Discussion of NurtureShock, Chapter 8 “Can Self-Control Be Taught?”

We're talking about NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman allsummer. One chapter every Friday. Jump in whenever you'd like. The first week we talked about Chapter 1 about praise.
The second week we talked about Chapter 2 about sleep.
The third week we talked about talking about race with
The fourth week we talked about why kids lie and how
inadvertently promoting that.
The fifth week we talked about
intelligence testing for preschoolers for school placement purposes.
The sixth week we talked about how having siblings socializes children. Last week we talked about why teens lie to their parents and engage in risky behavior. This week we're talking about how to teach kids self-control.

This chapter, entitled "Can Self-Control Be Taught?" made me want to move to Neptune, New Jersey immediately. Essentially, the
whole chapter is a review of a program called Tools of the Mind that has been shown
to teach preschoolers and Kindergartners self-control in all the
schools it's been used in.

Before Bronson and Merryman start talking about Tools of the Mind they talk about Drivers' Education classes in high schools and how they fail to make teens better drivers than teens are who don't go through Drivers' Ed. Then they talk about the hype and failure of the D.A.R.E. program (and other similar programs) that was so popular in the '80s to keep kids from using drugs. They tell about these programs and how they don't work to talk about how unusual Tools of the Mind is because it does work.

The Tools of the Mind program itself isn't markedly different from most preschool or
kindergarten programs, except that it puts the onus of action on the
child instead of on the teacher to enforce with the child. Each child
makes a play plan, for example, planning out what role they'll play in
a make-believe game the kids all play. If the kid gets off track, the
teacher refers the kid back to the plan they made for what role they'd
play in the game. Because the kid plans what they're going to do, doing it becomes a matter of carrying out their own idea instead of merely doing what an adult tells them to do. They're training kids to use their own decisionmaking skills and motivation to keep on track.

Bronson and Merryman have stats and anecdotes from a bunch of areas of the country in which Tools of the Mind has been tested and used. Of course they Tools kids have higher test scores than the other kids do, but what seems even more impressive is that they kids are more self-directed so there isn't as much chaos in the classrooms. Since the kids get to carry out their *own* plans they don't need to goof off and misbehave. I would love to see information on Tools and how it interacts with kids who've been diagnosed ADHD.

Bronson and Merryman go on to explain why Tools works so well from a neuroscience perspective.Then, and I know we're all going to be happy about this: they talk about both authors have started using Tools concepts in their own lives. Merryman runs a tutoring program, so they talk about how she uses it with the older kids she tutors, and Bronson talks about how he uses it with his preschool-age daughter. I read it and was kind of shocked to realize that that's the kind of stuff my mom did with me (and still does with me, frankly) and that I just instinctively did with my kids because that's what she did with me. (Everything I know AT ALL about parenting I know from my mom.) So it seems like it won't be a stretch to be even more explicit about some of the stuff.

The chapter gives such a glowing review of this program that I started
getting sadder and sadder that my own rising Kindergartner wouldn't be
able to experience such a wonderful program. Some of the statistics and
anecdotes about the success of Tools come from the schools in Neptune,
NJ in which it was tested. At the end of the chapter the authors
reveled that all the schools in Neptune ended up adopting tools. It's soooo tempting…

Do any of you live in places that are using Tools? Do any of you have experience with it?

Do any of these ideas listed in the chapter from Tools ring true for you?

34 thoughts on “Discussion of NurtureShock, Chapter 8 “Can Self-Control Be Taught?””

  1. I didn’t know there was a name to it, but my BFF is an AMAZING educator and I helped her build her curriculum when we lived together. A key part to her classroom structure was that the kids decided the punishment. There were levels of punishment based on the disobedience, and she said that the kids always issued far harsher punishments than she would’ve.Because the punishment was their idea, they were more aware of the consequences. Seems like a version of the Tools of the Mind .. and it totally works.

  2. Heh, right after reading this chapter, I Googled “Tools of the Mind Seattle” and didn’t find anything, sadly. I loved this chapter – the program sounds so interesting.When BabyT gets older, I’d like to try some of the concepts, but it would be even cooler if she could go to a school that uses this program.

  3. I liked this chapter. I was surprised they didn’t mention the famous marshmallow experiments. (If you somehow missed this when it went all over the internet, google “marshmallow TED talk” and you will find it- the short version is that kids who were able to postpone eating a marshmallow in order to earn a second one went on to be successful. So did some of the kids who couldn’t postpone eating the marshmallow. But none of the kids who could postpone eating the marshmallow went on to be huge screw ups.) Maybe the experiments weren’t as famous when the chapter was written? Anyway, when my husband learned about the marshmallow thing, he had a little campaign to teach Pumpkin how to delay gratification. It was funny because she wasn’t even 3 at the time, and 2 year olds don’t really delay anything.I told him that he needed to read this chapter to get some ideas for his campaign, if he wants to renew it now that Pumpkin is a little older.
    I want to know, though, if they’ve had time to do any longer term studies on the Tools curriculum. Let’s say you use the curriculum in some kindergartens and not others. Can you still tell the difference between the kids in 6th grade? 8th grade? High school? The rest of their lives?
    Don’t get me wrong- it sounded great and I plan to incorporate some of the ideas into our lives (I LOVE the idea of having Pumpkin develop a plan for the day, for instance), but I want to know if this has a truly long term impact. And if it does, why aren’t all of our schools switching over? What is the downside?

  4. I read this book last year and immediately jumped online to find a Tools preschool in the Bay Area for my son, to no avail. But now we’re moving to the Denver area in a few weeks because I’m going back to grad school. Once we had decided to go to Denver I searched and found lots of Tools preschools in the Denver area. The whole Jefferson County school district has adopted Tools for its preschool curriculum. I’m just as excited for my son to go to a Tools preschool as I am for myself going back to grad school!So I don’t have any experience yet, but I’m about to! And I can imagine that perhaps Tools helps kids internalize a sense of standards and accomplishments based on their own motivation, instead of just external approval. As a child, I was a straight-A student, good at a lot of things and thriving on approval, but as a young adult, I couldn’t think for myself and wasn’t self-motivated. I like the balance in Tools between individuality and real-world skills.
    I’ll have more to report in a few months!

  5. This was a super frustrating chapter for me… it was like hearing about wonderful health treatments that can cure an ailment but then being told that they aren’t available to you. I am kind of like Cloud in that if this is such a great program (which it really sounds like it is!) why isn’t it becoming the norm in more areas? Why isn’t there more movement?The program sounded great but I didn’t get enough details from this one chapter to be able to apply some of the practices to my twin boys. I’d need a lot more detailed assistance/guidance.
    I also was sad while reading this chapter as I know one of my boys NEEDS instant gratification and one isn’t quite as bad but still borderline in that direction. I guess the chapter made me feel (this was one of the few chapters and I’m sure it was just me projecting since I know this is an area I need to work on) that I’ve set up my son(s) for failure since I haven’t yet “broken” their need for instant gratification or taught them better self control. I also worry about those things in general since addiction runs on my side of the family…
    I need to do some more internet research on this approach and see if there is anything around in my area. Maybe that will be the next new thing in parenting seminars!

  6. There is a great site about this at http://www.mscd.edu/extendedcampus/toolsofthemind/index.shtml, with several ideas for parents to try. I’m also planning to get the book, so I’ll let you know whether it’s any good.And, yeah, I found it really frustrating too (though it still gave me good ideas to try at home with my kids – if I get time, I’ll post more about that another day). I’m wondering whether there’s a tactful way I could let the staff at the preschool my daughter’s due to start in September know about it?

  7. I also found an article about the Tools programme at http://www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/innodata/inno07.pdf. This looks more aimed at teachers and researchers, but still has some useful points if you skim through (I haven’t looked at the whole thing yet).And, thinking about it, I’d appreciate feedback from others here on the question I touched on in my last comment – How can I best let the staff at my daughter’s preschool know about this programme? I don’t want to be the know-it-all pushy parent who comes in and immediately starts telling staff what to do, but I really do want them to know about this one and I think they would genuinely like to learn more as well. I was thinking of having a word with a staff member at an opportune moment, but now I’m wondering about writing them a letter. What do people think? Are there any nursery school teachers there who’ve had experience with parents trying to persuade you to teach one thing or another, and what should I avoid doing here so as not to antagonise people? (It was my son’s preschool as well, so they do at least know me, which will hopefully help.)

  8. @Dr. Sarah- maybe broach the subject by joking about how many surprising things you learned after reading Nurture Shock?@mo- one of the interesting (but not surprising) things for me about the marshmallow study was the fact that some kids who couldn’t delay gratification at a young age go on to great success. I suspect that you can teach your kid a little more patience, but I don’t think I’d stress about it too much. I’m working closely with a very successful scientist right now- one of the founders of the company I work at and a man who is very well respected in his field. He is very effective at what he does. And he is one of the most impulsive people I’ve ever worked with. I would bet a large amount of money that if someone had put a marshmallow in front of him when he was 4, he would have eaten it right away.
    Having thought about this a fair amount (thanks to Hubby’s campaign to teach our daughter how to delay gratification), I think that delaying gratification isn’t necessarily what’s going on which kids (and adults) who are good at getting work done. If I think about college, which was probably the time in my life when I studied hardest, some of it was done in expectation of a later reward. But a lot of it was done because there was something innately satisfying about completing a problem set or a paper, or digging in and really understanding a section of my text book. I WAS getting instant gratification, just of an incredibly geeky kind.
    So I have argued to my husband that we shouldn’t be worrying much about teaching our daughter to delay gratification or whatnot. What I really want to do is help her learn how to be happy and successful working with her innate personality traits.

  9. @Dr. Sarah – one strategy that often works in suggesting new ideas is appealing to the expertise the askee already possesses: “Jane, I was reading that crazy website I talk about all the time, and they mentioned this thing called Tools of the Mind. I’m thinking of implementing some of the ideas at home, but wondered if you’d consider looking it over to see if it would conflict with anything you’re doing here.” “Jane, in your reading have you ever come across TOM? I’m reading up on it and would love your opinion on it.”Good luck!

  10. I have also been seeking a Tools of the Mind preschool, after hearing about it on NPR before NurtureShock came out. I live in BC, so I emailed the institute at UBC where Adele Diamond (whose research is discussed in the chapter) works. She personally wrote me back! Unfortunately there’s nothing local, so I’ll need to try the DIY approach. In my research, I came across another program, MindUP, which has been implemented in some area schools. It focuses on mindful awareness and building empathy and I’m trying to find out more about it.

  11. I found this chapter really interesting and I’d love some more tips on how to do some of this at home. @Moxie, would you share some of the parenting strategies you already do that fit in with the Tools methodology?

  12. Please help! I want to email a question to Moxie but the ’email me’ link makes a box pop up which i can’t do anything with. I’m possibly too sleep deprived to work out a more sensible way to sort this out…

  13. I know that when they first started GA public pre-K classes, they had a program quite similar. The kids planned their play, played, and reviewed their play to compare to the original plan. I don’t know if they still do this or not.I decided to add this to piano practice with my 6yo. He’s started resisting practice. I asked him what his plan was for today’s practice, such as “Ms Nancy has four pieces she wants you to learn, what is your choice of how to practice those today?” He chose to play each one three times, then focus harder on one. He got distracted a bit and started “doodling” and I asked him if he was off his plan, and he got back to work. He didn’t practice as long as I’d have liked, but he did it cheerfully, so I think I’ll stick with this method a while and see if it keeps helping. Time isn’t as important as quality.

  14. Moxie, do share some tips about how your mom implemented Tools-like strategies with you and how do it with your kids. Also, at what age do you think this sort of stuff starts working? (or rather, at what age do you think it’s good to start implementing it in such a way that actually makes sense to the kid?)

  15. My school, your old school, uses no tools. Unless you count the guidance counselor/social worker. All the tough kids see her. I don’t think that is the right answer, I think my school completely cops out. That being said, I am working within the system. She does help my son, albeit on the simplest of levels. We did finally take her recommendation and continue outside the school, as crappy a job as the school does, my son needs extra tools and I am happy to see that he gets them. The sooner I reduice his stress, the better it is for him. I have to take myself out of the equation. Or move to Neptune!www.gaynycdad.com

  16. Like Moxie, I saw some of my mom’s parenting in this chapter (though my mother is an elementary school teacher so maybe this stuff has been in the air for a while). For me the parts that are entirely implementable with my toddler at home have to do with extending a particular kind of play, like “why don’t we find another way to stack the blocks?” My 18 month old doesn’t do imaginary play yet, but responds well to my helping him extend his focus on a particular game or kind of activity that he started. After reading this chapter we make plans and write them down, too, which feels a little silly with a pre-verbal goofball, but we keep it pretty broad for now (“our plan is to go outside and play with the trucks”) and it has started to help him focus on the things we have to do to implement our plan (“you need to put your shoes on to go outside and play with trucks”).

  17. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27tools-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Executive%20function%20curriculum&st=cseRead this article from last fall, describes the exact program. One in which they try to teach all kids executive function in order to weed out the few because god forbid we give them the already proven treatment that exists.
    You will note that for seven years, they have been unable to replicate the experiment in the real world.
    You see, real kids go home to bad meals or good, poverty or wealth, love or hate filled surroundings. No curriculum can change that. Only society as a whole.
    But even in places with great equality and wealth and plenty, there will always be people whose brains are built differently. We are the quirky, the fun, the distracted, the poor planners. We suck at executive function but we have wonderful qualities in other ways.
    But instead of celebrating those qualities, educators do this…..honestly, if research has zero proof then at some point, time to rethink.
    In all these experiments btw, Moxie, all the kids with ADHD did very very poorly. This entire thing just reinforced failure and poor self-esteem, because they couldn’t make a plan or stick to it. Kids with ADHD thrive with structure and routine because then, it allows them to be creative and spontaneous.

  18. Interesting comment, Aurelia. I’m of the ADHD persuasion myself 🙂 and I make lots of plans but have terrible trouble executing them or staying anywhere near the parameters I’ve laid out. Your last sentence just resonates so much with my experience.

  19. Tools of the Mind sounds very similar to an Emergent Curriculum which is pretty common in many preschools. Emergent is child led so the children decide what they want to focus on versus the teacher. from what i understand Tools of the Mind is more individual based versus Emergent may be based on the desire of the entire class. another child led curriculum is Reggio Emilia which is also pretty common. however, these are all usually found in preschools and not sure how much they’re practiced for kindergarten.

  20. Oh, I just experimented with some Tools-ish ideas and they were a huge success. Maybe not becasue it was Tools-ish at all, maybe because it was novel ( for my kids), but still, I’m going to try it again later.My 3.5 year old doens’t much like to clear/clean up after herself, whereas the 5.5 year old does and is quite a helpful chappy. So before heading out to the park I say ‘ ok, we have to put everythign away, what is our plan? Zoe, what are you going to put away. Noah what are you going to put away?’ Of course Noah was the first to act. Normally Zoe would lie on the floor and say she didn’t want to do anything, but today she said ‘I want to put away the babies’ and she actually collected all her dolls and stuffed toys and put them back where they belonged. When she finished that I asked her her next plan of action ‘So what are you planning to do now?’ ‘I’m going to put away the balls’, which she did, but there was still one that she hadn’t seen that needed a home. I reminded her of her plan when I saw the homeless ball, and she quickly swooped it up and put it away.
    Of course I was super impressed!! This is the kid that will not put anything away unless you physically put the thing in her hand and help her drop it where it is meant to be. Anyway, more thatn likely it worked due to it’s novelty and will not work again, but hey, it has given me things to think of.

  21. Before I even finished the chapter, I started googling to see if I could find any Tools of the Mind programs in my area! I absolutely loved that the authors talked about ways they implemented ideas from the program. I just told my hubby that I want to start using some, and he is going to read the chapter and help me come up with some ways we can do it.Since some of the methods with Tools reminded me of the Montessori method (especially the kids picking what they want to work on aspect), I wondered how it compared and if any similar studies of effectiveness have been done on the Montessori method. (My daughter starts in a Montessori school at the end of this month!)
    @Cloud – I was also surprised that they didn’t mention the marshmallow experiment. I thought that was the pinnacle study of self-control in kids and it’s later effects. And I also wanted to hear about longer term effects.
    @Jill in Atlanta – I love the idea of using it for piano practice!
    @paola – Great idea to use the “plans” for small things like putting stuff away. Thanks for making me realize it doesn’t have to be a huge, long, all-day plan. Just giving them the ability to decide what actions they want to take, and then remind them of what they said they were going to do.
    Now I’m off to read the links.

  22. Oh, I just remembered that I did use something I learned from this chapter. Yesterday, my husband was trying to take a picture of my daughter. Most of our pictures of her are a blur of motion, and he was really trying to get her to hold still and say cheese. Then I said, “Pretend to be a statue! A smiling statue!” Lo and behold, she sat still with a smile on her face! It was awesome.

  23. @caramama: I had the same thought about Montessori. This is one of the (many!) aspects of the Montessori approach that I deeply appreciate — the children choose their own focus at any given time, and learn to see it through a full sequence of steps because they are invested in it. This was such a good reminder to employ these techniques at home, too.

  24. Interesting chapter. I don’t, however, feel that my child is doomed without a Tools of the Mind preschool. Maybe it’s his disposition (given two parents who are pretty good at delaying gratification in lots of arenas) but I feel like my kid (3.25 y.o.) is already doing a pretty great job at self-regulating (age appropriate impulsivity notwithstanding). His preschool is very play based and the kids do tons and tons of imaginative play (and they actually put on plays 2-4 times per year for the parents)– and it’s almost all my son wants to do at home (even when we’re playing trains, everyone has a character; when we’re playing blocks, there are usually characters). One thing this chapter teaches me is the importance of rolling with and extending his scenarios. I feel like some of the plan making we already do and I’ll try to do more of it (letting him decide between a limited menu of options, how he’s going to do things has always seemed to me a logical way to foster cooperation).One of the things that bothers me about this whole thing is the emphasis on writing the plan for the day, even for preschoolers. My son goes to a German immersion preschool run by Germans (and will probably continue to the associated German elementary school). All the teachers there feel very strongly it is unproductive and can be detrimental to try to teach reading/writing too early. They base this on the Finnish model and research that says that, especially for boys (who tend to learn to read later), forcing a kid to learn the alphabet, read and write before they’re ready doesn’t lead to better reading skills– it just leads to frustration and low-self esteem. If a child wants to learn to write their name or whatever, they help them–they’re not anti-reading/writing. And of course, they read to the kids a ton; but they’re pretty adamant about the curriculum not teaching reading until first grade. The goal is that everyone has a grasp of basic reading and writing by the end of second grade (by which time most kids are fully developmentally ready to be reading). My son loves books and reading and already “reads” to himself and pretend writes, so he might be an early reader… but I like the fact that it’s coming from him. As soon as I start asking him, “what’s that letter? that’s a ‘C'”, he almost immediately loses interest. I’m confused as to how you’d even get a preschooler to do anything other than pretend to write a plan for the day.

  25. i’m in the ‘oh my god where is this i want it for my son now’ camp.he’s developmentally delayed & i’m having a hard time since he’s an only & we live in the sticks (30 min from the nearest mcdonald’s, and target is far enough i don’t have to worry about their politics) knowing what’s appropriate for him to be doing & what i should be curbing & how to curb it.
    i guess i want more direction from people experienced in pdd & tools of the mind sounds like a good fit & i’m really bummed that i can’t find where it’s taught & like i’m missing helping my sweet boy. sigh.
    there are lots of tradeoffs to living out in nowhere, and while i really appreciate having built in babysitting & not needing child care & low cost of living, not feeling resource-rich hurts when i think my son needs more.

  26. @BlueBirdMamaOh, I was wondering where the basis of NOT teaching literacy to kids that didn’t show readiness to learn to read or write came from. My son is 5.5 and goes to an Italian kindergarten where writing/reading are not taught. Even his ped acknowledges that it is better to put off teaching literacy until they start primary school at age 6/7, when the child is more mature and less prone to frustration. She says the outcome is still the same: both early readers/writers and late readers/writers have the same level of literacy at grade 3.

  27. @Aurelia, I just read that article you posted, and maybe I just misunderstood your comment, but the article doesn’t say anything about Tools of the Mind not being replicated in the real world.It talks about different studies of executive functioning and how in the labs you got better, but in real life with kids they didn’t get better, but then it spends the next 3 pages talking more about Tools of the Mind and how it has been working, but they are still doing long-term longitudinal studies and then (if those come out good) at some point will want to try to figure out which elements make a difference.
    Sorry if I misunderstood, maybe it was those other ways of dealing with executive functioning that you were talking about. I just didn’t want people to get the impression that this article was refuting the Tools of the Mind research that was discussed in NurtureShock when it actually did not say that.

  28. Like many of you I immediately googled Tools of the Mind, only to find that their offerings are very limited. I’m a teacher working in the Middle East, but my family plans to move back to N. America soon. I was thinking about opening a private Tools preschool so my son could attend one! Does anyone know anything about this?

  29. So far, the research on this program doesn’t show a discernible effect: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/reports/early_ed/tools/===
    sorry this is not a scientific source. An article in Science – one of the most prestigious scient journals- (cited in the book and news article shows unequivocally the impacts both on academics, but more importantly on self-regulation (not even mentioned in the ref you provide).

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