Marked benefits to preschool children — New research results 2019
Randomized control trial of Tools of the Mind, Canada, 2019:
The kindergarten/pre school program, Tools of the Mind (Tools), has been shown to improve executive functions (as assessed by laboratory measures) and academic performance.
The objective here was to see if Tools can improve executive functions in the real world (in the classroom), academic outcomes not previously investigated, reduce bullying and peer ostracism, and increase teachers’ and students’ joy in being in the classroom.
This first randomised controlled trial of Tools in Canada included 351 kindergarten children (mean age 5.2 years at entry; 51% female) in 18 public schools.
This study replicated that Tools improves reading and shows for the first time that it improves writing (far exceeding levels the school districts had seen before), self-control and attention-regulation in the real world (e.g., time on task without supervision), reduces teacher burnout and children being ostracized or excluded, and increases the joy students and teachers experience in school. By Spring, Tools teachers were still enthusiastic about teaching; control teachers were exhausted.
These results were not only better than the control group but also better than Tools teachers experienced the year before Tools.
Thus, children in a kindergarten curriculum that emphasized play, improving self-regulation, working together and helping one another, and hands-on learning performed better academically, showed less bullying and peer ostracism and more kindness and helping behavior than students in more traditional classes, and teacher enthusiasm for teaching soared. Tools reduced initial disparities separating children, schools, and teachers.
There was play in control classes, but it was usually unsupervised or scripted, not as in Tools. (For example, a child in Tools might record a plan to play an astronaut today. Early in the year, he might abandon that after 1–2 minutes to play something else. In control classes that would be fine. In Tools, the teacher comes over with the child’s plan, “You need to follow through with your plan. You can be something else tomorrow.” Children in control kindergartens do not tend to make plans. By the Spring, Tools children sustain make-believe dramatic play for 25–30 min without adult guidance; control children tend to do so for only a few minutes).
Control kindergartens had more ‘whole group’ activities. In Tools kindergartens, children worked more independently in pairs or small groups. Control kindergartens used rewards (e.g., gold stars); Tools does not. Time-outs are used in control classes, but not in Tools.
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By May, three times more children in Tools than in control classes were able to write a full sentence they themselves composed or multiple consecutive ones.
It is not so surprising that the writing of children in Tools advanced further than the writing of control children since Tools emphasised writing and control classes did not, though the advanced level of writing by children in Tools would astonish most kindergarten teachers. Indeed, we had to add questions about children’s writing skills to the online teacher survey because the writing levels achieved by children in Tools exceeded the upper limits on the BC assessment tools for kindergarten. Teachers reported never having seen writing progress like this before and the data bear them out.
We went to lengths to treat both Tools and control teachers comparably.
Tools teachers received a three-day workshop on Tools before the school year began. We offered control teachers three days of workshops at the same time on whatever they wanted. They made suggestions and voted on them. Their workshops received excellent reviews from the teachers. (They chose one-day workshops on “Using Technology in your Kindergarten Classroom,” “Teaching Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” and “NOT your typical approach to Math in Kindergarten.”) Both groups of teachers were comparably compensated for their time in attending the three days of workshops. The four one-day workshops for Tools teachers during the school year were held on Professional Development Days when school districts arranged for instruction and enrichment programs for teachers.
Kindergarten classes in the US usually have a teaching assistant besides the teacher; kindergartens in BC do not. Tools needs such an assistant for the 90-minute literacy block each morning. Therefore, we paid a token $30/day for kindergartens in both groups to have an assistant for 90 minutes daily. Typically the assistant was a relative of one of the children in the class or a friend or relative of the teacher. Teachers in the Tools group needed to purchase supplies. Therefore, all teachers in both groups received an allowance of $1,000 to purchase supplies for their classroom. All funds for this came from the BC Ministry of Health and BC Mental Health Foundation.
There was one unintended difference between the Tools and control groups: Tools teachers chose on their own to meet together a few times during the school year (besides when there was a workshop)—thus providing social support and enabling each to learn from one another. This probably helped less-experienced teachers to do so well with Tools. (Had we known about these meetings, we would have arranged for similar meetings for control-group teachers).
Pre-intervention levels of the children on language and math skills and on behavioral control and sociability were determined within the first month of school. Post-intervention levels were determined eight months later (May 5–15). Academic skills were assessed using BC’s objective, standardized assessment tools.
Since randomization was at the level of schools, analyses of student outcomes were nested within schools. Since the data were often ordinal, binary, or not normally distributed, in most cases the generalized estimating equation was used for data analyses, as it provides valid inferences regardless of the data distribution and is robust for both parametric and non-parametric analyses. Chi-squares were generated from the generalized estimating equation within a poisson loglinear model when the data distribution was skewed, or, for categorical data, a binary logistic model. For interval data, where the data were roughly normally distributed and the variances roughly equal between groups or could be made so by a transformation such as arcsine, analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare one group to other. Linear regression was used for the analysis of whether Tools helped the children more behind in reading more than those who started out reading at a higher level.
S4 File presents the results for all of our statistical analyses controlling one at a time for free-lunch status, ESL status, and years of teaching experience. With nine classrooms per condition, we do not have the power to control for more than one covariate at a time. Free-lunch status was occasionally related to our outcome measures, as was ESL status, years of teaching rarely. All analyses are reported in this paper controlling for free-lunch status (as a proxy for lower SES). To see the results controlling for ESL status or years of teaching please refer to S4 File.
Since the dependent measures are interdependent and interrelated, one could argue that correcting for multiple comparisons is not needed. On the other hand, with several dependent variables we felt some correction should be applied. As a compromise between those two viewpoints, we have divided the normal significance level in half and required p < 0.025 for a result to be considered statistically significant.
The findings of the study have relevance to several issues of keen scientific and societal interest: reducing the epidemics of bullying and teacher burnout, increasing student engagement in school, improving academic outcomes, and reducing socioeconomic inequalities in academic performance and EFs. Read the full length article and cited research here.