How Can We Help All Students Pass The Marshmallow Test?

Recently I read Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test. As a mother, Mischel’s insight on the nature versus nurture debate was compelling. As a woman in my thirties, the techniques he suggests for financial planning was helpful. However, as a middle school English teacher, this book was a catalyst for my own professional growth. I didn’t read this book for professional development purposes, but I began making connections to my classroom and my school. Eventually I came to one overarching question: Why don’t we teach kids how their brains work?

Guest Blogger: Jessica Weible

"Marshmallows" by Marco De Leija via Flickr.com

Image credit: CC licensed”Marshmallows” by Marco De Leija via Flickr.com

Recently I read Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test.

As a mother, Mischel’s insight on the nature versus nurture debate was compelling. As a woman in my thirties, the techniques he suggests for financial planning was helpful. However, as a middle school English teacher, this book was a catalyst for my own professional growth.

In the book, Mischel, a psychologist, discusses the outcomes of a series of studies he has done on delayed gratification as well as the implications it can have on many aspects of our lives, including education. Mischel talks about the “hot” and “cool” systems of the brain and how, by understanding how our brains work, we can train ourselves to have better self-control and thereby overcome our vices, maintain healthy relationships, and provide for our future selves. I didn’t read this book for professional development purposes, but I began making connections to my classroom and my school. Eventually I came to one overarching question.

Why don’t we teach kids how their brains work?

It seems silly to me now that I never thought of this before. It is even sillier that no one I’ve ever worked with or learned from has mentioned it either. I would argue that teaching kids what we know about the human brain in a way that is relevant to them as students is fundamental to the educational process. Since I had this revelation, I had to do something about it. Something manageable. Something within my sphere of influence. What I wanted to do was find the best way to teach kids the most relevant skills for their brain functioning in order to maximize the impact of my curriculum.

From Inspiration to Collaboration

I started by meeting with one of our school psychologists. I determined, through Mischel’s book and other research, that the best place to start was to promote my students’ executive functioning skills like memory, focus, organization, prioritization, problem-solving, etc. I approached the school psychologist with two questions. What, if anything, are we currently doing to promote executive functioning skills in our school? Also, what ideas did he have to promote executive functioning in my classroom?

In response to the former question, he confirmed that the only students who typically receive any direct instruction regarding executive functioning skills are students with significant impairments that prevent them from being successful in a classroom setting. He explained that the hope is most kids “pick it up” as they move through the school system. However, for the most part, our school system doesn’t directly address these skills. The psychologist offered me the book Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare as a resource to further develop my understanding of how to support executive functioning skills.

Based on our discussions, I began creating two programs that will be ready for implementation in the 2015-2016 school year. Originally I planned to implement these programs in my classroom and then offer it to other teachers who were interested. However, I had the opportunity to reach a bit further with one of these programs. Last year I was invited to be a part of my school’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) team along with the literacy coach, math coach, principal and school psychologist. We are working on ways to improve our faculty professional development, our schedule, and our current programs to make all classroom instruction more effective. When I shared what I had created for a structured flex period with this team, everyone decided that it was the right idea at the right time to implement school-wide.

Making Our “Flex” Time More Relevant and Engaging

Right now, all students in my school have a “flex” period, which is like a study hall. Some students have band or chorus on specific days, but most students have this period to do homework or study. The problem is that flex is not effectively or consistently managed, so not many students are engaged in learning.

What I’ve created is a list of daily procedures and a “Flex Tracker” that each teacher who manages a flex will facilitate. These procedures ensure that students keep track of upcoming assignments, prioritize their assignments and evaluate their own progress at the end of the period. In terms of executive functioning, the flex tracker will help to orient students who have trouble focusing on a task or organizing their assignment book. It also helps with prioritizing. Many students work on assignments that aren’t due for several days because they prefer it or find it easier, while neglecting what might be more urgent.

Another important component of this program that promotes executive functioning skills is a daily “Brain Tip” video. I’ve compiled a collection of internet-based videos, mostly from WellCast that are a few minutes long and focus on specific skills that address executive functioning. For example, one video teaches why we procrastinate and how to “trick” ourselves into doing assignments on time. These videos address how our brains work, but you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to get it. Each week, the video provides context for whatever focus skill for the week. Teachers will follow up with various activities and graphic organizers throughout the week to help students apply the skill to their current assignments.

Giving All Students a Sense of Purpose in the Classroom

The second program I will start out in my classroom next year. It involves “student jobs” where each student, based on benchmarks and diagnostics early in the year, will be assigned a specific job in my classroom. For example, students who demonstrate difficulty keeping up with deadlines or being prepared for class will have a job on the Study Skills Team where they help hold the class accountable for keeping track of upcoming assignments and offer study tips or reminders to keep everyone organized. Students who demonstrate a sincere conscientiousness with assignments will act as mentors during differentiated classroom activities involving skill-based writing prompts. Students with motivation issues will have the important job of self-reflection. They will be in charge of creating their own long-term goals, which could focus on grades, assignment completion, or benchmark scores. Then they will create manageable daily goals to work towards their long-term goal, which could focus on preparation, study habits, or revision goals. Student will monitor their progress based on these daily goals. The idea here is that students who take responsibility for the daily operations of the classroom will be more invested in the outcome for themselves and each other. To learn more about this program, see the program outline.

To determine the effectiveness of my structured flex program, I plan to gather teacher input using a Google Form. I am also interested in sitting down with some 6th grade students who have never experienced flex before and talking with them about how they perceive the program contrasted with how 8th grade students who have experienced the previous version feel about it, which I can gauge through conversations with my own flex students. With the student jobs program, the best determination of its effectiveness will be if I have a difficult time finding students to fill my Study Skills or Self-Reflection teams. Realistically, I will need to continue promoting the important skills for self-reflection, studying, focus and organization. However, as students begin to demonstrate proficiency in these areas, the intensity of the intervention will default back to standard classroom practices.

If I have a class full of mentors, I’ll know I’m on to something!

As teachers, we want students to be able to focus on a task. We want students to remember what we teach. We want students to manage their time and meet deadlines. We want students to organize their thoughts. It’s time we start explicitly teaching them how to do these things

Jessica Weible (@JessicaWeible) is approaching her eighth year teaching 8th grade English in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Prior to that she spent a year teaching high school students from Philadelphia and spent another year teaching at-risk students in an adventure-based school program. Jessica has also directed and produced several school musicals, acted as yearbook advisor and is currently helping to organize community events to showcase local artists, musicians and poets. 
 
  • Ali Wright

    Interesting Program!

    Jessica,

    Kudos to you for not only seeing a need in your classroom but also taking the time to develop a program that will help your students be more successful. I love that you involved your school psychologist in your research. This is truly a teacher-led initiative that I see having major impact on student achievement- super inspiring! I will be anxious to hear how next year goes- please keep us updated!

    • JessicaWeible

      Ali, thanks for the comments!

      Ali, thanks for the comments! I’m lucky to have a lot of autonomy and support at my school. It’s so important for teachers to have space to innovate and contribute their ideas. I think the biggest roadblock for the flex program is teacher buy in, so the more support I can get from awesome educators, the better my chances are for getting this off the ground and making an impact for the students. I can’t wait to share with you how this all shakes out!

  • B. W. Rogers

    Brain Based Learning

    Jessica,

    Excellent article and you are to be commended on your innovative thinking to interweave accountability into Flex Time. 

    Your summary sums up what we need to do to prepare our students to succeed in the global economy and not just how to "play school."  Students need to understand how they learn so they may adapt and change within an everchanging workforce.

     

     

    • JessicaWeible

      B.W, such a great insight

      B.W, such a great insight regarding how this may help prepare kids for the workforce. I read something recently that addresses how it’s so difficult to anticipate what that workforce will look like and which skills will be most relevant and useful. I believe that no matter what our students encounter when they graduate, executive functioning will be instrumental. I also believe strongly that we need to focus our efforts in developing empathy and creativity. But I’m going to save that for future articles!

  • B. Sellers

    Great things!

    Hi Jess–you are doing great things to address executive function in a structured setting. I love the question you pose–why we don't teach kids the way they learn? It is a complex answer that centers partially on our outdated school set-up and grade-driven learners, among other issues. I believe we need to teach meta-cognition and even allow some cognitive dissonance to stretch our capable students into problem-solvers rather than high grade seekers. Your involvement with the school psych and your systematic approach has created a driven, researched explicit program that will benefit all learners. Amazingly constructed and thoroughly organized! Definitely great things happening in a middle school setting!

    • JessicaWeible

      Thanks for the support! Our

      Thanks for the support! Our school is lucky to have an awesome and totally accessible psychology department so that this kind of collaboration is easy to initiate. It’s also been great that both my former and current colleagues have supported me in doing things differently- I very much appreciate that! I agree with your point about challenging students with cognitive dissonance and really looking closely at what type of academic behaviors we reinforce. Thanks for taking the time to read!