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Education Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 18, 2010

The science of self-regulation plays out at Lynnwood Elementary

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Harriet Fogarty, a long-time kindergarten teacher, says her students are often disappointed when school is canceled for a snow day. Some of them even regret vacations.

She doesn’t like to be away from Lynnwood Elementary School either, but, when she has to be, she says the substitute teachers have a good time.

“The control here doesn’t come just from the teacher,” says Fogarty. “It’s almost like I don’t need to be there.”

Her room is hung with bright yellow banners, illustrated with colorfully crayoned pictures. One banner illustrates big deals as opposed to little deals. Another shows kids who are ready and kids who aren’t.

“These are an end point, a celebration of all they’ve learned,” says Fogarty.

Although she has long taught the concepts, a new initiative at Lynnwood has put her on the same page with other teachers and given them and their students a common vocabulary.

“The biggest part is, it’s not just because I said so. I don’t have to say, ‘Sit down.’ They know what they have to do to be ready to learn,” said Fogarty. “They have a strategy and they understand the reasons why.”

The move towards what is known as self-regulation began three years ago when Joey Infantino became a student at Lynnwood. (See related story.)

“A boy moved into our district who had severe brain injury,” explained Lynnwood Principal James Dillon. “The part of his brain that inhibits responses, that mediates actions with words, was injured. It was difficult for him to respond to re-direction.”

Mark Ylvisaker, a professor at The College of Saint Rose, worked with the boy. “He was world-renowned in brain trauma and rehabilitation,” said Dillon of the late doctor. “He was well versed in developmental psychology,” which systematically studies changes over lifespan.

Both Dillon and Ylvisaker were familiar with the work of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who, in the early 20th Century, developed theories that, unlike his contemporary Jean Piaget, saw development as occurring in a social context. Vygotsky’s theories have gained prominence in the last 20 years.

When a child is on the brink of learning a new task, which Vygotsky called the “zone of proximal development,” he believed that sensitive intervention by adults could help the child learn.

“It’s almost the idea of apprenticeship,” said Dillon. “The child follows the parent as the parent narrates what he or she is doing. In this way, the child develops self-regulation skills.”

Play is very important in this model. “Play is the vehicle to rehearse life,” said Dillon. “As children play house or play doctor, they start to represent things on an abstract level. When a child picks up a block, it could become an airplane.”

Vygotsky gives the example of a child who wants to ride a horse but can’t. If the child is very young, he might cry or be angry. But, at about the age of 3, his relationship with words changes. Imagination forms, arising from action. The child might pick up a stick and stand astride it, pretending he is riding a horse.

Vygotsky called the stick a “pivot,” and wrote, “It is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought — the meaning of a word — from object. Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick — that is, an object — becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered.”

Children, as they grow older, internalize pivots such as sticks or dolls or other toys; they rely on the objects less because they have internalized the pivots as imagination and abstract thoughts through which they can understand the world, Vygotsky believed.

“Mark started to look at this theory with a special population,” said Dillon of Mark Ylvisaker. If a child had a traumatic injury, “the brain would not be able to process thought,” said Dillon. “Mark developed an approach that would highlight these things in an intentional, concrete way.”

Dillon likened it to reading a page of text where key phrases are emphasized in capital letters and colors so that they jump out. “This approach is called metacognition or executive function. The person becomes a self-manager,” Dillon said. “Language plays a key part.”

He likened it to learning how to drive a car. “When you start, you have to verbalize out loud what you’re going to do,” he said. “You say, ‘Adjust the mirror,’ or, ‘Release the brake.’ It becomes internalized, so you don’t say it anymore, and then it becomes automatic.”

Dillon said, “It’s a real problem in public education, if kids lack these skills and you penalize them. Reward and punishment only makes a kid more helpless.”

Dillon likened this approach to seating a child at a piano and telling her to play without teaching her how; punishing her isn’t going to make her learn to play.

“Negotiating the social world is something that needs to be taught,” he said. “If you take the time, if you slow things down, kids can pick up these skills. They don’t need punishment or reward. It’s rewarding enough to solve a problem or reach a goal.”

“Less teacher talk”

Dillon went on about Ylvisaker’s work with Joey Infantino, the boy who had suffered severe brain trauma, “Mark saw the boy needed more. He taught him in terms of opposites boiled down to simple words.”

Some of those paired opposites, which now appear on posters throughout Lynnwood Elementary School, including in Fogarty’s kindergarten room, are: big deal/little deal, hard/easy, choice/no choice, and scary/not scary.

Fogarty says that now, when something goes awry in her classroom, rather than just saying, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” she has her students ask, “What can I do?” Usually, they can think of a way to solve what is wrong and it becomes a “little deal.”

“If you give them the tools, they go with it,” she said. “They coach themselves and each other. Our goal is to do less talking, to give them those cue words and let the kids figure it out themselves.”

Consequently, said Fogarty, her classroom management style has changed. “There’s a lot less teacher talk,” she said. “Kids learn to be respectful to each other, not just the teacher. Right or wrong isn’t just what the teacher decides.”

Also, Fogarty said, she is doing more thinking out loud herself. When, for example, she accidentally drops something, she’ll say out loud, “I’m upset that I spilled something. Wait. I could get someone to help me pick it up. I’ve turned it into a little deal.”

Modeling this kind of behavior helps the children who come into kindergarten as perfectionists, she said.

“Some kids think they’re smart if they already know the answer,” said Dillon. “They think being smart means not having to struggle.” But, if they see their teacher struggling and overcoming problems, they can learn to take risks and do the same, he said.

“They learn that school is not a competition,” said Fogarty. “It’s not right or wrong…You have to be firm on that and be sure students aren’t putting each other down.”

Dillon agreed: “You model not being sure but trying anyway. Learning comes from challenging yourself. If it’s hard, that probably means you’re learning…We often fall into patterns of how we were taught — trying to get the right answers for the teacher’s approval. That has losers and winners. This, instead, is: We are all learning different things at different rates. It’s all normal.”

“What’s changed in our teaching,” concluded Fogarty, “is to state what is happening.”

“All kinds of kids let little deals become big deals and then they become emotional,” said Dillon. “If every adult processes that in a simple, consistent way, kids are more likely to get it.”

Role playing

Lynnwood created a series of videos with staff members playing the parts to illustrate the concepts. “Role playing is like putting it in slow motion,” said Dillon who believes the world flies by many youngsters. “Kids can see it and have a way to understand it and deal with it.”

In one video a “child” becomes upset after forgetting lunch money.  The teacher explains that it’s not a “big deal” and that lunch can be charged.

The next time that happens, the child calmly assesses the situation and says, “I forgot my lunch money but it’s not a big deal. I can charge it.”

The videos help children identify a problem and provide a strategy to solve it.

“What helps us manage emotions is our ability to put words on things, to label them,” said Dillon. “If you don’t, it makes you more of a victim. On top of that, if you’re punished without understanding, it’s worse. That’s how kids get turned off by school. When you turn it around, when you’re pro-active, kids learn from their mistakes.”

Another of the Lynnwood videos deals with a “big deal” — a “student” who has consistently not done her homework. As she makes excuses, her “classmates” let her know it is a big deal. Finally, the teacher tells her she has to stay in for recess and get her homework done.

The girl concludes, “I guess this is a big deal. There’s a test tomorrow. I’ll have to do it.”

“Kids can coach each other with self-regulation. We’ve seen that again and again,” said Dillon, emphasizing that a common vocabulary helps.

After the death of Ylvisaker last May, the project continues at Lynnwood.

This year, the first-grade teachers came up with a more concrete way of explaining sharing. They made up a new pair of words: me/we.

Dillon helped create the lesson where a teacher pretends to be a child, happily playing with Legos by herself; thinking out loud, she says, “I have this all to myself.”

Then Dillon, playing another child, sits down and starts to reach for a Lego, and gets in a tug of war.

A teacher then intervenes and explains, “You were here by yourself. That’s great. Now there is another person who wants to play. It switched from ‘me’ to ‘we.’ As ‘me,’ I can do what I want as long as it’s safe. With ‘we,’ I have to think how another person would feel.”

This approach — rather than just saying, “You have to share” — acknowledges that a child is giving up something. “It acknowledges there is a good feeling when it’s ‘me,’” said Dillon.  “A boy came up to me the other day in the library and said, ‘Mr. Dillon, we had a me/we situation today.’ He was so excited he could notice, put a word on it, and share it.”

Dillon concluded, “It’s empowering to be able to put words on situations.

“Emphasis on effort”

The simple consistent language that stresses learning internal controls has extended to the homes of Lynnwood students. A workshop last November brought out over 50 parents. “That’s the biggest turnout we ever had,” said Dillon. “It’s a sign there’s a real need out there.”

Dillon said interest was piqued by a video he showed at a school open house. It was a re-creation by Dr. David Walsh of the famous marshmallow test conducted at Stanford University in the 1960s. Walsh is the author of the book No: Why Kids — of All Ages — Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It. Dillon said of Walsh’s work, “There is a place for setting limits…but you have to teach strategies, too. They go hand in hand.”

The Stanford experiment featured children who were, one at a time, placed in a room with edible treats on a tray. The child was told to choose a treat and then told, if he waited 15 minutes without eating the treat, he could have a second one.

Some kids ate the treat right away, others contorted themselves, trying to hold off, while still others were able to wait the 15 minutes and get their reward.

Years later, researchers caught up with some of the now-grown children and learned that those who were able to delay gratification as 4-year-olds had been more successful academically and as adults. They posited the theory that raw intelligence, as measured by an IQ test, is not the most important factor in predicting success but rather self-control is.

“They thought the critical variable was deferred gratification,” said Dillon. What interested Dillon in watching the re-created experiment were the strategies that the children used to delay eating the treat. “Some had no strategy; they’d pick up the marshmallow and eat it. Some would close their eyes and move away,” he said. “Others would talk to themselves, saying, ‘I know if I wait, I’ll get two.’ The group that waited 15 minutes versus 10 seconds scored 200 points higher on their college entrance exams.”

Asked if the kids who were less impulsive might just naturally be more prone to the rote sort of study that leads to good test scores, Dillon responded, “In America, we tend to attribute success to inborn things. In other countries, success is attributed more to work and effort.”

He cited the work of researcher Carol Dweck, a social psychologist and professor at Stanford, who gave two groups of children similar tasks. The children in one group were told how smart they were on completing the task while those in the other group were told they had worked hard.

Both groups were then given harder problems. “The kids who were praised for their ability tended not to want to do them,” said Dillon. “The kids praised for effort tried them…The kids who had been told they were smart were fearful that, if they got the problems wrong, that would show the world they were not smart.”

Dillon concluded, “If you focus on behavior, failure is not a problem; it’s part of learning. You’re not losing your image by getting something wrong.”

He went on, “At school, how you talk to kids, with an emphasis on effort, has incredible impact.” By labeling some students as smart, the others assume they are not smart, he said. “Those kids think, ‘I’m not smart. Why even bother? I guess school is not for me.’ If you combine that with not teaching skills, I think that’s why kids drop out. Changing the message at elementary school can make a big difference.”

The next step

Circling back to the work done by Ylvisaker with Joey Infantino, Dillon said, “When Mark came to Lynnwood, he felt we were ready. We didn’t use reward and punishment. Teachers didn’t yell at kids but explained things. There were not a lot of stickers being handed out and no time-outs or suspensions.”

A small number of staff members responded to an e-mail, and the approach spread from there. “Mark didn’t want people following a strict recipe,” said Dillon. “He wanted them to understand and play around with it. Teachers started to do it….I told Mark not to expect many changes in behavior since we don’t have too many discipline problems.”

But the data at Lynnwood showed every teacher reported a decrease in discipline time, said Dillon. Ylvisaker found that teachers saved, on average, 27 minutes a day, time they had spent on correcting behavior that can now be used for other learning.

The allegiance to Ylvisaker went deeper than the data.

“Mark was battling a severe form of cancer, but he never really let on,” said Dillon. “He jumped right in.”

As his cancer reached the final stages, Lynnwood sent Ylvisaker a video with “the kids telling him how much he had helped them,” said Dillon. He died last May.

His approach continued to spread and has been ingrained in the school, said Dillon. “We have 100 percent staff on board.”

Dillon said, “The next step is to spread it to parents and help them at home.”

On March 22, Dr. Robert Brooks will visit Guilderland. He’ll give a two-hour workshop for teachers and, at 7 p.m., he’ll speak to parents about helping their children be more responsible, confident, and resilient. The former director of the psychology department at McLean Hospital, Brooks is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and is a frequent speaker.

The cost for his visit is $5,500, Dillon said. The districtwide PTA Council has donated $1,500, and the Parent-Teacher Associations at Lynnwood and Guilderland Elementary have each donated $500.

Brooks and Sam Goldstein wrote Raising a Self-Disciplined Child in which they assert, “Discipline is best understood as a teaching process…Parents need to appreciate that helping children develop positive attitudes, self discipline, and a resilient mindset requires time; we can’t do it with a quick fix.”

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