I was going to give a presentation on Tools of the Mind for a conference of the Northern Virginia Parents of Multiples group on Thursday. I had to cancel because of the chest cold. I’m pretty sure I have bruised ribs from coughing. So I thought I’d share some of the ideas and research from my presentation here.
You’ll recall the marshmallow experiment? I was going to lead with that. What the experiment is designed to measure is the children’s ability to self-regulate. When we speak of self-regulation, we can have in mind different abilities. Let’s consider three examples:
1) At an amusement park, a ride breaks down just as the family reaches the front of the line. Although Emily is disappointed, instead of throwing a tantrum, she is able to refocus on riding another ride.
This form of self-regulation is essentially impulse control, the ability to pause before reacting impulsively and choose a more beneficial response.
2) Despite the new bunny rabbit in the class terrarium, Sofia focuses on the teacher’s presentation and is prepared to answer questions.
In this example, Sofia self-regulates by tuning out distractions or purposefully task-switching. The children in the famous mashmallow experiment videos who hid the marshmallows or hid themselves from the marshmallows were making concrete efforts to focus their attention on something else. I’m assuming Fluffy hid the marshmallows under the table to help her focus on something else as well.
3) Liam finishes his homework before playing video games because he wants to get good grades and go to a good college.
Liam and the marshmallow non-eaters display self-regulation in their ability postpone immediate gratification for a superior reward in the future.
The benefits of self-regulation are broad and intuitive. Children (and adults) with higher abilities to self-regulate are more successful academically and socially. Those with little self-regulation are more likely to experience financial and legal troubles.
One of the juiciest findings is that self-regulation as part of executive function is more highly correlated with academic success than I.Q.. That may be because although native ability is important to academic success, in the long run, the self-discipline to show up at class, do the homework, and study before the test instead of partying becomes more important than the ability to quickly understand concepts or intuit next steps
Socially, those who self-regulate well create more and better connections with others than those who do not. While impulsive wild-cards with the infamous “no filter” make for spicy reality television, rational people do not choose too many of them as friends.
So how do we get our children on the path toward self-regulation?
For parents, the studies indicate that a combination of warmth with organization and predictability fosters self-regulation in children.
1) Warmth in parenting includes meaningful praise, verbal and physical affection, support and encouragement and sensitive response to a child’s needs. Parents who are detached and cold as well as those who are highly controlling or hyper critical not surprisingly raise children who self-regulate poorly.1 Providing intellectual stimulation as well as autonomy to children is also associated with better self-regulation.2
2) Self-regulation in children thrives in environments that are organized and predictable. Households in which rules are clear and consistent produce kids who experience the rewards of keeping the rules and regulate themselves accordingly.3 Ah yes, another win for clear rules and consistent enforcement. This finding dovetails with new research about self-control which indicates that self-control is like a muscle which can be strengthened with work over time. Warning, that self-control muscle has a finite amount of strength on a given day. Just like you can’t run a marathon in the morning and expect to then swim your fastest 100 meters in the afternoon, parents shouldn’t expect a child who has been self-regulating by sitting quietly for hours in church to have infinite self-regulatory power left at the end of the day.
What really made parents like me sit up and take notice a few years ago were findings published in 2007 and 2008 (4) that indicated that a new-fangled preschool program was producing magnificent increases in children’s ability to self-regulate and corresponding increases in academic development across the board. Kindergarteners were acting like second graders, peacefully writing out playtime goals and self-regulating up a storm!
The curriculum is called Tools of the Mind. It turns out it’s not that new-fangled. The program is based on the research and philosophy of a long-dead Russian child psychologist called Vygostky who was a contemporary of Piaget. Tools of the Mind includes 60+ activities that support the development of self-regulation, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. The novel feature of the program, and what people generally have in mind when they talk about it, is something called mature extended dramatic play. It’s your good old fashioned make-believe where children choose roles and enact scenarios for an extended period, say 30-45 minutes per day.
Dramatic play requires self-regulation, memory work, and focus because children have to remember their roles and confine their actions appropriately. The powerful effects of role-play on self-regulation were famously demonstrated in a study in which children were asked to hold perfectly still for as long as they were able. Later they were asked to pretend they were a soldier standing guard who had to stand perfectly still. The role-play version of the exercise yeilded results on average 11 times longer than the basic request.
The full Tool of the Mind dramatic play involves learning about a scenario for about a week through story time. The next week, the children write down their goals, “Be a server”, “Play restaurant where I’m the customer” either in words, sounds, pictures, or scribbles that represent to them that goal, then play out the scene over and over for an extended period.
If you would like to go beyond restaurant, here are some ideas of scenarios to practice. As tempting as it is to buy dramatic play props for all of these scenarios, Vygotsky (the Russian theorist who started it all) prefers to have the children use symbolic props like a lego for a orange, a blanket for a tent, etc. because it requires both imagination and short term memory work.
- Airplane – buying tickets, checking baggage, handing in tickets, boarding plane. Flight attendant serving drinks, pilot navigating terbulance and landing.
- Animals — for example, a bear: hibernating, climbing trees, fishing, looking for honey and berries, chasing deer.
- Beauty shop – doing hair, nails, facials, using curlers and brushes. Also barber shop with shaving cream and spoons for razors.
- Camping – setingt up a tent. Making a campfire out of sticks or legos. Lighting the fire, cooking dinner, roasting marshmallows. Telling stories, singing camp songs. Fishing, hunting.
- Car wash – washing, waxing, vacuuming, paying, tipping.
- Child care – diapering, feeding, burping, rocking, reading to, playing with, putting to sleep.
- Dentist – checking teeth, drilling, pulling teeth.
- Doctor or veterinarian — reading magazines in the waiting room, taking vitals and history, diagnosing illness, administering shots, bandaging, giving balloons and sticker.
- Driving/Police – driving cars, turning on sirens, pulling people over, writing tickets.
- Fashion designer, stylist – choosing dresses for models. Accessorizing looks, walking the runway.
- Firemen – lifting weights, driving to fire, climbing, breaking windows with axes, putting out fire with hoses, saving people, jumping onto a tramp.
- Grocery store, with registers and money, weighing food, choosing items, checking out, bagging groceries.
- House cleaning – dusting, vacuuming, ironing, folding, washing dishes, sweeping
- Ice cream store – choose flavors, scoop out combinations, pay. Eating ice cream.
- Mechanic – fixing cars, appliances,
- Movie theater. Buying tickets and popcorn. Some of the kids acting out the movie.
- Olympics—racing, doing gymnastics, judging, standing on platform for awards ceremony
- Pirates – sailing, searching for treasure, fighting off bad guys.
- Post office. Writing letters, stamping them with stickers, posting, delivering, opening and reading
- Restaurant — hostess seating, telling specials, ordering, cooking, serving courses, eating, paying.
- Shoe store – trying on all different kinds, walking around for fit. Paying.
- Story reenactment – any book or fairytale
- Swimming pool – lifeguard patrolling, saving drowning people, slowing down runners, swimming races.
- Trial – judge overseeing, attorneys questioning witnesses, jury deliberating.
- Trick or treating – dressing up, going from house to house to get candy.
- Woodshop – cutting boards with saws, using hammers and nails to build tables and chairs.
Other games used to enhance or exercise self-regulation:
- Stop, Go, Slow, Fast. You make signs for each word, then use any action and children follow the signs displayed in random order.
- Simon Says
- Checkers and other board games that require children to enforce rules on themselves and others (unlike video games which auto-enforce rules)
- Musical chairs
- Musical drawing — Children draw different shapes for each type of music that plays and stop when the music pauses.
Now that I’ve got you totally hooked and taking notes and ready to get out the plastic curling iron and rollers right this instant, let me just mention casually that a review of three very well-constructed, controlled studies of Tools of the Mind conducted over the past 2 years found the program produced results equal to other preschool programs–but no better. Tools of the Mind kids didn’t even score higher on executive function (essentially self-regulation) than other kids. Say what? The one thing the Tools kids were better at than their mainstream preschool and Kindergarten peers? Playing make-believe.
These findings were incredibly disappointing to the childhood education community which saw Tools as potentially the next big thing in early learning. Taken with the earlier trials, the finding about Tools are now “mixed”. Another rigorous study is underway currently, the results of which will perhaps shed more light on the effectiveness of Tools sometime this year.
To me personally as someone who jumped on the bandwagon early and bought the textbook as well as a bunch of play sets (yeah, I know I should have just used boxes), the news wa sa disappointment but also a relief. I’ve definitely put more effort into imaginative play than I ever would have without reading those results from the early trials, but I was never able to do as much as prescribed. This is in part due to having twins in the middle of prime dramatic play time. It’s kind of nice to think that I’m not damning Fluffy to a life of mediocrity if we don’t get around to playing airplane today.
Above all, whether the imaginative play we do with Fluffy is setting her up for galactic academic and social success or not, she really, really enjoys it. Her biggest complaint about preschool is that the kids don’t want to play make-believe games as much as she does.
The most effective tool we’ve found for encouraging Fluffy to self-regulate is our Points System. But that is another post in itself.
1Susan D. Calkins, Cynthia L. Smith, Kathryn L. Gill, and Mary C. Johnson, “Maternal Interactive Slyle across Contexts: Relations to Emotional, Behavioral and Physiological Regulation druing Toddlerhood,” Social Development 7, no 3 (1998): 350-369; Nancy eisenber, Qing Zhou, Tracy L. Spinrad, Carlos Valiente, Richard A Fabes, and Jeffrey Liew, “Relations among Positive Parenting, Children’s Effortful Control and Externalizing Prolems: A Three-Wave Longitudinal Study,” Child Development 76 no. 5 (2005): 1055-1071.
2Annie Bernier, Stephanie M. Carlosn, and Natasha Whipple, “From External Regulation to Self-Regulation: Early Parenting Precursors of Young Children’s Executive Functioning,” Child Development 81, no. 1 (2010): 326-339.
3 Liliana J. Lengua, Elizabeth Honorado, and Nicole R. Bush, “Contextual Risk an d Parenting as Predictors of Efforful Control an d Social Competence in Preschool Children,” Journal of Applied Develpmental Psychology 28, no. 1 (2007): 40-55; and Valerie Schroder and Michelle L. Kelley, “Family Environment and Paraent-Child Relationships as Related toExecutive Functioning in Children,” Early Child Developmental Psychology 46, no. 6 (2010): 1528-1542.
4 Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318, 1387-1388. and Barnett, W., Jung, K., Yarosz, D., Thomas, J., Hornbeck, A., Stechuk, R., & Burns, S.(2008). Educational effects of the Tools of the Mind curriculum: A randomized trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23, 299–313.