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Kindergartners Benefit From Tools of the Mind, Study Finds

Apparently, Tools of the Mind—the early-childhood curriculum intended to promote self-regulation and attention skills—is also teaching education watchers to be patient.

While the first wave of evaluations of the program, on preschoolers, found lackluster results, a new randomized, controlled evaluation published this afternoon in the journal PLOS-One suggests it provided a significant boost for kindergartners in a slew of areas, including higher reasoning, attention control, and reading, vocabulary, and mathematics performance. Moreover, the effects were strongest among students in high-poverty schools, who also showed lower physical signs of stress. 

"One of the things I hope people take away is it's not an 'either/or': You can have really good, complex vocabulary, and really rigorous math in a play-based format," said Clancy Blair, a developmental psychologist and principal investigator in New York University's Neuroscience and Education Lab, who led the evaluation.

Blair and colleague C. Cybele Raver randomly assigned 29 schools in Massachusetts, representing 79 kindergarten classrooms and 759 children, to either implement the Tools curriculum or the usual district curriculum. They tracked two years of children from kindergarten into 1st grade, conducting multiple sets of both academic tests and assessments of students' working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control.

"What we're seeing is, the kids in the Tools of the Mind classrooms are more similar to the kids in the well-off schools [in executive functions] than to their peers in higher-poverty schools in the control group," Blair said. 

That led to more growth in early literacy, as measured on the Woodcock Johnson vocabulary, letter-word recognition, and applied problems, as the chart below shows:

Tools.JPG

Implementation Differences

The Tools curriculum gained attention a few years ago for weaving math, reading, writing, and critical thinking instruction into make-believe play, in which students plan and act out roles and scenes. The kindergarten version structures this play around fairytale literature and chapter books aligned with common standards, as opposed to the everyday experiences used in the preschool version, but otherwise the program seems similar at both grades. 

"The ability to shift and focus attention is a foundation for executive function," he said. "That's exactly what those classrooms seem like: Those kids are really focused on activities."

Why, then, did kindergartners see so much more benefit than preschoolers? Three separate studies, of preschoolers in five states including Massachusetts, also showed significant differences in how the Tools classrooms operated and how students in them played in comparison to control classrooms, but that didn't translate into better academic performance for the younger students.

Blair thinks the Tools trainers and teachers were still getting their feet under them during the earlier evaluations, with teachers still explaining more than letting the children talk their way through their own play sessions. 

The researchers plan to continue to follow students over time, to determie whether the effects strengthen students' later academic achievement or fade out over time. Blair said he was particularly interested in whether former Tools students develop better writing skills, as the program calls for students to draw and write "play plans" for their pretend play sessions, and then reflect on those plans after playing.

"I'm really optimistic about the idea that kids will carry forward these skills and go to classrooms in the same schools where they went to kindergarten," Blair said, noting that he has already heard anecdotally from the 1st-grade teachers of former Tools of the Mind students that "these are very teachable kids."

 Chart Source: Clancy Blair

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