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Nurture Shock: Chapter 8

{This post is the eighth in a series. Click here to read more.}

Can Self-Control Be Taught?

Finally, some good news!

In this chapter, Bronson and Merryman introduce the reader to a program that actually works! It’s called Tools of the Mind, and it has been proven successful by real-live researchers! It’s not just an idea that looks good on paper or seems like it will be effective – there is data that shows children in the program do significantly better than children who are not in the program. So why haven’t I heard of this program until now?

The premise behind the curriculum is not new: children learn best through play. Good Early Childhood teachers have been teaching this way for years. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that two professors at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Drs. Elena Bodova and Deborah Leong, used play in conjunction with instruction in self-regulation that educators took note.

Children in Tools of the Mind pre-K and kindergarten classes do many of the same things that children in regular classes do: they learn about math during calendar time, develop proficiency in reading and writing, eat snacks, play at recess, and go to special classes like art and music. However, during a typical free play or center time in a regular classroom, the children might rotate through several centers, including taking a turn with the teacher for small group instruction.  The centers might include Computer, Listening, Art, Writing, and Science. The teacher may assign each child to a center or let the children choose where they want to go. If there is a second teacher or a teacher’s assistant, that person might help facilitate learning or deal with discipline problems while the other teacher instructs a group of children working on the same academic level in reading, writing, or math.

In a Tools classroom, the teacher sets up several stations that relate to something the children have studied, and the students spend an hour engaged in imaginative play related to the topic. In the book, Bronson and Merryman illustrate this with a familiar scenario: playing fire station.  Having learned about firefighting the previous week, the children have the opportunity to pretend to be firefighters, 911 operators, pump drivers, and the people being saved. The classroom is decorated accordingly, with role-playing activities going on in each corner. While most Early Childhood classrooms include some form of pretend play in the curriculum, the Tools classroom is unique in two ways: before role-playing, the children draw/write their play plans, and the students engage in their chosen activities for 45 minutes.

In many Early Childhood classrooms, children move from center to center, changing activities every 15 to 20 minutes. In a Tools classroom, if the children become distracted or start to fuss, the teacher asks, “Is that in your play plan?” and redirects them back to the activity. This method inspires complex play scenarios in which children must use their imaginations to continue the action. It also helps children develop self-regulation techniques that are essential to academic success. During the play hour, the teacher does not do any direct teaching; she facilitates the development of executive function in her students.

Executive function – planning, predicting, controlling impulses, persisting through difficulty, and directing thoughts to fulfill a goal – is a crucial part of children’s cognitive development. In fact, researchers have found that a high level of executive function is more strongly correlated with giftedness and academic success than is a high IQ. This makes sense to me. If a highly intelligent child cannot regulate his thoughts or behaviors, he might have difficulty channeling his natural intelligence into positive results.

Tools kids learn self-regulation through other activities: Simon Says, Buddy Reading, and what I call Buddy Checking. They even develop executive function during clean-up time! In Simon Says, the children have to observe the leader and copy his/her movements. They also have to control the impulse to copy the movements when Simon doesn’t say to do them. In Buddy Reading, one child holds a piece of paper with an ear, the other a piece of paper with lips. The child with the lips gets to read out loud to the child with the ear, and the child with the ear has to wait for her turn patiently. The listener asks questions about the story, and then she switches roles with the reader.

Buddy Checking helps children to monitor how they are doing on specific assignments. If the children are working on handwriting, they might write the letter “D” several times on a piece of paper, switch papers with a buddy, and then circle which “D” is the best on their buddy’s paper. I’ve used this technique for peer editing stories, with good results.

One of my favorite examples, the clean-up song, is something I’ve tried in my classroom with minimal success. The idea is to play a certain song every time the children clean up from an activity (say, the aforementioned play hour), with the goal of having the room cleaned by the time the song is over. The children have to know where they are in the song and how much time they have left for cleaning, so they adjust their pace and behavior accordingly. I think my lack of success is because I spend too little time developing the necessary skills.

One of the challenges for me in teaching a class of highly intelligent and capable children is that parents and administrators expect an accelerated curriculum, so I feel pressured to teach knowledge and skills at the beginning of school instead of balancing academic learning with developing executive function. Every year I promise myself that I will stick to my plan to use the first six weeks of school to create the collaborative classroom culture that will sustain my classroom during the year, and every year I fail to do so!

The beauty of Nurture Shock is that I now have a wealth of research to back up many of the methods I use with my students and encourage my parents to implement at home (like making sure their children get a full night’s sleep!) I am hopeful that my fellow faculty members are reading and soaking up the information in this book and that they are as inspired by this book as I am. I am definitely looking forward to our discussions about the book, and I promise to keep my mouth shut and my ears open (which is not one of my better habits!)

Out of all the chapters in Nurture Shock, I urge you to read chapter eight if you have young children and/or teach young children. Click on the Tools website and find out about this incredibly successful curriculum. This chapter (and the first chapter about why we should praise children for working hard instead of being smart) will rock your world and change the way you parent or teach! I promise!

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