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Early Childhood Education: Tools of the Mind

Part 1: Teaching Self-Control to Children

Why does Tools of the Mind work so well?

In order to learn a child needs to be able to concentrate for a period of time.  In order to be able to concentrate, children need to learn how to avoid distractions.  Essentially, what prevents a child from being able to concentrate are distractions.  Children with a lack of focus also lack the ability to concentrate on an activity for any extended period of time.  What Tools of the Mind focuses on is how to help a child avoid distractions.

For instance, a Russian study asked a group of students to stand still as long as possible.  These students lasted two minutes.  A second group of students were told to pretend they were soldiers on guard at a post and they managed to stand still for eleven minutes.

The philosophy behind Tools of the Mind believes that play is an essential part of learning for children.  The problem with today’s educational system is that the pressure for academic achievement has increased and as a result, the amount of play time children are allowed is reduced. Tools of the Mind believe that the basic developmental building blocks that are necessary for academic success are learned during play time.

The ability to learn abstract thinking occurs during play.  High-order thinking, such as self-reflection – the internal dialogue we often have within our minds as we weigh out opposing alternatives – are also encouraged with Tools of the Mind.  Adults can perform this task silently in their heads, but young children learn how to do this through first voicing it out loud by talking to themselves as they run through their activities.  The ability to perform high-order thinking helps children avoid distraction and keeps them from reacting impulsively during class.

Tools of the Mind not only teaches children how to avoid distraction, but it help them become self-organised and self-directed.

Aside from the visual effects of Tools of the Mind on child development, the theory is also supported by neuroscience.  Tools of the Mind helps a child develop “executive function” in the prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it helps a child plan, predict, control impulses, persist through trouble, and orchestrate thoughts to fulfill a goal.  Although executive function represents very adult attributes, it has been shown that executive function begins as early as preschool.

One of the ways Tools of the Mind helps a child develop this part of the brain is through the activity of planning time management and setting weekly goals.  This helps to wire up the part of the brain that is responsible for maintaining concentration and setting goals.

Part of the Tools of the Mind curriculum requires children to check and score their own work against answer sheets.  Children are also paired with another child to cross-check each other’s work.  This helps the child develop an awareness of how well he’s doing.  Being aware of how well he’s doing is part of a loop that helps him recognise when he is not doing well and needs to concentrate harder.  In order to do this, a child’s “cognitive control” needs to be switched on.

Cognitive control is responsible not only for avoiding external distractions but it also internal distractions, such as the thought, “I can’t do this.”  Cognitive control is used to manipulate information in the mind, such as planning chess moves in advance.  Cognitive control is also responsible for helping children pick the correct multiple choice answer.  Multiple choice questions often throw in an answer that is intended to be a distraction.  Children with poor cognitive control are often tricked into selecting this answer.

The Tools of the Mind program helps children to be proactive whereas most children generally react to situations.  Such proactive responses are akin to telling yourself ahead of time what you are going to do so that decisions can be made instantly and correctly.  Tools of the Mind also allow children to choose their own work.  By allowing children to choose their own work, they are more likely to choose what they are motivated to do.  By virtue of the fact that the motivated brain works more effectively, motivated children learn more.

Finally, the reason why Tools of the Mind is such an important program is because it prepares children for real life.  Real life is full of distractions.  It will not be like an IQ test which is performed in a quiet, controlled environment.  Tools of the Mind teaches children to focus and shut out distractions.  For this reason IQ tests are also poor indicators of intelligence.


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Early Childhood Education: Tools of the Mind

  1. Absolutely agree that the ability to concentrate and keep focus is critical to success in school and in life. As a parent, I believe that it is important to create a conducive environment to learning, with minimal distractions when the child is eager to learn. Babies and toddlers are people who are easily distracted. 🙂


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