How to get kids to behave, focus, excel at school, and enjoy it all; How to fix the world #5

Photo by WellspringCS

It is a Utopian idea. Change how kids play, and they mature. They fight less. They can concentrate for an hour straight without so much of the attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms. They do better at school. They see older kids misbehave, and don’t understand why they act that way. They play well with their friends. All this, and they enjoy it all.

It has been thought that gifted students are students with high intelligence quotient (IQ). But high executive function (EF) can be more important, and what is more, it is teachable. A Pennsylvania State University study found that a child with high EF and high IQ were three times more likely to do well in math class than children with high IQ alone. So there is good reason to boost a child’s EF.

But what is EF? Executive function is self control. It is the skill of controlling yourself. It is also called cognitive control.

I first heard about this concept from the wonderful book NurtureShock. They reported on the amazing success of a learning program called Tools of the Mind. They are based on the teachings of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian research psychologist from the early part of the 20th century.

NurtureShock chapter 8 on “Can Self-Control be Taught?”:

Most elements of the school day are negligibly different from a traditional class. There’s recess and lunch and snack time and nap time. But a typical Tools preschool classroom looks different—as much because of what it is missing as what is there. The wall calendar is not a month-by-month grid, but a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. Gone is the traditional alphabet display; instead, children use a sound map, which has a monkey next to Mm and a sun next to Ss. These are ordered not from A to Z but rather in clusters, with consonants on one map and vowels on another. C, K, and Q are in one cluster, because those are similar sounds, all made with the tongue mid-mouth. Sounds made with the teeth or the lips are in other clusters.

When class begins, the teacher tells the students they will be playing fire station. The previous week, they learned all about firemen, so now, the classroom has been decorated in four different areas—in one corner is a fire station, in another a house that needs saving. The children choose what role they want to take on in the pretend scenario—pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, or family that needs to be rescued. Before the children begin to play, they each tell the teacher their choice of role.

With the teacher’s help, the children make individual “play plans.” They all draw a picture of themselves in their chosen role, then they attempt to write it out as a sentence on a blank sheet of paper to the best of their abilities. Even three-year-olds write daily. For some, the play plan is little more than lines representing each word in the sentence. Still others use their sound map to figure out the words’ initial consonants. The eldest have memorized how to write “I am going to” and then they use the sound map to figure out the rest.

Then they go play, sticking to the role designated in their plan. The resulting play continues for a full 45 minutes, with the children staying in character, self-motivated. If they get distracted or start to fuss, the teacher asks, “Is that in your play plan?” On different days of the week, children choose other roles in the scenario. During this crucial play hour, the teacher facilitates their play but does not directly teach them anything at all.

At the end, the teacher puts a CD on to play the “clean-up song.” As soon as the music begins, the kids stop playing and start cleaning up— without another word from their teacher. Later, they will do what’s called buddy reading. The children are paired up and sit facing each other; one is given a large paper drawing of lips, while the other holds a drawing of ears. The one with the lips flips through a book, telling the story he sees in the pictures. The other listens and, at the end, asks a question about the story. Then they switch roles.

They also commonly play games, like Simon Says, that require restraint. One variation is called graphic practice; the teacher puts on music, and the children draw spirals and shapes. Intermittently, the teacher pauses the music, and the children learn to stop their pens whenever the music stops.

The kindergarten program expands on the preschool structure, incorporating academics into a make-believe premise that’s based on whatever book they’re reading in class. Overall, the Tools classrooms seem a little different, but not strange in any way. To watch it in action, you would not guess its results would be so superior.


they put it to a true test in 1997, in cooperation with Denver Public Schools. Ten kindergarten teachers were randomly assigned, to teach either Tools or the regular district curriculum. In these classrooms one-third to one-half of the children were poor Hispanic students who began the year classified as having limited English Language proficiency: they were starting kindergarten effectively a gradelevel behind.

The following spring, all the children took national standardized tests. The results were jaw-dropping. The children from the Tools classes were now almost a full grade-level ahead of the national standard. In the district, only half the kindergartners score as proficient at their grade-level. Of the Tools children, 97% scored as proficient.

In another test of the Tools of the Mind method:

But it was the kids’ behavior ratings that really sold the school’s principal on the program. From the teachers in the regular classrooms, the principal got reports of extremely disruptive behavior almost every day— preschool students kicking a teacher, biting another student, cursing, or throwing a chair. But those kinds of reports never came from the Tools classes.

The controlled experiment was supposed to last two years, but at the end of the first year the principal insisted all the classrooms switch to Tools. She decided it was unethical to deprive half the school of a curriculum that was obviously superior.

And again:

During that first year of kindergarten, Millaway had the sense it was working. But the true test would come in the standardized achievement exams all New Jersey kindergartners would take in April. A month later, Millaway got the first set of results over the fax machine. “It was unbelievable,” she said. “When I saw the numbers, I laughed out loud. It was ridiculous, beyond our imaginings.”

The average reading scores for the school district translated into the 65th percentile on the national spectrum. The Tools kindergartners (on average) had jumped more than 20 ticks higher, to the 86th percentile. The kids who tested as gifted almost all came from the Tools classes.

So where do you learn more about Tools of the Mind, and is it available near you? Unfortunately only 5 states have school districts currently implementing Tools of the Mind. It is in Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, New Jersey, and Connecticut. So if you don’t live in those districts, you need to adopt some of the techniques yourself.

First, I recommend you buy NurtureShock. There is lots in there other than Tools of the Mind. Second, Tools of the Mind is a curriculum being taught at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. They teach teachers the program, and aren’t there for parents. However, there are some good details at their website:

Next for more information, there is a book of the title Tools of the Mind. I haven’t read it, but a review describes it as

It’s not an easy read and will not give you “10 Easy Ways to Implement Vygotsky Into Your Classroom”; you’ll need to dig a little, but it will be worth your while!

In a future blog post, I am going to list some of the teaching techniques I found listed in my research into Tools of the Mind.

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