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Tools of the Mind: An ECE Approach that Emphasizes Executive Function

Jun 17, 2022    |   ECE Theory & Philosophy

As early learning professionals, we are always on the lookout for fresh ideas to enhance our curriculum. There are a variety of popular approaches in the world of early childhood education, and looking at these different philosophies can be a helpful way to find new ideas. In this article, we explore Tools of the Mind, a curriculum approach and professional development program that focuses on supporting children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development with an emphasis on developing executive function and self-regulation skills.

Where did this approach come from?

Tools of the Mind (often referred to as just “Tools”) is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky, a prominent psychologist who studied how children learn. Vygotsky emphasized the importance of play—the power of learning through experiences with educators and their peers. He believed that the goal of education is to develop self-regulation and executive functioning skills, or “mental tools” that make learning possible (click here to find a G2K article from the archives that explores executive function skills and how they impact learning).

The approach is informed by neuroscience research and is geared towards Pre-k and kindergarten learning spaces, but ideas from the approach can be incorporated with children of all ages.

What does a “Tools” classroom look like?

In a Tools classroom, you can expect to find the following:

  • Multi-level activities that allow children of different ages and skill levels to participate and work together.
  • Children reading with their peers, also referred to as “buddy reading,” in which two children sit together and take turns as the reader and listener of the story. This activity is an opportunity for children to learn through relationships and structured interactions with their peers.
  • A variety of opportunities for children to practice self-regulation skills in different activities. These might include songs that incorporate movement, dramatic play, and interactive games such as freeze dance or Simon Says.
  • Teachers support children in their learning by providing personalized support in a process called “scaffolding.” This refers to educators providing just enough guidance to challenge children and encourage them to develop their skills.

The Zone of Proximal Development

A key component of the Tools of the Mind approach is understanding and utilizing the child’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). An article in ZERO TO THREE explains the ZPD as “the difference between what a person can do and learn on his own, and what he can do and learn with the help of someone who is more experienced.”

Instruction and activities that are focused within a child’s individual ZPD are not too difficult or too easy. They offer just enough of a challenge to be able to encourage building new skills on top of what they already know.

Incorporating Tools principles into your classroom

You do not have to be a Tools of the Mind educator to incorporate principles from the philosophy into your program. Anyone can find inspiration from this approach, and incorporate “Tools-inspired” activities with the children in your care.

The way the activities are incorporated will look different across different early learning settings, depending on the ages of the children in your care, and the setting that you work in. What they all have in common is fostering a proactive, self-directed learning style in a way that fits in with your current routines and curriculum. Here are a few ideas:

  • Incorporate more dramatic play! Dramatic play is a popular activity in Tools classrooms. When children pretend, they are developing executive function skills, as they step back from and think about situations from multiple angles and points of view. This helps them to develop skills for problem-solving and finding different options for a solution. Dramatic play also helps the child to practice self-control as they stay in character and think about the different things that someone might do within that role.
  • Encourage collaboration! Tools classrooms encourage children to work together, so that they have opportunities to learn from their peers. Some children will be more advanced in certain skill-sets, while others might need extra help. When the two work together, the more advanced child can demonstrate and support the other child in their learning.
  • Create more opportunities for writing and drawing! Tools classrooms emphasize developing early literacy skills through writing activities. One popular activity is called “play planning,” in which children work together to think about what they are going to do when they play, and then record their plans on paper through drawing and writing. Each child works according to their own skill level, some creating more detailed drawing, while others use lines to represent the words. In your own classroom, you can incorporate this idea by encouraging children to write or draw pictures of something they enjoyed doing that day, or an activity that they are looking forward to.
  • Play games! Interactive games, like freeze dance, are popular in Tools classrooms. These kinds of games encourage children to practice self-control, an important executive functioning skill.
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