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.”

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

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.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.