"Long before it's in the papers"
January 26, 2015

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“Kindness curriculum” may boost success in preschoolers

Jan. 26, 2015
Courtesy of the Uni­vers­ity of Wisconsin-Mad­i­son
and World Science staff

O­ver 12 weeks, twice a week, pre­kin­der­garten stu­dents in Mad­i­son, Wisc. learn­ed their ABCs. At­ten­tion, breath and body, car­ing prac­tice—clearly not the stand­ard let­ters of the al­pha­bet.

Rath­er, these 4- and 5-year-olds were part of a small study as­sess­ing a new cur­ric­u­lum meant to pro­mote so­cial, emo­tion­al and ac­a­dem­ic skills.

The re­search­ers found that in the months fol­low­ing the stu­dy, kids who had par­ti­ci­pated earned high­er marks and showed great­er im­prove­ments in ar­eas that pre­dict fu­ture suc­cess than oth­er chil­dren. The re­sults have been pub­lished in the jour­nal De­vel­op­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy.

The proj­ect started “when we were look­ing at ways to pos­sibly help chil­dren de­vel­op skills for school and ac­a­dem­ic suc­cess, as well as in their role as mem­bers of a glob­al com­mun­ity,” said study lead au­thor Li­sa Flook of the Uni­vers­ity of Wisconsin-Mad­i­son. “There was a strong in­ter­est in look­ing at cul­ti­vat­ing qual­i­ties of com­pas­sion and kind­ness.”

While si­m­i­lar ap­proaches have be­come pop­u­lar in re­cent years, few are backed by rig­or­ous sci­en­tif­ic ev­i­dence, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. They de­vel­oped a cur­ric­u­lum to help chil­dren be­tween the ages of 4 and 6 years learn how to be more aware of them­selves and oth­ers through prac­tices that en­cour­age them to br­ing “mind­ful at­ten­tion” to their ex­pe­ri­ences at each mo­ment. 

These prac­tices, the re­search­ers hy­poth­e­sized, could en­hance the chil­dren’s self-regula­t­ion skills—such as emo­tion­al con­trol and the ca­pa­city to pay at­ten­tion—and in­flu­ence the pos­i­tive de­vel­opment of traits like im­pulse con­trol and kind­ness.

Past stud­ies had found that the abil­ity to self-regulate in early child­hood pre­dicts bet­ter re­sults lat­er in life with health, educa­t­ional at­tain­ment and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, the re­search­ers ar­gued. Flook said early child­hood is a good time to equip chil­dren with these skills, which may al­so help them cope with fu­ture stress.

In the new stu­dy, trained in­struc­tors taught the cur­ric­u­lum in di­verse class­rooms through­out the Mad­i­son Met­ro­pol­i­tan School Dis­trict and worked with stu­dents through hands-on ac­ti­vi­ties in­volv­ing move­ment, mu­sic and books. Each les­son was de­signed to give stu­dents and teach­ers a chance to par­ti­ci­pate in “mind­fulness” prac­tices, in­clud­ing ac­ti­vi­ties fo­cused on com­pas­sion and grat­i­tude, and to take note of their ex­pe­ri­ence.

For ex­am­ple, kids were en­cour­aged to think about peo­ple who are help­ful to them—some­times those they may not know well, like the bus driver—and to re­flect on the role these peo­ple play in their lives, Flook said.

Teach­ers re­ported one of the kids’ fa­vor­ite ac­ti­vi­ties was a prac­tice called “Belly Bud­dies,” in which they lis­tened to mu­sic while ly­ing on their backs, a small stone rest­ing on their stom­achs. They were asked to no­tice the sensa­t­ion of the stone, and to feel it ris­ing and fall­ing as they breathed in and out.

“It’s some­thing that’s so sim­ple and it al­lows them to ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­nal qui­et­ness and a sense of calm,” said Flook.

They al­so each re­ceived al­pha­bet brace­lets to we­ar, to help them re­mem­ber their kind­ness cur­ric­u­lum ABCs. The cur­ric­u­lum it­self is root­ed in long-stand­ing adult mindfulness-based prac­tices but was adapted to the chil­dren’s de­vel­opmen­tal abil­ity.

The re­search­ers meas­ured the im­pact of the cur­ric­u­lum on shar­ing by us­ing stick­ers the kids could choose to give away or keep. They meas­ured the kids’ abil­ity to de­lay gratifica­t­ion by choos­ing one small re­ward to have im­me­di­ately or wait­ing to re­ceive a larg­er treat lat­er.

The team looked at how well kids could switch from one men­tal task to anoth­er in a card sort­ing ac­ti­vity, where they were first asked to sort by shape, then by col­or, and fi­nal­ly, a mix of both. That’s a par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing skill for young kids, Flook said.

In ad­di­tion to im­proved ac­a­dem­ics, the 30 stu­dents who went through the cur­ric­u­lum showed less self­ish be­hav­ior over time and great­er men­tal flex­i­bil­ity than the 38 kids in the con­trol group, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. Flook cau­tions that while the study was de­signed as a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al, ad­di­tional, larg­er stud­ies are needed.


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Over 12 weeks, twice a week, prekindergarten students in Madison, Wisc. learned their ABCs. Attention, breath and body, caring practice—clearly not the standard letters of the alphabet. Rather, these 4- and 5-year-olds were part of a study assessing a new curriculum meant to promote social, emotional and academic skills. The researchers found that in the months following the study, kids who had participated earned higher marks and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than other children. The results have been published in the journal Developmental Psychology. The project started “when we were looking at ways to possibly help children develop skills for school and academic success, as well as in their role as members of a global community,” said study lead author Lisa Flook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “There was a strong interest in looking at cultivating qualities of compassion and kindness.” While similar approaches have become popular in recent years, few are backed by rigorous scientific evidence, the investigators said. They developed a curriculum to help children between the ages of 4 and 6 years learn how to be more aware of themselves and others through practices that encourage them to bring “mindful attention” to their experiences at each moment. These practices, the researchers hypothesized, could enhance the children’s self-regulation skills—such as emotional control and the capacity to pay attention—and influence the positive development of traits like impulse control and kindness. Past studies had found that the ability to self-regulate in early childhood predicts better results later in life with health, educational attainment and financial stability, the researchers argued. Flook said early childhood is a good time to equip children with these skills, which may also help them cope with future stress. In the new study, trained instructors taught the curriculum in diverse classrooms throughout the Madison Metropolitan School District and worked with students through hands-on activities involving movement, music and books. Each lesson was designed to give students and teachers a chance to participate in “mindfulness” practices, including activities focused on compassion and gratitude, and to take note of their experience. For example, kids were encouraged to think about people who are helpful to them—sometimes those they may not know well, like the bus driver—and to reflect on the role these people play in their lives, Flook said. Teachers reported one of the kids’ favorite activities was a practice called “Belly Buddies,” in which they listened to music while lying on their backs, a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out. “It’s something that’s so simple and it allows them to experience internal quietness and a sense of calm,” said Flook. They also each received alphabet bracelets to wear, to help them remember their kindness curriculum ABCs. The curriculum itself is rooted in long-standing adult mindfulness-based practices but was adapted to the children’s developmental ability. The researchers measured the impact of the curriculum on sharing by using stickers the kids could choose to give to a variety of others or keep for themselves. They measured the kids’ ability to delay gratification by choosing one small reward to have immediately or waiting to receive a larger treat later. The team looked at how well kids could switch from one mental task to another in a card sorting activity, where they were first asked to sort by shape, then by color, and finally, a mix of both. That’s a particularly challenging skill for young kids, Flook said. In addition to improved academics, the 30 students who went through the curriculum showed less selfish behavior over time and greater mental flexibility than the 38 kids in the control group, according to the report. Flook cautions that while the study was designed as a randomized controlled trial, additional, larger studies are needed.