Sunday, September 27, 2009

Can the right kinds of play teach 'self-control'

We think a lot about what it means to teach self-control and self-discipline in Project Coach. Embedded in our theory of change is that coaches must demonstrate these capacities in their work with children. In other words, a coach must regulate and manage their emotions during a game or a coach must deploy discipline in preparing for and conducting a practice. Implied in our work with our youth coaches is this idea: if they learn to exercise these crucial habits of success in our program then these qualities will be useful to them in the other domains of their life such as school, home, and community. We believe that the role of coach provides a myriad of opportunities for our teen coaches to run into situations where we must process with them what it means to self-regulate and exercise self-control.

Paul Tough, who just wrote a book on Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone & will be coming to speak in Springfield this fall, has a new and important article in the NY Times "Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control." Incidentally, Don and I are teaching Toughs's book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America in our course Urban Youth Development and Social Entrepreneurship. These two paragraphs provide a good synopsis of the key ideas:
Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.
The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children.

The anguishing part of this article for me was reading about Angela Duckworth's research in Philadelphia. She is a psychologist at University of Pennsylvania and her research focuses on developing strategies to build self-control in children. Tough reports her findings as follows:

When I [Tough] spoke to her recently, she told me about a six-week-long experiment that she and some colleagues conducted in 2003 with 40 fifth-grade students at a school in Philadelphia.
“We did everything right,” she told me: led the kids through self-control exercises, helped them reorganize their lockers, gave them rewards for completing their homework. And at the end of the experiment, the students dutifully reported that they now had more self-control than when they started the program. But in fact, they did not: the children who had been through the intervention did no better on a variety of measures than a control group at the same school. “We looked at teacher ratings of self-control, we looked at homework completion, we looked at standardized achievement tests, we looked at G.P.A., we looked at whether they were late to class more,” Duckworth explained. “We got zero effect on everything.” Despite that failure, Duckworth says she is convinced that it is possible to boost executive function among children — she just thinks it will require a more complex and thoroughgoing program than the one that she and her colleagues employed. “It’s not impossible,” she concludes, “but it’s damn hard.”
Speaking from our work in Project Coach-- yep, it sure is. The next piece of the article focuses on a fascinating program called Tools of the Mind. It's worth a reading because it describes this program that uses play and creative, dramatic engagement as the process to learn about emotions, impulses, community, and play. I'd love to see a Tools of the Mind classroom in action.


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