Early Childhood

Preschool Program Focused on Executive-Function Skills Provokes Scholarly Debate

By Linda Jacobson — October 07, 2008 6 min read
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An early-childhood curriculum that aims to help youngsters control their impulses, recall and use what they’ve learned, and adjust when circumstances change—skills known as executive function—has been getting attention in the research world of late.

But researchers aren’t coming to the same conclusions about the effectiveness of the program, called Tools of the Mind, at preparing children for school.

An evaluation that appears in the current issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly found that when compared with a more traditional literacy-based curriculum, Tools of the Mind was better at reducing negative behavior among 3- and 4-year-olds, and was at least as effective as the other program at teaching language and literacy skills.

On one assessment given to children in both programs, the scores for the Tools of the Mind group were higher, but not by a statistically significant amount.

“So we can’t be very confident that the academic outcomes are better, but there is some evidence that they might be better by a nontrivial amount, and [the outcomes] are clearly a lot better in the social and emotional domain,” said W. Steven Barnett, the lead author of the study and the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick, N.J., campus.

But when the study was analyzed by the What Works Clearinghouse, a research-review project of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, the social benefits of the Tools curriculum weren’t even mentioned, and the program was found to have “no discernable effects” in the area of oral language.

Mr. Barnett’s study, conducted in 2002, was small, focusing on the implementation of Tools of the Mind in only one school, which served poor children in New Jersey. Still, Mr. Barnett and the developers of the program contend that the online clearinghouse’s conclusion is misleading.

“What they mean is that Tools was not found to have statistically significant effects on these [academic] outcomes beyond those produced by another curriculum, and, I would add, when both are provided by well-educated teachers in small classes,” Mr. Barnett said in an e-mail. “I don’t think the general public can reasonably be expected to obtain a correct understanding from the way WWC summarizes the results.”

Mark Dynarski, the project director of the clearinghouse and a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, in Princeton, N.J., said that social-emotional outcomes have never been part of the clearinghouse’s early-childhood research “protocol,” and that the protocol is “not flexible about accommodating other outcomes.”

Lack of Clarity?

Preschool teacher Julie Flint leads her class in a Tools of the Mind lesson called the “Freeze Game” at Foster Elementary School in Arvada, Colo.

But that doesn’t mean, he said, that Mr. Barnett’s findings in those areas aren’t noteworthy.

“That it’s not being studied doesn’t mean it’s not important in some domain of children’s development,” Mr. Dynarski said of the program’s impact on children’s behavior.

He added that because Mr. Barnett found significant effects on one measure of oral development, but not on another, the clearinghouse researchers concluded that there was not yet “clarity” on the benefits of the program. But he also noted that because Tools of the Mind was being compared with another program in which children were also showing gains, “the bar was being set a bit higher” for Tools of the Mind.

“I don’t feel like any of this should be seen as negativity” toward the Tools of the Mind program, Mr. Dynarski said.

Tools of the Mind was created some 15 years ago by Deborah Leong, a professor emeritus of psychology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, and Elena Bodrova, a senior researcher at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a regional education laboratory, also in Denver.

Based on the philosophy of the early 20th-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the theory underlying the curriculum is that young children can be taught to regulate their behavior and adapt better to change long before the area of the brain that controls those processes has fully developed. And it is those skills, such as learning to wait one’s turn and to pay attention, that education experts often say are more crucial for early school success than academic knowledge.

The primary way such self-regulation skills are taught in Tools of the Mind is through what the directors of the program call “mature, intentional make-believe play.” The approach has children plan their dramatic-play scenarios, use symbols or words to write out their plans, and then remain “in character” as they act out those scenarios.

Teachers, who are trained over a two-year period, take part in the activity by asking the children questions about their play, and about what roles they are going to take on next.

“We address a lot of academics, but in a very different way,” Ms. Bodrova said.

In “buddy reading,” another Tools of the Mind activity, one child is the reader while the other is the listener. The reader is given a drawing of a mouth, and the listener holds a drawing of an ear to help the children remember to stay in their roles. The listener then has to ask the reader a question about the book.

Tools of the Mind is being used in 600 preschool and kindergarten classrooms in nine states. Sites include public and private pre-K programs, Head Start centers, and the Even Start family-literacy program. It is also being used with English-language learners and children with special needs.

Improving Behavior

Ms. Leong and Ms. Bodrova both noted that since Mr. Barnett’s study was conducted, the program has developed and other studies of its effectiveness are ongoing.

While some educators using Tools of the Mind have been troubled by the WWC review and have asked for clarification, Ms. Leong said, others “trust their colleagues” who stand by the program.

Adele Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive science at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, who has also studied Tools of the Mind, pointed out in a November 2007 article in Science magazine that improving young children’s executive-function skills “can improve their long-term acquisition of academic skills.”

In a 2004 study she conducted of 147 children in New Jersey, in which students were randomly assigned to either a Tools of the Mind classroom or a literacy-based program, Ms. Diamond found that Tools of the Mind children performed significantly better on executive-function tasks than students in the other classes. And the tougher the task, the more it was connected to academic gains.

The study did not meet the What Works Clearinghouse’s eligibility criteria for inclusion in its reviews for evidence of effectiveness, though, in part because Ms. Diamond could not collect academic scores from children in the literacy-based classes in one school. That was because administrators were so sold on the Tools of the Mind program that they started using it in all their preschool classrooms, so the study lost much of its control group.

In Mr. Barnett’s view, the evidence from Tools of the Mind so far shows that the debate over whether preschoolers should be focusing on academics or be allowed to play is unnecessary.

“Our findings indicate that a developmentally appropriate curriculum with a strong emphasis on play,” he writes, “can enhance learning and development so as to improve both the social and academic success of young children.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2008 edition of Education Week as Preschool Program Focused on Executive-Function Skills Provokes Scholarly Debate

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