Teachers Learn to Help Kids Behave

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Teachers are learning — or re-learning — how to help kids behave:

Daily playtimes are a centerpiece of the curriculum used in Ms. Randle’s Head Start classroom, “Tools of the Mind” — which incorporates training in “executive function,” or the mental ability to control impulses and focus on new information, into children’s routine. Before playtime each day, they plan a role for themselves during an imaginary trip to the beauty shop, barber shop or library, represented by play structures along the walls. Then, they act out the roles for 45 minutes, with children helping each other stick to their roles. A boy who has chosen to be the baby, for example, would be prevented from going off track and starting to order everyone around, because he would spoil the playtime for everyone.

“It’s the kind of play you and I engaged in during the summer, when you’d play the same thing for a month, like ‘Knights and Castles,’ ” says Deborah Leong, co-creator of the program with Elena Bodrova. Today, “what parent do you know who opens the door in the summer and lets children rove around the neighborhood?”

Children learn restraint by working in pairs on math or letters. Each child holds a card with an ear, lips, hand or check mark on it, as a reminder of his or her role — to listen, to read, to do the task or to check a partner’s work. As one child practices a lesson, the other must control any impulse to interfere. The Tools curriculum is in use in about 400 mainstream and Head Start classrooms in seven states, and 400 more teachers will be trained this year, says Dr. Leong, a psychology professor at Metropolitan State College, Denver.

Another approach, called PATHS, is expanding rapidly in preschools. While many teachers tell children to “use your words” to express anger or frustration, PATHS intervenes earlier in a child’s decision-making about how to behave. Children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.

Also, the Chicago School Readiness Project, developed by C. Cybele Raver, a psychology professor at New York University, trains teachers to manage classrooms in a way that rewards good behavior. Recent studies show all three of these programs sharply curb bad behavior.

To find peaceful classrooms, these examples suggest, parents might look for programs that allow time for free, orderly play; that work to instill self-control in kids, and that go beyond teacher-directed drills to help children learn to make and stick to their own choices.

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