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Editorial: Vygotsky on my Mind

I am sure some of you are wondering just where this newsletter’s editorial title came from. Or, possibly you are thinking that I’ve forgotten to take my medication and have started speaking in tongues…again. Maybe, I am referencing to an old Ray Charles song augmented for his Russian fans. The truth is; Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who died of tuberculosis when he was just 38 back in 1934, has been on my mind a lot. And, if you haven’t already heard of him, it is time that he should be on your mind as well.

Let me tell you where Vygotsky comes into play (pun intended) regarding learning theory and Healthy Play. To do so, I will often refer to excerpts from Paul Tough’s recent New York Times magazine’s article entitled; Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control? There, Tough talks of “executive function,” a term usually reserved for corporate boardrooms. But, executive function is originally a neuroscience term and it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. Recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education.

At this point, this editorial might make you feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into a graduate level discussion of HP. But, stay with me, as I believe it will be worth it, especially for those of you who have been utilizing HP for awhile and are looking for some ideas to take it, and your students, to that next level.

Why is self-regulation important? The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them. And, this is just pre-K! To all you elementary and middle school teachers out there reading this, I imagine you are thinking that the problem of challenging student behaviors certainly continues through the grade level that you teach. Ah, all the more antidotal and evidence-base reasoning to utilize Healthy Play techniques to foster self-regulating behaviors within our students.

For Vygotsky, the real purpose of early-childhood education was not to learn content, like the letters of the alphabet or the names of colors and animals. The point was to learn how to think. (Ya gotta’ love this guy!) When children enter preschool, Vygotsky wrote, they are “slaves to their environment,” unable to control their reactions or direct their interests, responding to whatever shiny objects are put in front of them. Accordingly, the most important goal of prekindergarten is to teach children how to master their thoughts. And the best way for children to master their thoughts, Vygotsky believed, especially at this early age, is to employ various tools, tricks that train the mind to work at a higher level. But more than anything other technique, the key to Vygotsky theories is, to wisely use play.

Vygotsky maintained that as early as age 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. In the United States, we often associate play with freedom, but to Vygotsky, dramatic play (substitute purposeful play in the case of Healthy Play) was actually the arena where children’s actions were most tightly restricted. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control.

Doesn’t this all sound very familiar? Just take the logical step of moving from pre-K children to the grade level that you teach. Healthy Play techniques move play from just a frivolous free-for-all arena to where a formalized methodology occurs. There are philosophies, focus areas and rules to give students boundaries, to set up internal regulation within the student and among their peer group. We at Creative Spirit often speak of setting up a “positive peer culture” model which utilizes the student peer group to provide guidance to individual players. To receive the maximum enjoyment out of the game experience - to have fun - will occur best when the student has multiple opportunities to internalize self-control. And, in terms of sustaining self-regulating behaviors, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps. When children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it. Once again, this strengthens the argument of why it is important to allow your students frequent access to play done in a Healthy Play manner.

Making games out of children’s work, i.e. learning, yields greater results. I enjoyed the example that was mentioned in Tough’s article. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. Clearly these children were able to control their impulse better in the play situation than a non-play one.

What about behaviorism? Many of you, as well as Charlie and myself, appreciate behaviorism as a technique to improve challenging behaviors. Behaviorism is the dominant method that we see utilized most in educational settings. Simply put, using the principles of behaviorism, you will reward good and bad behaviors with “rewards and punishments.” We “train” children by praising them for their positive self-control and criticizing them for their lapses. But, is using behaviorism alone enough? Advocates of Vygotsky would say that those “external reinforcement systems” of behaviorism create “other-directed regulation” - good behavior done not from some internal sense of control but for the approval of others, to avoid punishment and win praise and treats. And that, they say, is a kind of regulation that is not particularly valuable or lasting. That is the reasoning behind Charlie and I cautioning of becoming too dependant upon “token” economies.

My belief is that by utilizing behaviorism alone children learn only how to be obedient, how to follow orders, but not how to understand and regulate their own impulses. We want the child not just to stop bullying another student because according to HP rules he’ll risk the consequence of being out be out of the game. What we desire beyond the display of “good” behavior is to have that behavior cemented along with a student’s cognitive self-regulation. Yes, it is a good first step to not punch another kid. But, it is even more powerful and sustaining to cognitively not even fall for the possible short-term benefit of bullying another person because the sound reasoning not to bully is internally motivated. Eventually, the reward (the token) of getting to play due to demonstrating “good” behaviors becomes less necessary because now the student is organizing their thoughts better through self-regulation. The child internally learns to manage their ambivalence between two opposing outcomes and chooses the right option to emerge successful.

So let me now share of a few practical techniques of this self-regulating concept as it relates to how you can best serve your kiddos in a HP context.

A new approach I have been doing with students who have difficulty self-regulating is to use the concept of “private speech.” Private speech is just what it sounds like it is; something one can say to oneself without others hearing it. I, personally, seem to have lots of voices in my head but that is another editorial. Anyhow, as adults we utilize “private speech” all the time and children can learn to do this as well. For example, if a child always wants to be the kicker in the kickball game and has difficulty allowing others to take their turn, I help that student come up with a sentence that they can say privately to themselves like, “I want to be fair” or “I want to make friends and need to share” as an internal boost to succeed in, what is to them a difficult task. Of course, when they are successful I like to reinforce it with genuine praise. But, how rewarding will it finally be for that child when he successfully learns to share without any external input or praise! Though we all want acknowledgement and praise, the truth is, that kind of validation alone cannot be why we ultimately choose to do the right thing.

Another approach I’ve used which has demonstrated a lot of student success is having a pre-game HP “learning conference” with students. At this learning conference, I have students reflect upon what they accomplished successfully the last time they did HP. Often students celebrate achieving various values listed on their class’s, “why do we play” and “what is the most important part of the game,” posters. I then ask them to review where they fell short in meeting individual goals and to think about what skills they want to work on today while they play. Make sure that the goals you are asking the students to identify are grade level appropriate. Expect that some students who already tend to be good self-regulators may tend to work on just continuing already accomplished goals. That is okay, but like all of us, there is always something we can work on to improve our skills. I encourage students to find out what that would be for today’s play session. We play the game. After the game I lead a process session where the kids review their successes in meeting their goals.

This practice of self identification of goals and personal mastery of skills to accomplish goals can be designed to reinforce habits of self-control. And, I encourage you to take self-regulation beyond your students’ HP experiences. Make dipping in the self regulation pool a continual immersion all day long as it easily applies to academics. Remember, the point of doing HP at your school was never to create students who become well behaved only when doing 20 minutes of Healthy Play activities but letting all the benefits of doing HP filter through the entire school day. The same goes for self-regulation. Everything you and your students do at school is about self-regulation. Reinforce self-regulation within your classroom and school culture. Become a Vygotskyite!

Oh, that Vygotski! He and his work regarding self-regulation went almost unrecognized while he was alive, like a painter who only becomes famous after he dies. But, I am grateful that he is finally being given an approving nod by psychologists and courageous educators.

Spencer Gorin

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