Can Self-Control Be Taught Ⅲ- Woodmam

So why does this curriculum work so well? There are many interrelated factors, but let’s start with the most distinctive element of Tools—the written play plans and the lengthy play period that ensues.

In every preschool in the country, kids have played firehouse. But usually, after ten minutes, the scenario breaks down. Holding a pretend fire hose on a pretend fire is a singular activity, and it grows old; needing stimulation, children are distracted by what other kids are doing and peel off into new games. Play has a joyful randomness, but it’s not sustained. In Tools classrooms, by staging different areas of the room as the variety of settings, and by asking kids to commit to their role for the hour, the play is far more complicated and interactive. The children in the house call 911; the operator rings a bell; the firefighters leap from their bunks; the trucks arrive to rescue the family. This is considered mature, multidimensional, sustained play.

This notion of being able to sustain one’s own interest is considered a core building block in Tools. Parents usually think of urging their child to pay attention, to be obedient to a teacher. They recognize that a child can’t learn unless she has the ability to avoid distractions. Tools emphasizes the flip-side—kids won’t be distracted because they’re so consumed in the activities they’ve chosen. By acting the roles they’ve adopted in their play plans, the kids are thoroughly in the moment.

In one famous Russian study from the 1950s, children were told to stand still as long as they could—they lasted two minutes. Then a second group of children were told to pretend they were soldiers on guard who had to stand still at their posts—they lasted eleven minutes.

“The advantage of little kids,” explained Bodrova, “is they don’t yet know that they aren’t good at something. When you ask a child to copy something on the board the teacher has written, he might think, ‘I can’t write as good as the teacher,’ so then he doesn’t want to do it. But hand a notepad to the child who is pretending to be a waiter in a pizza parlor. Johnny ordered cheese pizza, you ordered pepperoni. They don’t know if they can write it or not—they just know that they have to do something to remember the pizza orders. They end up doing more writing than if you asked them to write a story.”

It’s well recognized that kids today get to play less. As pressure for academic achievement has mounted, schools around the country have cut back on recess to devote more time to the classroom. This, in turn, created a backlash; experts and social commentators opined that playtime was too valuable to cut. Their arguments were straightforward: the brain needs a break, kids need to blow off energy, cutting recess increases obesity, and it’s during recess that children learn social skills. Tools suggests a different benefit entirely—that during playtime, children learn basic developmental building blocks necessary for later academic success, and in fact they develop these building blocks better while playing than while in a traditional class.

Take, for example, symbolic thought. Almost everything a classroom demands a child learn requires grasping the connection between reality and symbolic, abstract representation: letters of the alphabet are symbols for sounds and speech; the map on the wall is a symbol of the world; the calendar is a symbol to measure the passage of time. Words on paper—such as the word “TREE”—look to the eye nothing at all like an actual tree.

Young children learn abstract thinking through play, where a desk and some chairs become a fire engine. More importantly, when play has interacting components, as in Tools, the child’s brain learns how one symbol combines with multiple other symbols, akin to high-order abstract thinking. A child masters the intellectual process of holding multiple thoughts in his head and stacking them together.

Consider high-order thinking like self-reflection, an internal dialogue within one’s own mind, where opposing alternatives are weighed and carefully considered. This thought-conversation is the opposite of impulsive reaction, where actions are made without forethought. All adults can think through ideas in their heads, to differing abilities. But do kids have the same internal voice of contemplation and discussion? If so, when do they develop it? Tools is designed to encourage the early development of this Socratic consciousness, so that kids don’t just react impulsively in class, and they can willfully avoid distraction.

Tools does this by encouraging that voice in the head, private speech, by first teaching kids to do it out loud—they talk themselves through their activities. When the kids are learning the capital C, they all say in unison, “Start at the top and go around” as they start to print. No one ever stops the kids from saying it out loud, but after a few minutes, the Greek chorus ends. In its place is a low murmur. A couple minutes later, a few kids are still saying it out loud—but most of the children are saying it in their heads. A few kids don’t even realize it, but they’ve kept silently mouthing the instructions to themselves.

Kids who are doing well in school know it; when they write down their answer, they know whether or not their answer is correct. They have a subtle sense, a recognition of whether they’ve gotten it right. Children who are struggling are genuinely unsure; they might get the right answer, but lack such awareness. So to develop this awareness, when a Tools teacher writes a letter on the board, she writes four versions of it and asks the kids to decide which is the best D.

Leong explained, “This is designed to trigger self-analysis of what a good D looks like and what would they like their own D’s to look like. They think about their work, when they think about hers.” Tools children are also frequently responsible for checking each other’s work. In one class Ashley observed, pairs of kids were practicing their penmanship, after which they were to take turns circling which of their partner’s letters were best. After one child raced through his checker duties too quickly, the other boy complained. This five-year-old actually wanted his supervisor to be more critical of his work.

Many of the exercises are chosen because they teach children to attend background cues and control their impulses. The simple game of Simon Says, for instance, entices a child to copy the leader, yet requires the kid to pay close attention and exercise intermittent restraint. Similarly, when the teacher plays the clean-up song, the children have to notice where they are in the music in order to make sure they’ll be finished before the song ends. In buddy reading, the natural impulse is for every kid to want to read first; the child who holds the ears and listens patiently is learning to quell this impulse and wait.

The upshot of Tools is kids who are not merely behaved, but self-organized and self-directed. After just three months of a pilot project, Tools teachers in New Mexico went from averaging forty reported classroom incidents a month to zero. And Tools kids don’t distract easily. During one lunch period in a New Jersey school cafeteria, the Tools kindergartners watched the entire rest of the student body become embroiled in a food fight. Not one Tools kid picked up as much as a scrap of food to throw, and when they returned to class, they told their teacher that they couldn’t believe how out of control the older children were.

While Tools’ techniques might sound fuzzy and theoretical, the program has strong support in neuroscience. In other chapters of this book, we’ve often touched upon the development of a child’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs executive function—planning, predicting, controlling impulses, persisting through trouble, and orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal. Though these are very adult attributes, executive function begins in preschool, and preschoolers’ EF capability can be measured with simple computerized tests.

During the easiest stage of these tests, a child sees a red heart appear, either on the left or right side of the screen, and then pushes the corresponding button—left or right. Even three-year-olds will do this perfectly. Then the child sees a red flower and is instructed to press the button on the opposite side of the flower. The new task requires her brain to toss out the old rule and adopt a new rule—this is called “attention switching.” It also requires the child to inhibit the natural urge to respond on the same side as the stimulus. For three-year-olds, this switch in rules is very hard; for four-year-olds, it’s a challenge but somewhat doable. Now the real test begins. The computer begins randomly showing either a red heart or a red flower, and the child needs to hold in her working memory both rules: heart = press same side, flower = press opposite side. The hearts and flowers are shown for only 2.5 seconds, so the kid has to think fast, without getting switched up. It requires attentional focus and constant reorienting of the mindset. For children’s brains, this is very difficult. Even thirteen-year-olds will push the wrong button 20% of the time.

The foremost expert on executive function in young children is Dr. Adele Diamond at the University of British Columbia. A few years ago, she was approached at a conference by Bodrova, who told her about the experiment in the Passaic preschool. Diamond wondered if the success of Tools might be because it was exercising children’s executive function skills. So Diamond went to Passaic to visit.

Diamond recalled, “In the regular classes, the children were bouncing off the walls. In the Tools classrooms, it was like a different planet. I’ve never seen anything like it.” She decided to return the next year and test the children’s executive functioning. “I could see the difference with my own eyes, but I wanted hard data,” she said.

To do this, Diamond ran the Passaic children through a number of the executive function computer tasks. She found a huge gap between the regular kids and the Tools kids on executive function. On one task, the regular kids tested not much above chance, but the Tools kids scored at 84%. On a very difficult task, only one-quarter of the regular kids could complete the test, while over half the Tools kids completed it.

“The more the test demanded high executive function,” Diamond noted, “the bigger the gap between the kids.”
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