Lessons Learned from The Little Engine That Could
Twenty-one kindergarten students sat hunched over worksheets, with brightly colored crayons strewn about, and cheerfully colored in the pictures of various fruits. Three children in the classroom were otherwise occupied. One little girl had scribbled quickly across the shapes and now bounced in her seat crowing, “I’m done, I’m done, I’m done!” Her classmate across the room worked intently, systematically peeling the labels off his crayons, while his blank page collected bits of tattered paper. Yet another student put her head down on the painstakingly perfect picture of a red apple, and wept, “I can’t do it! It’s all ugly!”
In an ideal world the teacher would be equipped to perfectly attend to these three troubled students, seeing past the unfortunate behavior, to help them press towards continued learning. Yet what underlying issues characterize these vastly different responses? And what relevant, helpful response can the teacher offer?
The November publication of Nature Human Behavior includes an article on the impact of non-cognitive skill development in early childhood. The meta-analysis included reviews of several hundred published scientific articles and research studies. The ultimate outcome confirmed that non-cognitive skills in a child’s early years correlate with later academic, psychosocial, and health consequences. And of course, we are not surprised: confidence, attention, and resilience are non-cognitive aspects of childhood development that vastly impact later life outcomes.
According to Carol Dweck, cultivating a growth mindset in early childhood is perhaps one of the most effective predictors of later success. She explains the importance of teaching and training children the value of hard work, consistent effort, and perseverance in the face of challenges. These concepts help children veer away from achievement-focused performance anxiety that can paralyze efforts and destroy the pursuit of learning. For example, a productive kindergarten classroom instruction would include more emphasis on “doing your very best” and less emphasis on “making a pretty picture.” Especially at this young age, children possess vastly differing levels of fine motor skills, visual acuity, and artistic dexterity. Thus, Dweck suggests the instructive measuring stick needs to be on individual effort and ongoing progress, not the project outcome.
Recent research from Cambridge University’s publication of Psychological Medicine confirms this theory. Eighty schools participated in the randomized controlled trial, designed to investigate the efficacy of a positivity-based teacher training program. Forty schools provided a Teacher Classroom Management training process, while the other 40 continued with usual teaching practices.
The training emphasized positive feedback and encouragement for effort, while subsequently ignoring minor infractions and low-level behavioral problems. This central focus of the new Classroom Management toolbox was to improve student-teacher interactions, motivate learning and behavioral standards according to effectual examples, and foster an atmosphere of positivity in the classroom. According to assessed strengths and difficulties, the teacher-training program offered improved outcomes for students, and particularly for those with neuropsychological challenges.
Back to the kindergarten classroom…a few intentional moments with the three challenging students can provide the positivity and encouragement for redirection and renewed learning. Perhaps the student who raced through the activity simply needed to use the restroom, or required additional motivation for taking time instead of finishing first. The little boy who was distracted by the crayon labels might struggle with compulsivity or attention problems, and the student who felt her work was ‘ugly’ could be plagued with an early perfectionism complex.
Despite a plethora of complex root causes, research confirms that encouraging children to “try and try again” without over-emphasis of outcome can provide just the impetus they need to keep chugging up that mountain. The Little Engine that Could conveys a lesson we can all learn from, at any age: instead of focusing on the daunting peak of the mountain, may we be reminded to focus on consistent effort. Altogether now: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…!”