Tools of the mind

Tools of the mind

A Canadian researcher is studying a novel American preschool curriculum to see how it might help Canadian children get ahead
September 29, 2010
A young girl performs a task that tests her

A young girl performs a task that tests her ability to keep rules in mind among other things. Most five year-old Tools of the Mind students could successfully complete the task, while most of their peers who had not been through the program could not.
Martin Dee, UBC Public Affairs Photographer, the University of British Columbia

The first time neuroscientist Adele Diamond walked into a New Jersey classroom where teachers were using the Tools of the Mind curriculum, she was struck by the quiet self-control of the children. Most regular preschool and kindergarten classrooms are chaotic, noisy places, but in the Tools of the Mind classroom, children worked quietly together in groups of twos and threes, with little direction from the teacher, fuss or confusion.

“Anybody can walk into the two classrooms and see the difference,” says Diamond, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. “It’s clear.”

The difference is the curriculum, says Diamond. Developed by Russian psychologist Elena Bodrova and American psychologist Deborah Leong and based on the theories of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his students, Tools of the Mind helps children improve their executive functioning capacity. As a result, children can better control their impulses, their working memory and their flexibility to adapt to new challenges or situations.

Increasingly, research suggests that executive functions are critical to a child’s success — in school and in life. Exercising self-control keeps children from taking dangerous risks, embarrassing themselves or hurting other people’s feelings. And it allows them to pay attention and stay on task. Working memory is required to retrieve information and relate it to the present, and cognitive flexibility enables children to solve problems and think outside the box.

Diamond predicts that improving executive function skills in children should reduce the need for expensive special-education programs, cut the number of diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder, reduce school dropout rates and slash the incidence of crime and drug addiction.  

“Teachers are complaining that students are coming to school with worse executive functioning than ever before,” says Diamond. “It’s a huge issue in teacher burnout and in the number of kids ending up on ADHD medications.”

Diamond, who is also a developmental psychologist, specializes in both ADHD and executive function. When she encountered Tools of the Mind, she knew she had found a way to help children learn these vital skills. In a two-year study comparing 21 classes using the Tools curriculum with 21 classes that did not, Diamond found the Tools children outperformed the non-Tools children on objective measures of executive function. Published in Science in 2007, her study has triggered an onslaught of interest from educators and parents alike.
The Tools curriculum emphasizes dramatic role-playing, where children plan and act out make-believe scenarios. For example, a child might articulate his or her next steps aloud, saying: “I’m going to be the mommy, and you’re the sick baby, and then you’ll cry, and I’ll take you to the doctor.” In some activities, the children take turns reading to a buddy. This kind of co-operative work and play teaches social-emotional and cognitive self-regulation skills while developing the child’s academic skills. 

The Dimensional Change Card Sort task tests a

The Dimensional Change Card Sort task tests a child's ability to switch from sorting by shape to sorting by colour and vice versa. Although three-year-olds can say how to sort by the second criterion, they keep sorting by the first.
Martin Dee, UBC Public Affairs Photographer, the University of British Columbia

“Vygotsky believed young children internalize things by turning the experience into private speech — self-talk,” says Leong, a professor emeritus and director of the Center for Improving Early Learning at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. “So you teach children all kinds of self-talk to help them remember things like letters and numbers, as well as to help them control their emotions and handle their frustration.”

Thanks to Diamond’s study, there are now about 20,000 children in Tools classrooms in nine American states. “We were very small before Adele started,” says Leong. “After she did the study and people started to find out about it, we’ve had incredible interest.”

Children with weak executive functioning are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD, says Diamond. Even if they have true ADHD, she believes that strengthening these skills can minimize the effects of the disorder, build self-confidence and improve mental health.

Diamond is now trying to bring the curriculum to Canada. Despite many studies that have demonstrated the long-term value of investing in early childhood education, not all provinces fund it, and there is no general agreement on what kind of curriculum delivers the best long-term results.

“The Tools curriculum is not being used anywhere in Canada,” says Diamond, “although there is intense interest.” Teachers and parents in a number of cities in British Columbia, along with many educators in Alberta, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec, would like to implement the curriculum. The problem, she says, is that the provinces, which are responsible for education, have so far not agreed to commit the money to invest in training teachers to use and deliver Tools.

Diamond believes that the benefits of stronger executive functioning will be long-lasting. “Governments need to decide that early childhood education is enough of a priority that they’re willing to put money into doing it,” she says. “That’s all it takes.”