions, retaining new information in their minds long enough to follow through with directions, demonstrating self-control/inhibitory control, and managing their emotions. But we acknowledge that this definition is limiting. It is framed primarily from a research perspective rather than representing the ways that families with preschool-age children experience executive function in their daily lives, the terms that they use to think about these experiences, and the goals and values they have related to their children’s development and learning. Through the Diálogos project, we hope to revise and expand this definition as part of the development of a new vision for how family-based STEM learning experiences can support not only executive function skills but the range of goals that families value for their children.

Navigate to other blog posts in this series here:

  1. Introduction - Engineering for Equity
  2. Family Collaboration, post 1
  3. Family collaboration, post 2
  4. Applying Asset-based Approaches
  5. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 1
  6. Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2
  7. Engaging Families with Engineering, post 1

About the Authors

Scott Pattison, PhD, is a Research Scientist at TERC. He has been studying and supporting STEM education and learning since 2003, as an educator, program and exhibit developer, evaluator, and researcher. His current work focuses on engagement, learning, and interest and identity development in free-choice and out-of-school environments, including museums, community-based organizations, and everyday settings. He has led numerous informal STEM education research projects and initiatives, including Head Start on Engineering, Storybook STEM, Math in Making, and REVEAL.

Smirla Ramos Montañez, PhD, is a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bicultural (Puerto Rican/American) Family STEM Learning Researcher at TERC. She has led and supported a variety of projects, including program and exhibit evaluation as well as STEM education research designed to provide accessible, culturally relevant, and engaging experiences for diverse audiences. She is currently the PI of the Diálogos project, which will engage parents as research partners to explore how we can leverage informal family engineering activities to support the development of executive function skills for preschool-age children from Latinx families.

Shauna Tominey, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Practice & Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University. As a former early childhood teacher and parenting educator, Shauna blends practical experience with research to develop programs aimed at promoting social-emotional skills for children and the adults in their lives and is co-developer of the Red Light, Purple Light self-regulation intervention. She also serves as the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, a statewide initiative providing high-quality parenting education to families with children of all ages. With specific interest in trauma-informed and anti-racist approaches to social and emotional learning, she is a member of the LiberatED collaborative. Dr. Tominey is the author of “Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children” and a regular contributor for PBS Parents.


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Meek, S. E., & Gilliam, W. S. (2016). Explusion and suspension in early education as matters of social justice and health equity. NAM Perspectives, 6(10). https://doi.org/10.31478/201610e

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Part 6 - Engineering for Equity: Engineering and Executive Function Skills, post 2
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Scott Pattison, Smirla Ramos Montañez

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