Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tools of the Mind And Why You Need At Home Stat

When I first began researching cognitive skills in the context of get my child into a GAT program and make sure they succeed when he gets there, I stumbled across Tools of the Mind.  This is an approach to Pre K and Kindergarten preparing kids to learn, in my opinion.   The emphasis of this program is executive functioning, like planning and staying on task, with a focus on self regulation.

The studies in the pilot programs all worked like this.   A school district adopts Tools of the Mind in one or more classrooms.   After 4 months or so, the teachers from the control group walk by and notice the kids in the Tools classroom are quietly going about their work.  The teachers in the control group go back to their classroom, which is a rowdy, chaotic zoo, and sit down to write a mean letter full of expletives to the head of the school district demanding that Tools be immediately implemented in the control classroom or the teacher is going to walk out.   Then the district head notices that 87% of the children in next year's GAT program are coming from the Tools classrooms so he cancels the study and makes Tools mandatory in all classrooms.

At one time, these studies were published, but since then these studies were pulled because a study that is cancelled half way doesn't meet scientific criteria for publishing.  (Somewhere in my blog I have dead links.)  Nonetheless, I was convinced and I permanently adopted Tools as the motivation of all that I do.   When my children were 3, my basement looked like a tools classroom, and now that the older one is going into 6th grade, we go about our summer math in the way I think the Tools Program would if it went past Kindergarten, which it should.  When I teach core cognitive skills in the Test Prep Math series (or min-series), I consider these skills a direct extension or the next level of executive skills like paying attention.

Lately, all of the studies seem to be negative.  It seems that Tools requires lots of activity planning for teachers, on top of Common Core and basic standards which have trickled down to K and Pre K, and most teachers can't keep up with it.

Even worse, here is a study entitled The Effects of Tools of the Mind on Math and Reading Scores In Kindergarten that shows that kids from a Tools program significantly lack reading skills based on the control group.  This study also does a good job of explaining other factors impacting Tools and the history of Tools.  This is dissertation by Patricia Estrela Mackay, and it gives me hope for the future of education research.  Go Patricia!  All the author needs for future success is a 3 year old.

Reaping the benefits of Tools at home while solving the challenges presented by Tools is a no-brainer for a parent.   A parent doesn't have to worry about district learning standards, Common Core, or 28 kids with varying degrees of behavioral skills from different cultures.   A parent has a much easier job than a teacher.

Note that reading at home, especially read-to for younger kids, is proven to teach most of the skills that Tools is targeting.  (See Jim Trelease, The Read-Outloud Handbook).  For my readership, I assuming that a strong reading program at home is a given.

My goal with Tools At Home is emphasizes the project management aspects of these executive functioning skills:  envisioning, planning, following through on the tasks, and then playing with whatever you did.  It seems one of the benefits of tools is a ridiculously long attention span and I feel like playing is key to attention building.  My overall goal is a child who is perfectly capable of surviving a tough math course, doing some non-profit activity to save kids in Africa, putting the finishing touches on a great science fair project, or solving the gravity problems in the standard model of quantum mechanics.  Or just staying focused on 6 months of test prep to get into a good high school and doing really well in an AP course.  That's not too much to ask with a Tools foundation.

By the way, I'm not kidding about solving the gravity problem with the standard model of quantum mechanics.  My 8 year old and I working through the challenges of 4 dimensional space right now.   I'll post an article on this insanity soon.   Granted, he's a graduate of Test Prep Math, but he also has heavy doses of Tools training.

The Tools website FAQs page does a good job of outlining Tools but a bad job of giving you example projects to do at home.

The classic Tools example is the firehouse, which you would see if you visited a preschool that cost $50,000 per year to attend.   There is the fire house, the house that is going to catch fire, and the 911 call center.  Children discuss what happens in each, what the roles are, and how each role behaves (planning), then they pick a role, and act it out.   The teacher walks around, interviewing children about their plan, and calling out children when they're not on task.  Also, you have to visit a fire house with your child.  To do this, you either need to call ahead and ask or bake a batch of cookies and show up when you think fires are unlikely to be happening.

We never had success with the firehouse exercise at home, because my older son would always do something goofy and humorous, especially when he was the 911 center operator, but we did visit a fire house.

Props are essential for younger kids, and we don't have a lot of props.  That's when I extended Tools of the Mind to include project management for prop building, and now I have a program that is twice as awesome.  In each exercise below, there is planning and building, then planning and playing. Twice the awesomeness for the same price.

In each exercise, the first part involves a lot of creativity and building.  It really helps a lot if there is something motivating the whole exercise, like a space helmet or a movie that the children recently watched or a book that was recently read on something like pirates.  There is nothing new or unusual about any activity, except a little parent involvement that makes the whole endeavor bigger.

In addition to this list of imaginative play, lots of other things fit, and come with their own props, like any lego building set with a theme that can be played with, Playmobil, Barbies and G.I. Joe, many games and puzzles.   I miss Barbies and G.I. Joe, but if you can find action figures of any type, there are projects to be had.  I give a boy and girl examples.

For lack of space, I'm not going to write out all of the fundamentals of each activity, because it would take a page.  Keep in mind - envision the scenario, build it, play it, then start adding details to play it again.  Always let the kid come up with their own details during round 1, and if you don't get any, do an internet search to look at images or visit the places.  You can ask for more details, but if you are impatient and just start listing them out of frustration, you will develop a frustrated, impatient child who is incapable of coming up with details.  In the interest of full disclaimer, I always contributed lots of ideas once they started flowing.  Brainstorming takes a team, and the parent has to fill in for missing kids in some cases.

#1  The Zoo
In our case, we took blocks and little plastic animal figures (found a package in a dollar store) and built a zoo.   After visiting a zoo, in round 2 it was rebuilt with an information booth (and a stack of tiny maps), and then we made signs for each animal section out of tooth picks, paper, a marker and tap.  By the way, our craft box has evolved into 2 craft boxes of about 1 cubic foot each.  Any action figures with any theme work really well if you build an appropriate building for them.  That's why I miss G.I. Joe's and barbies.  When I was little, the evil agents would drive their barbie camper somewhere and the G.I. Joe mission was to take it over and use it as mobile mission control.

#2  The fort.  How easy to build a fort out of couch cushions.  With a little parental encouragement, this fort is a research station on the moon, or a jungle house for ape research, or whatever, and involves a large space monster or a hungry ape.  In round 2 we made a clipboard for research purposes and the researcher drew diagrams and took notes on behavior.  It was easier when I was just a space monster attacking.  Doing behavior deserving of research is much harder.

I should mention that note taking and sign making for a pre-reader are a fantastic part of Tools.  What looks like little scratches by the kid is actually a leap toward writing and reading.  We extended this with the hidden treasure game.  I would write down pictures or instructions  like "look under the couch" on 10 pieces of paper and hide these appropriately.  Once I had a group of 6 kids who couldn't read.  I handed them a card that read "Look in the oven for candy".  In the oven was a card that said "Look under the bed", and this continued for about 10 cards.   I didn't help.  Within minutes, I had 6 kids who not only were eating candy, but they could read.  It's magic.

#3  The office.  This was the most successful Tools game we ever played.   My son wanted a desk, so we cleared the toy closet and made it into an office, with the desk facing out of the door.   In round 2, we included the company signage (American Booty System, or ABS), a security card swiper, a family picture and phone on the desk, and had people lining up for meetings.  I don't remember what the meetings were, maybe a loan or something, but we laughed a lot.  My son used to do his homework in his office before he turned 4.

You get the idea.  There's Evil Scientist Lab and Stuffed Animal Classroom, on the bed of course, with a map and a chalk board.  If you get a child explaining to his stuffed animals what 3 + 4 is, because he just learned it yesterday for the first time, you don't have to fill out a GAT questionnaire about your child.  There's also Animal Hospital and Doctor's office.   You can get a doctor's kit for less than $25 for a birthday and turn it into hours of Doctor's office making and role playing.

#4  The grocery store.   In addition to a great building and playing activity, Tools emphasizes explaining things while you walk through a grocery store.   Where do the products come from?  How much do they cost, and why?   Who invents the colorful box graphics and labels?  Why does the cereal box say "Part of a Healthy Breakfast" when it's pure sugar?  Why does Menards say "Save Big Money" when you're not saving but spending your money?  We continue this conversation about grocery stores and lots of other things well past age 4.

For 5 and under, round 2 of the home grocery store includes actual shelves (boards held up by boxes), a toy cash register with a calculator and scanner (best Christmas gift ever), discussion of a bar code, price labels, plastic (or reusable) bags, and customers.  I think the neighborhood kids spent the most time in our house when we did this.

#5  Roller coaster.   Don't tell my wife we did this, but we took a hard futon and some flat boxes and covered the basement stairs.  At the bottom we made a mountain of cushions.  The old saying "The game is over when someone gets hurt" directly applies here.

I'll say more about tools for older kids later.

Good luck!


  1. Can't wait to hear about the tools for older kids!

  2. Thanks for this awesome article...