Students in their first years of school have a lot of new ground to cover, from steps along the road to reading to beginning math concepts. But one of their most important tasks may be learning how to master themselves.
A new study from New York University researchers Clancy Blair and C. Cybele Raver links a kindergarten program that specifically promotes “executive functions” – such as self-control, paying attention and planning – with academic improvements that persist beyond kindergarten.
Authors of the study say that students in high-poverty schools were especially likely to benefit from learning self-regulation skills, suggesting that a focus on those skills in early elementary education “holds promise for closing the achievement gap.”
The study evaluated the impact of a kindergarten-based program called Tools of the Mind. The program is a set of classroom practices designed to help young children master higher-level cognitive skills while also learning literacy, math and science aligned with the Common Core standards.
Tools of the Mind emphasizes classroom practices such as setting goals, working with learning partners, movement games and using dramatic play that is tied to literature and stories.
The two-year study, which compared children in a traditional kindergarten program to students in a Tools of the Mind program, involved 759 children in 29 Massachusetts schools.
Students in the Tools of the Mind program were better able to sustain attention despite distractions, had better working memory and were more engaged than those students in traditional kindergarten classes. In addition, the students in Tools of the Mind had greater improvements in math, reading and vocabulary when compared to the control group.
The study authors emphasize that the program can be put in place without costly resources and support beyond professional development for teachers. That, they suggest, may make the approach especially valuable for schools in high-poverty areas.