beyond the marshmallow test

New research on homegrown curriculum “Tools of the Mind” helps pave way for expansion

Preschool students at McGlone Elementary in Denver work on a project together.

There are certain things you won’t see in Anna Hileman’s kindergarten classroom at Denver’s McGlone Elementary School. One of them is any kind of sticker or traffic light chart indicating who’s behaving and who’s not. Although ubiquitous in many elementary classrooms, such devices are absent here, and it’s not because her 26 students are perfect.

It’s because Hileman and her fellow preschool and kindergarten teachers use a curriculum called “Tools of the Mind,” which focuses on developing skills like self-control and attentiveness along with reading and math. The idea is that working early and intentionally on traits that fall under the umbrella of “self-regulation” makes learning more efficient and builds valuable lifelong skills.

The curriculum, which was developed in the early 1990s by two researchers at what is now Metropolitan State University of Denver, has received laudatory mentions in books such as “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough and “The Marshmallow Test” by Walter Mischel.

Still, its footprint has remained modest— this year touching around 50,000 young students in 18 states. Even in Colorado, where it was first piloted in Denver’s University Park Elementary 16 years ago, the program is used in only four districts.

Tools of the Mind basics

  • Created by: Dr. Deborah Leong and Dr. Elena Bodrova
  • Based on: Work of Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky
  • Grades: Preschool and kindergarten
  • Focus: Development of self-regulation at the same time as academic skills
  • Central activities: Mature make-believe play and dramatization
  • Used nationally: In 18 states with 40,000-50,000 students
  • Use in Colorado: Denver, Jeffco, Poudre and Monte Vista school districts

“For the first 10 years … I knew the name of every single teacher in our program,” said Deborah Leong, co-creator of the curriculum and now executive director of the Tools of the Mind non-profit.

In fact, the program, which relies on word-of-mouth publicity, gets many more requests than it has been able to accommodate. But recent changes in the program’s training model, including the launch of an iPad app last month, could boost participation dramatically. In fact, Leong hopes the curriculum will reach one million children nationwide by 2017.

New research on the program may bolster those expansion plans. A study published today in the online journal PLOS ONE, found that Tools had positive effects on kindergarteners’ academic and self-regulation skills. And with bigger impacts found in high-poverty schools, the authors believe the approach holds promise for closing the achievement gap.

New study results
  • Journal: PLOS ONE
  • Authors: Clancy Blair and C. Cybel Raver, New York University
  • Tools of the Mind had positive effects on kindergarteners’ working memory, reasoning ability and math skills, as well as stress hormones that affect attention and emotional regulation.
  • By the end of kindergarten, there were also improvements in reading and vocabulary, which increased into first grade.
  • In addition, positive effects on reasoning, vocabulary and stress physiology were more pronounced in high-poverty schools.

The new results are especially welcome to Leong and her team because in recent years several studies on Tools showed lackluster results. Those studies seemed to contradict earlier research that offered up glowing results and launched the curriculum into the spotlight.

Leong noted that some earlier studies  compared Tools to the instructional equivalent of “business as usual” –mediocre curricula or none at all. The later studies, which were done as the program was scaling up, compared Tools to other high-quality early childhood curricula, she said.

Carrie Germeroth, assistant director for research at the University of Denver’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, said the complex nature of the curriculum and the need for intense training can make implementation tricky.

“If you’re in big school districts where there’s other initiatives going on….If the principal or building leader is not behind it, if the administrative support isn’t there, it’s not going to go well,” said Germeroth, who recently served as project director for a study examining a modified Tools curriculum.

Disappointing though some recent Tools studies have been, they led to a series of tweaks to the curriculum and the accompanying training regimen.

“What we learned from all those studies is you have to grow with fidelity,” said Leong. “We used everything we learned ….to fix what we were doing…. and it’s working much better now.”

Play with a purpose

The emphasis in a Tools classrooms is on play, dramatization and peer-to-peer interaction. It’s easy to see at McGlone, which is one of six Denver schools that uses Tools and one of two Tools lab schools in the metro area.

Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.
Preschoolers at McGlone play together in the kitchen center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Hileman and one of her students acted out the concept of bartering during a lesson on the Magic Tree House book “Mummies in the Morning.” She pretended to be a penniless scribe who offered the student books in exchange for a snake.

Next door, as fellow kindergarten teacher Jamie Livingston got ready to split the class into two groups, she asked half the class to turn into black cats—in keeping with the “Mummies in the Morning” theme—and head toward the aide who would be working with them. Meowing, they crept playfully on their hands and knees toward the appointed spot.

On the back of this "play plan," the teacher wrote out the student's intention: "I'm going to go to the art center."
On the back of this “play plan,” the teacher wrote out the student’s intention: “I’m going to go to the art center.”

Down the hall in a preschool classrooms, students were completing “play plans,” in which they drew pictures of the center they would go to. Using the curriculum’s scaffolded writing approach, they attempted to write in a description of their planned activity.

Once the plans were complete, the children scattered across the room, planning a party in the kitchen, working on their cars in the garage, and building a road in the block area. While there would be free play later, students were expected to adhere to their plans and stay at the center with the group of peers they had started with.

For Tools developers and the educators who implement it, the curriculum’s play component is unique. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district to use Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said it’s also popular with parents. Previous kindergarten curriculums seemed to ask the children to behave more like first- or second-graders.

Now, she said, what parents see “is kids playing, but in a really productive way, and it makes them feel good…We get a lot of parents who choice into our school just for kindergarten.”

Reading, writing, self-control

Self-regulation helps kids fight distraction, persist through frustration, or resist the impulse to smack an annoying classmate. But it also has big implications for long-term academic and life success.

“What we’ve found through the neuroscientist evaluations of self-regulation is it’s kind of the new IQ,” said Juanita Regehr, director of staff development/lab schools for Tools.

That’s why Tools classrooms embed skill-building around self-regulation into every lesson and activity. It’s common to hear stories about how Tools teachers no longer hustle around the classroom “putting out fires” or how students gradually learn to solve peer conflicts without tattling to the teacher.

Kristin Steed, principal of Marsh Elementary in the tiny Monte Vista district, said teachers have really noticed a difference since Tools was adopted in 2012.

“It’s amazing how one child will turn and tell another child, ‘Hey that hurts their feelings. You shouldn’t talk to them like that.”

Tools uses visual and audio cues called "mediators" to help children know what they should be doing.
Tools uses visual and audio cues called “mediators” to help children know what they should be doing.

There’s also a sense that Tools helps establish clear boundaries and expectations for students. At Irish Elementary School, the only school in the Poudre district that uses Tools, Principal Lindsey Walton said kindergartners show a sense of responsibility and purpose.

“They know exactly where to go and what to do and what their job is…and the teacher is more a facilitator.”

Irish started using Tools in its kindergarten classrooms seven years ago. There were significant behavior problems among kindergarteners at the time and the former curriculum, “Open Court” didn’t address that issue, said Walton.

Since its adoption she’s seen a decrease in office referrals among kindergartener, though she can’t attribute it to Tools with scientific certainty. This year, the school started using Tools in its preschool classes to better align the preschool-kindergarten span.

While Tools of the Mind staff say the curriculum is effective for students of any income level, many high-poverty schools use it. At McGlone, nearly 93 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. At Irish that number is 82 percent and at Marsh, it’s about 70 percent.

“We often get asked in schools like this…that are harder schools,” said Regehr, during a recent walk-through at McGlone. “We don’t target, but they are often seeking more help and more support, so they target us.”

Complications

While many teachers sing the praises of Tools, there seem to be a few weak points. Anecdotally, math appears to be one of them, with complaints that it’s not as rigorous as it could be and doesn’t lend itself to differentiated instruction for advanced students.

All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the "Magic Treehouse" books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books' sense of adventure, Tools developers "love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kdis."
All the kindergarten classrooms at McGlone have a treehouse prop to go along with the “Magic Treehouse” books that are used throughout the year. Regehr said besides the books’ sense of adventure, Tools developers “love the vocabulary in them. It stretches the kids.”

Given that Tools is a research-based curriculum, ensuring fidelity–careful adherence to specified methods–is another challenge. That’s part of the reason it comes with manuals two inches thick and teachers receive extensive training during the first two years of implementation. Still, for veteran teachers, embracing Tools whole hog can be tough.

“Every teacher comes with their own idea, of course, and experiences with what they think works,” said Regehr, adding that she often hears the questions, “Why isn’t this working?”

“We kind of come in and sit down with them and use the text as the expert.”

Teachers like Hileman, who is in her third year of teaching and her second year with Tools, say they like the explicit sequencing and structure, but it can feel overly prescriptive to some educators. Cheryl Caldwell, director of early childhood education for Denver Public Schools, said Tools doesn’t allow as much content flexibility as “Creative Curriculum,” which is used in the vast majority of the district’s early childhood classrooms.

Still, she said it’s good at teaching rituals, routines and self-regulation–work often squeezed out in other classrooms by the focus on academics and third-grade test scores.

In Jeffco, where Molholm Elementary also serves as a Tools lab school, the curriculum is used at all 38 preschool sites and about 10 kindergarten site. Administrators say its foundation in theory makes it a valuable resource.

“It really does teach our teachers about best instructional practice,” said Sherry Fast, the district’s preschool coordinator.

Plus, administrators say kindergarteners who came from Tools classrooms are easy to spot because of their literacy and self-regulation prowess. But the training demands can make the curriculum hard to sustain, especially in grades where there is high teacher turnover. That’s part of the reason that its use in kindergarten has gradually declined from 25 sites to 10. Another factor is some schools’ addition of subject-specific curricula, which dilute the Tools approach.

Despite such fluctuations, there’s a sense that the Tools philosophy—if not every last detail in the curriculum—fills a major gap in early childhood education sphere.

“I don’t see this going away,” said Steed, who sought out the curriculum after reading about it in the journal Science.

“It meets a need that actually hasn’t been met before and will always be needed.”

Transition plan

Two state-run schools sharing a Memphis building will now share a principal, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A moving van sits outside of Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School. The state-run school relocated to a different ASD school because of roof damage, and the two schools will now share a principal.

When a state-run school had to relocate at the beginning of the school year because of a leaky roof, officials with the Achievement School District hoped students would soon be back.

That’s not going to happen, though. Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School will stay at its temporary home at nearby Frayser Achievement Elementary through the school year. And besides sharing a building, they will share a principal.

ASD officials announced this week that Yolanda Dandridge will take the lead of Frayser Elementary, in addition to her role as principal at Georgian Hills.

Verna Ruffin, chief of academics for the ASD, said the decision was made after Jessica Tang resigned as principal of Frayser Elementary. Assistant principals at both schools will now report to Dandridge.

Georgian Hills relocated to Frayser Elementary, two miles away, in August. Ruffin said the goal is still for Georgian Hills’ 258 students to move back into their original building after the school year ends and the building is fully repaired. At that point, the ASD either will promote the assistant principal already serving at the 207-student Frayser or bring in a new leader.

Georgian Hills, under Dandridge’s leadership, recently came off of Tennessee’s list of lowest-performing “priority schools.” That success was a deciding factor, Ruffin said, in asking Dandridge to take responsibility temporarily for both schools.

“This is not how we originally planned it, of course, but it’s an example of taking something that could be a big challenge, putting our heads together, and creating a plan that benefits two schools,” Ruffin said. “Frayser teachers will get to collaborate with an outstanding principal.”

Both schools, like most in the ASD, have struggled with enrollment. Early this school year, the student count at Georgian Hills was down by 20 percent and Frayser’s had fallen 30 percent.

But Ruffin said there have since been enrollment gains and that, in the case of Georgian Hills, a dip was expected with an abrupt change in location.

“It’s a matter of adjusting to put two schools in one location,” she said. “The opportunity to unify around one school leader in the building will hopefully make it a smoother rest of the year for everyone.”

How I Teach

‘All our dreams are on his shoulders.’ The stories that motivate a bilingual teacher

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

It had been a tiring day of parent-teacher conferences for Amanda Duncan, a sixth-grade dual language literacy teacher at Foster Elementary in Arvada. Then the last family of the evening snapped things back into perspective.

The mother had walked two miles through the snow with her sixth-grade son, pushing the baby in a stroller. She told Duncan that she and her husband hadn’t been able to pursue their education, but wanted something different for their son.

“Will you make sure he stays successful?” the mother asked Duncan. “All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

Duncan, who was named the 2017 Bilingual Teacher of the Year by the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education, talked to Chalkbeat about why that conversation was a valuable reminder about the role teachers play in shaping the future.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Amanda Duncan

Why did you become a teacher?
I really didn’t set out to become a teacher. I was always interested in other cultures and languages, and in college I considered majoring in anthropology, then public health. Finally, I settled on Latin American Studies. During my last semester, we had to write a mini-thesis about any topic that interested us, and I chose bilingual education — a controversial political topic at that time (still is!).

After graduating, I began working in a middle school English as a Second Language classroom as a paraprofessional, and realized that it felt right being in a school in a diverse setting. I enrolled in a one-year program to get a teaching license and haven’t looked back. I love how teaching makes you an integral part of the community. It allows you to create change in the world by helping students realize how valuable and unique they are.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom has charts made by the students or me in English and Spanish. There is a lot of intentional use of color to denote important language frames or highlight vocabulary. Since everyone in the room is a second language-learner at some point during the day, I try to provide lots of visual support both with pictures and key words so they have something to latch on to if they are unsure of some word meanings.

For years I was always saying, “It’s Spanish time, I don’t want to hear English right now!” But over time, I had to accept that there is no way to turn off the other language in your brain. So as long as we are using one language as a springboard for understanding or creating in the other, I find value in letting kids use both languages at the same time. It is a natural thing our brains do anyway!

It is a fine line, though. Since we are an immersion program, it is vital that we really hold students to a high standard of production in their second language. But each child builds their second language differently, just like any type of learning. Some need to rely more heavily on their first language to avoid being overwhelmed by the second language. Others are very bilingual already and need to be reminded to continually use Spanish in an academic setting. Even the youngest students know that English is the language of power, and it can easily dominate even in a Spanish immersion classroom. The teachers at my school work tirelessly to constantly lift up the value and beauty of Spanish, so that students will undertake the extra effort of learning through two languages.

I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Students. Hahaha! No, but really, the students are what keep me coming back day after day. Even after 20 years of working with children, they continue to surprise me with their creativity and initiative. I am constantly inspired by the stories they and their families share with me, their daily struggles and perseverance.

At times I feel exhausted by this job, but then I think of how hard many of our families work and the obstacles they are facing, and I am humbled. Teachers have a tremendous responsibility to give our students the best preparation possible so they can be successful in this country. Our community is counting on us and we cannot let them down.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite units to teach is the personal narrative. I love helping students see that their regular lives contain incredible stories. Sometimes they are heartbreakingly sad. Other times they are ridiculously funny. I love helping them learn techniques to take a seemingly regular moment and create a terrific piece of writing. We do this by studying mentor texts (including those by former students) and I demonstrate my own thinking as I write my own story in front of them. I also incorporate drama into the writing process. and we have learned techniques to help students really immerse themselves in their memories. It is powerful to watch students create a “freeze” of their memory — making themselves into a statue that shows the feelings and the moment — then write. They also interview each other to dig even deeper into that moment in time. Their writing improves exponentially and they are so proud of the results.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
When a student doesn’t understand, I first have to figure out why. Were they listening? Is there a misconception? Was my lesson confusing? Did it not meet their learning style? Are they distracted by other things going on in their life? My response depends on what the root cause is for not understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Any time a teacher redirects a class or a student, it’s a million times more powerful if she gives the reason why they are being redirected. For example, “Table 3, please focus your talk on the lesson. If you talk about other things right now, you will lose your train of thought about the lesson and you won’t produce your best quality of work when it’s time to write.” or “So-and-so, if you are talking while I am giving directions you will not know what to do, and if you don’t know what to do you will not learn this critical skill that will help you be successful in middle school and beyond.” Kids need to know that the rules are not about the teacher having control. Rules are there to protect and enhance the learning environment for everyone’s benefit.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think the first step to building relationships with your students is having a genuine curiosity for who each one really is. You need to laugh at the annoying traits that kids exhibit at different stages of life, maybe roll your eyes about it with colleagues later, but also just enjoy watching the kids figure out who they are and who they want to be. My favorite strategy is paraphrasing what students say. It’s helpful when they are upset, or when the problem they are having is confusing or convoluted (No! Not in 6th grade!). It lets students know you “get them”. I also think it’s super helpful to tell them about a time you struggled with a similar issue, and explain how you learned to deal with it. It helps them feel connected. And if you haven’t experienced something like they have, just really saying with your whole heart, “Wow, that sounds so hard to deal with. I am not even sure what to say, but know that I am with you and I am thinking good thoughts for you.” It helps kids feel less alone.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
One story that sticks with me is from a couple of years ago. It was the second night of parent teacher conferences, near the end of the evening. I was tired, feeling good because conferences had gone well, but also feeling overworked and exhausted. It’s easy to feel a little sorry for yourself.

It was a February evening in Colorado, so it was very cold and snowy. I just wanted to be home and curl up on the couch with my family. I peeked into the hall to see if my 7:30 p.m. appointment had arrived, and there was my student Oscar with his mom and his baby sister in the stroller. Their cheeks were rosy-pink and they were unwrapping themselves from their many jackets. They had walked to conferences from their home about two miles away in snowy 20 degree weather.

Oscar’s mom and I introduced ourselves, and she apologized for missing the fall conference, but that was right when her daughter was born.

“Ms. Amanda,” she began in Spanish, “I just want to know if Oscar is doing well in school. Is he respectful to you and his classmates? Does he work hard?” I assured her that Oscar was a model student. “You see, Ms. Amanda, Oscar is the hope of our family. My husband and I weren’t able to study as much as we would have liked to. And now, we work so hard. I work all day and my husband cares for the baby, then I come home and he takes our one car to work at night. But we want a different life for Oscar. Will you make sure he stays successful? All our dreams are on his shoulders.”

This particular story sticks with me because of the cold night, because of the baby, and because I was feeling sorry for myself right before this conversation. But we all hear stories like this all the time. They remind us that we hold in our hands the future of many families, generations even. We cannot let our community down.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

What’s the best advice you ever received?
My mom was also a teacher and she always reminds me to take time for myself and my family. There is always more that you can do as a teacher. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to make every single lesson perfect. You need to say, “That is enough for today,” and let it go. Guess what? The sun will come up tomorrow and your students will still learn plenty. Especially if you are able to come back fresh and be willing to give your heart to them.