Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tools of the Mind in Wall Street Journal 4/8/09

Another article, this from the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger, on "Tools of the Mind" - the new curriculum we are using in our preK program this year and will start in our Kindergarten classes during school year 2009-2010. -Dr. Petrosino

When teacher Deena Randle took over a Portland, Ore., preschool class three years ago, behavior problems were so bad that "kids were bouncing off the walls, pushing and shoving, not listening -- it was wild," she says.

You'd never know it now. When Ms. Randle calls out, "Eyes up here! I need your attention," one recent day, all 16 pairs of eyes in her class of 3- to 5-year-olds turn toward her. Beyond Ms. Randle's considerable teaching skill, she and school officials credit a fast-growing curriculum that builds deliberate training in self-control right into the daily routine.

Behavior problems among small children are a growing issue. The possible causes are many: pressure on teachers to stress math and reading over emotional skills; family instability; a decline in playtime; heavy use of child care; or a rise in learning problems such as attention-deficit disorder. Based on preliminary findings from a federal child-care study, discussed last week at a conference for the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) in Denver, the slight increase in behavior problems found in children who spent lots of early time in child care persists all the way to age 15, in the form of more impulsivity and risk-taking.

But now, some novel teaching programs are showing great promise in solving the behavior problems, and perhaps in reducing ADD diagnoses. By giving children more time for dramatic or pretend play, and by building into the school day more lessons in self control, researchers are seeing both big reductions in bad behavior, and gains in cognitive skills. The findings have value for well-behaved children too; research shows behavior problems among a few children tend to drag down other kids' conduct.

Daily playtimes are a centerpiece of the curriculum used in Ms. Randle's Head Start classroom, "Tools of the Mind" -- which incorporates training in "executive function," or the mental ability to control impulses and focus on new information, into children's routine. Before playtime each day, they plan a role for themselves during an imaginary trip to the beauty shop, barber shop or library, represented by play structures along the walls. Then, they act out the roles for 45 minutes, with children helping each other stick to their roles. A boy who has chosen to be the baby, for example, would be prevented from going off track and starting to order everyone around, because he would spoil the playtime for everyone.

"It's the kind of play you and I engaged in during the summer, when you'd play the same thing for a month, like 'Knights and Castles,' " says Deborah Leong, co-creator of the program with Elena Bodrova. Today, "what parent do you know who opens the door in the summer and lets children rove around the neighborhood?"

Children learn restraint by working in pairs on math or letters. Each child holds a card with an ear, lips, hand or check mark on it, as a reminder of his or her role -- to listen, to read, to do the task or to check a partner's work. As one child practices a lesson, the other must control any impulse to interfere. The Tools curriculum is in use in about 400 mainstream and Head Start classrooms in seven states, and 400 more teachers will be trained this year, says Dr. Leong, a psychology professor at Metropolitan State College, Denver.

For full article please see the Wall Street Journal of April 8, 2009 at 

Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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