From CEED: How storytelling boosts our executive functioning: a Q & A with Chris Wing

Chris Wing, PhD ’13, CCC-SLP, built on her career as a speech-language pathologist by pursuing a PhD in language development. She is currently developing a preschool curriculum that emphasizes communication. The curriculum was commissioned by The Family Partnership, a Minnesota nonprofit that provides early childhood education as well as mental health, home visiting, and other services. Wing is working with CEED evaluators Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, and Mary McEathron, PhD, to evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum, which is being piloted in preschool classrooms as well as in home visiting and parent education programs. In this Q & A, Wing shares information about the curriculum and about the science underlying its storytelling content.

Chris Wing

What motivated you to pause your career and return to graduate school?

CW: I had been working with a population of young children at extremely high risk for speech and language delays. I observed that when we addressed these children’s communication needs, they were changing in ways that were not considered to be directly related to communication. I saw changes in self-regulation and executive functioning skills. I wasn’t familiar with how that worked. It moved me back to school for my PhD in speech-language-hearing science.

My total focus was to understand the relationship between overall development and communication. I had to merge separate sets of academic literature related to infant mental health and communication. 

How is infant mental health related to language development?

Speech and language, attachment relationships, and executive functioning are all connected. Research shows that the ability to use internal state language is predictive of executive functioning. Internal state language is a speech pathology term. It refers to language like, “I wonder how you are feeling,” or, “I can see by the look on your face that you might be afraid.” In the infant mental health literature they call it “mind-mindedness”–being mindful of the child’s mental state. 

In my research for my PhD, I found wonderful and fascinating information about how attachment is transmitted from caregiver to child. Parents with good executive functioning create secure relationships and are using this kind of language. The good news is that when we address children’s speech and language needs, we get spread across areas of child development that impact attachment and behavior.

How did the storytelling curriculum that you are designing come about?

John Till is senior vice president of strategy and innovation at The Family Partnership. He learned about the importance of executive functioning and self-regulation. He also learned about the need to develop a two-generation approach to strengthen these skills. We agreed that I would create a communication-based curriculum for both parents and children with personal storytelling as a key strategy. I wanted to get that process down to a concrete level: what does it look like? What does it sound like? What are the steps involved in helping children develop these skills?

The preschool storytelling curriculum is designed for direct delivery to children and also for parents to deliver to children. So one version is to be administered by preschool or child care teachers. The other version is to be used with parents either one-on-one in a home visiting context or in a group setting. 

Often, the parents themselves have not had many opportunities to work on developing their own communication and self-regulation skills. We’ve actually gotten some data in from a pilot where we’re having home visitors listen to the parent’s narrative and prompt them with questions like “Who was there? When did it happen? Was there a problem? Was the problem solved? What was the sequence of events?” We saw changes in the parents in terms of how coherent their storytelling was. These skills don’t just happen on their own. They result from participating in interactions and from what we call scaffolding. Scaffolding means building on what they already know. 

How does the curriculum build storytelling skills?

One of the major strategies is called “Telling My Story.” We don’t ask children to retell a story that they learned from a book or at school, such as a folk tale. Instead, we ask them to tell a story about their lives. In the academic literature, this is known as a personal narrative.

To determine the child’s skill level, we use a protocol where an adult shares an experience that involves getting sick or hurt. The adult then asks the children to share a similar experience. We’re not trying to upset them by asking about times when they got sick or hurt. We ask about these events because they have what we call emotional salience. Kids are at the top of their skill level when talking about these events. They show us everything they’ve got in terms of storytelling. That’s why sharing a story about a negative experience is part of the assessment process. But of course, the curriculum is not just about bringing up bad experiences. Throughout the curriculum, children have many opportunities to tell stories about a variety of events.

We help them tell their story by asking questions. We talk about words for physical states like hunger. We ask, “What were you thinking at the time?” Parents who really form secure attachments are conscious of their child’s mental state; they’re checking in and mirroring that. 

After children finish telling their story, if they haven’t told us already, we ask, “How did you feel?” We ask this of both kids and adults. Some research shows that most of us adults really struggle with naming a feeling outside of some pretty concrete ones: happy, sad, afraid. We don’t get much better than that. 

I recently went to a live recording of The Moth Radio Hour. Ten people told stories, and I was amazed at how few internal state words they used. To me, those are what connects us. I can’t really relate to the experience of someone who set a Guinness World Record canoeing on the Mississippi, but I can relate to how it made them feel. When we are able to name feelings, that ability correlates with emotional intelligence. So as parents practice naming their own and others’ feelings, that impacts their ability to engage with their kids. 

A favorite definition of self-regulation I ran across that dovetails with what we’re trying to accomplish is, “Self-regulation is monitoring your internal states in relation to your external objective.” The regulating part comes in adjusting either your internal state or your external objective so that you have a match.

Our adult curriculum asks parents to tell their own story. It’s an opportunity to reflect, to problem solve, to process their internal state. With adults, we always end with an affirmation. We recognize something in their story that creates something coherent out of what can feel like chaos–many parents’ lives are chaotic. What we find in adult research on this kind of telling is that the important thing is not whether the storyteller felt successful in the story–it’s how they process it after the fact and see their own agency and what can be built on. 

Your curriculum is currently being piloted. How is it going?

The curriculum is being simultaneously written, revised, and piloted. The original version was a six- to eight-week curriculum. Stakeholders gave us wonderful but sometimes painful feedback on that draft. One message that came through is that it needed to be a nine-month curriculum. The new version will last 30 weeks. 

We did a “baby” pilot of the new version and found it was headed in the right direction. We were very encouraged, so we began our scheduled pilots at the beginning of the school year with 10 weeks of the curriculum complete. Now I’m writing ahead of the pilot. It feels like running in front of a speeding train, but there’s something about the content that has its own calming, mindful effect. Teachers have even said that the kids are being kinder to each other. One thing I like is hearing from teachers, “I like doing this. It’s fun. The kids like it.” That means it’s developmentally appropriate. We know neurologically that positive engagement facilitates learning. Fun is not optional; fun is mandatory!

From CEED: CEED, Department of Applied Economics win $1.4 million federal grant for study of child care assistance

Researchers at the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) and the Department of Applied Economics were awarded a $1.4 million grant for Coordinated Evaluation of Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Payment Policies, a research project evaluating child care subsidies in Minnesota. The grant for the four-year project was awarded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Co-principal investigators Ann Bailey, PhD, director of CEED, and Elizabeth E. Davis, PhD, professor of applied economics, will lead the project to measure the effects of child care subsidy policies on families’ access to high quality child care.

Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) provides subsidies to low-income families with funding from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. About 30,000 children and 15,000 families receive child care assistance each month in Minnesota through CCAP. The purpose of the Child Care and Development Fund is to ensure that families who receive child care assistance have “equal access to child care services comparable to those provided to families not eligible” for such assistance. Having equal access means that families should be able to find care that meets several criteria. It should be: 

  • Reasonably affordable
  • Reasonably convenient in terms of hours of operation and location
  • High quality; i.e., supportive of child development

“Quality child care opens doors to employment, education, and training for parents. It also supports children’s healthy growth and academic achievement,” says Bailey. “Its importance to the functioning of our society and our economy, as well as to individual opportunity, can’t be overstated. Yet so many families have a tough time finding quality child care that they can afford. That’s especially true for our communities of color, immigrant communities, and rural communities. CCAP is designed to address that issue.”

Since 2014, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services has made several major updates to CCAP. These updates create natural experimental conditions, representing an opportunity to evaluate CCAP’s impact before and after implementation of the changes. Bailey, Davis, and their research team will look primarily at changes to subsidy payment rates. Other policies of interest include family copays, payment for enrollment versus attendance, speed of payment, and the administrative burden of participation. 

The researchers will partner with Minnesota’s Department of Human Services to compile and analyze data related to families who enroll in CCAP, such as demographic and geographic information. They will model the number of families eligible for CCAP and compare that with participation rates and county-level waitlists. They will also look at providers’ participation in CCAP as well as their participation and rating in Parent Aware, Minnesota’s voluntary child care quality rating and improvement system. In addition, the research team plans to measure CCAP’s effects on parents’ employment and children’s school success. 

The project will also include a large-scale qualitative study. The researchers will survey and interview providers and families who participated in CCAP as well as those who did not. This will allow for a better understanding of how policies influence providers’ decisions to accept subsidies and families’ decisions to obtain subsidies. It will also shed light on families’ decision-making process as they choose providers. 

“We believe that our evaluation methodology will result in actionable findings for Minnesota and for other states as well,” says Davis. “For example, some states use a market price approach to setting subsidy payment rates. Other states use a cost modeling approach. Our study will determine how an increase in payment rates affects families’ access to care regardless of the approach used to set rates. There is so much to learn about the policy levers that states can use to maximize the effectiveness of programs like CCAP.”

In addition to Bailey and Davis, the project team will include Jonathan Borowsky, JD, PhD (Department of Applied Economics); Alyssa S. Meuwissen, PhD (CEED); Mary McEathron, PhD (CEED); Meredith Reese (CEED); Aaron Sojourner, PhD (W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research); and Barbara Vang (CEED).

From CEED: How to support children’s development with storytelling

Maybe it’s the end of your workday and you’re picking up your young child from preschool. As you buckle her into her car seat, she starts telling you about something that happened on the playground. The order of events is hard to follow; plus, your mind is already on what to make for dinner. The most you can do is reply to her with an occasional, absent-minded “uh-huh” as you drive home.

Or maybe you’re a preschool teacher with 11 very active children running in literal circles around the room. Meanwhile, a twelfth preschooler chooses that moment to tell you a complicated story about his dog. Or is it his toy dog? Some of the basic elements just aren’t clear. You smile and nod, then rush to herd the rest of the class over to their carpet squares for morning meeting while the preschooler continues to narrate, apparently to himself.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? When we adults are feeling frazzled, it can be next to impossible to tune in to the stories that young children tell. But did you know that when children share stories about their lives–called personal narratives–they are doing important learning? When we engage with those personal narratives, we’re helping them grow.

Woman with two children on moss-covered bench overlooking a ravine and  a railroad bridge
Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

Children’s stories do more than simply inform us about how they spend their days. Telling stories promotes children’s language development, along with their executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to the set of skills that allow us to control our behavior rather than acting on impulse. Following multi-part directions or working toward a goal are examples of skills that require executive functioning. So is refraining from an impulsive action that could cause harm or get us into trouble, such hitting a friend or yelling in the classroom.

So, why does storytelling affect executive functioning? It turns out that language development and executive functioning are related. Chris Wing, PhD ’13, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist who has researched that connection. She has found that as we help children work on their communication skills, their executive functioning also improves. There is also evidence that learning to use the vocabulary of emotions and states of mind correlates with the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation–recognizing our emotions and keeping them in check when we need to–is an important aspect of executive functioning.

“When I talk with kindergarten teachers,” Wing says, “They often tell me, ‘I don’t care if incoming kindergarteners know how to read or know their numbers. I want children to be able to attend, get along with their classmates, and relate to me as a new adult.’ What they are saying is they want children to have learned executive functioning and self-regulation skills.”

Wing believes that storytelling is a great way for young children to work on those skills. That’s why The Family Partnership commissioned Wing to create a preschool curriculum that includes storytelling. The Family Partnership is a Minnesota nonprofit that provides early childhood education along with mental health and other services. Want to make storytelling part of your everyday routine and help children get the most benefit from it? Here are pointers based on the curriculum that Wing developed:

  • Model storytelling for them by telling a simple story about your day: “Guess what happened to me in line at the grocery store! It was really funny.”
  • Tell a story with a child or children as a shared event. Start with a question: “Remember when we set up the bird feeder outside our classroom window? Who wants to share what happened next?” Then take turns adding details.
  • Meet the child where they are. We often ask children lots of questions about events or aspects of their day that we adults are curious about. If these are not the topics that most interest them, though, children likely won’t be as eager to tell about them. Try letting children direct the conversation and share what’s most meaningful to them.
  • It takes practice to provide the “who, what, where” context that a listener needs. If the child’s story is hard to follow or missing important details, ask questions to fill in the blanks: “Great story! Tell me, what happened first?” Ask about when and where the story occurred, who was there, and what the sequence of events was.
  • The most important question in Wing’s storytelling curriculum is: “How did you feel?” Try to help children describe how they felt physically and emotionally at the time of the story. Prompt them with words like excited, silly, frustrated, tired, surprised, and hungry.
  • It’s okay to have big feelings! Storytelling can be a way to work through our thoughts and feelings about negative events. Naming our feelings is an important part of self-regulation, and self-regulation is a major factor in resilience.
  • Have fun with it! Be as silly or as dramatic as you want. Maybe you want to act out what happened. Maybe you want to tell the story in silly voices. Research shows that positive engagement facilitates learning.

Storytelling doesn’t need to happen at a particular time of day. You don’t need any special materials to do it. And there’s no cleanup required! Storytelling is a simple activity that goes straight to the heart of some of the most important things children need to learn, like language and self-regulation. The next time a preschooler in your life starts telling you the saga of finding a feather on the playground or getting into an argument with a friend, see if you can give them your full attention. (If you’re that preschool teacher with a wild roomful of four-year-olds, it’s okay to ask your little storyteller to hold that thought and connect with him later!) Experiment with some of Wing’s strategies. You might just get inspired to share a personal narrative of your own. What stories do you have to tell?

From CEED: NEW! Part two in our Tip Sheet series on Authentic Assessment

Authentic Assessment is recommended practice for early childhood educators. It lets them see the big picture of a child’s development. The Authentic Assessment Cycle helps educators get a sense of the skills that the child has acquired and what they have learned. It also helps educators adjust their lesson plans to support children’s progress. (Learn more about how the Authentic Assessment Cycle works in our first Tip Sheet in the series.)

Educators also need to know whether a child is gaining skills and knowledge at a rate that’s typical for their age. To know that, they need to compare the child’s development with a set of guidelines. Our second Tip Sheet in our Authentic Assessment series is called Introducting It: Using the Early Learning Guidelines to Track Development for Assessment. It talks about two different sets of guidelines that educators can refer to: developmental milestones and Early Childhood Indicators of Progress (ECIPs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer information on developmental milestones. The ECIPs, meanwhile, are from the Minnesota Department of Education. They describe what children should know and be able to do by the time they enter kindergarten.

Make sure to check out all of our Tip Sheets! Do you have feedback for us, or an idea for a topic you’d like to see explored in a Tip Sheet? Email us!

From CEED: NEW! Tip Sheet on Authentic Assessment

Our new evidence-based Tip Sheets explore topics of relevance to early childhood professionals. Our latest Tip Sheet, Introducing It: The Authentic Assessment Cycle and Its Role in Early Childhood Education, is the first of a planned series exploring aspects of Authentic Assessment.

Authentic Assessment is recommended practice because it allows educators to gain a holistic picture of a child’s development. The data compiled through Authentic Assessment is used to adjust instruction and even to make changes to the child’s environment. Download Introducing It: The Authentic Assessment Cycle and Its Role in Early Childhood Education below, and learn about:

  • Characteristics of Authentic Assessment
  • Steps in the Authentic Assessment cycle
  • The role of implicit bias in Authentic Assessment
  • And more!

Make sure to check out our other Tip Sheets! Have feedback to share or an idea for a topic you’d like to see covered in a Tip Sheet? Email us!

From CEED: A passion for sharing knowledge: a Q & A with Program/Project Specialist Barbara Vang

In our latest staff Q & A, Project Specialist Barbara Vang discusses her passion for supporting others as they develop skills, abilities, and knowledge. She also shares her thoughts on the way a shared desire to learn can transcend language barriers and lead to magical classroom connections.

Barbara Vang in traditional Hmong dress at a table covered with flowers, food and drinks in a sunny field of wildflowers

What was the career path that led you to your current role at CEED?

I graduated from UMN in 2010 with a bachelor of science degree in sales and marketing as well as human resource development. I had a high interest in training and development. After graduating, I spent five years in Seoul, South Korea, teaching English as a foreign language in suburban public elementary schools.

What I missed while in Korea was my family and community. Looking back, when I left Minnesota, my grandpa said, “Don’t grow flowers outside your home.” My grandparents are Hmong; there’s no country that they can say they come from. So, where do I plant my roots? I knew I wanted to start my own family and what my grandfather said resonated. I realized I wanted to plant my flowers here in Minnesota.

To make my transition back into the American workforce, I discovered Americorps and joined the Community Technology Empowerment Project as a digital literacy advocate through the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network. I taught 20 classes a week in computer literacy and English as a second language (ESL) to adult refugee participants through the Hmong-American Partnership, which is centrally located for the Somali, Karen, and Hmong communities. The oldest people I worked with were in their 70s or 80s, and the youngest were probably 18. My grandparents don’t speak English or use computers, so it was easy to relate to the people in my classes. I was also reminded of teaching Korean students, because everyone was learning English. The Karen and Hmong had a shared understanding of Thai because of time spent in refugee camps, but even with language barriers, students connected because they were all seeking the same skills in English and computer literacy.

I noticed that once a light bulb turns on for one student, it’s a ripple effect: everyone else’s light bulbs go on. Those were my favorite moments of teaching. That’s why I have a passion for sharing knowledge.

After my time with Americorps, to maintain my service to the community and Minnesota, I worked in the training spaces of a couple of agencies within the State of Minnesota. In my last position, I was responsible for coordinating the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s leadership development program. I also facilitated and consulted for their workforce development units.

What does your role at CEED entail?

I provide technical and other project support in all aspects of the department’s work. I’m on the path to becoming a learning management system (LMS) administrator. Canvas is the LMS that we use, so my job will include building out Canvas sites for our online courses, self-study modules, and other training we create and offer. My job supports almost every project we have at CEED, so I am able to use different skills and abilities for each of the different projects.

What is new for you in your work at CEED?

Not being an instructor is new for me. This is another pivot moment in my career. Right now, I’m saving my teaching for my kids. Teaching definitely prepared me for motherhood; it gave me patience. Like being a parent, being a facilitator is exhausting. You hear stories, go home with them, and say to yourself, “How can I help my student find a path through this transition in their life?” My kindergarten-age daughter is constantly asking questions and learning every day. So is our little puppy! And a few months ago, our son joined our family too. So all my teacher energy is going into my family.

Additionally, this role offers me the opportunity to work on online courses at a higher tier than what I’ve done previously. I’ve used various learning management programs at different agencies and I’ve played with Google classrooms on my own as a volunteer ESL teacher, but my background is more in uploading materials and managing registration and tuition. I’m excited to get involved in designing e-learning.

What are you most looking forward to in your role?

One thing that I’m looking forward to is working with new software. Another is managing the student experience. During the pandemic, I did Zoom producing for online instruction. I enjoyed being on the sidelines and watching how classrooms operated and interactions flowed. I also enjoyed being able to step in and offer technical help. So I’m looking forward to being an advocate for students when they need help to answer questions from “How do I reset my password?” to “Do I need this course?”

I love being online. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be—it’s where my brain is. I’m always trying to push for efficiency and convenience and whatever will make life easier. When the pandemic hit, it was simple to match all my interests up together—putting together my passion for human development with that interest in ease of access.

What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of work?

I enjoy cross stitching Hmong tapestry (paj ntaub) and building Lego sets. I started with the intention of building Legos together with my daughter, but it ended up being “mommy time”—and when I’m done building, she can take my sets apart and play with them! I also love traveling with my husband and our family. Our favorite family destination is Walt Disney World. We hope to visit the world’s six Disneyland parks in the future.