Preschoolers at The Peppermint Tree Learn to Grow Their Brains

February 7th, 2011 by Valerie Frost-Lewis

The children at The Peppermint Tree Child Development Center in Toms River are learning how to grow their brains. Through an original set of lessons developed by the school’s director, Valerie Frost-Lewis, preschool students are learning that they have the power to actually grow their own brains. Based on research by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers in discovering what makes people successful, Frost-Lewis has created developmentally appropriate lessons about the brain to motivate preschool students to be persistent in the face of a challenge; to work their brain to make it stronger. Dweck’s original research was targeted to middle school students, and she has also written books for adults.

According to Dweck (2007), “core beliefs can set up different patterns of response to challenge and setbacks”. For example, if you believe that you are “bad” at math (a “fixed mind set”), you will tend to give up easily, believing you just can’t do it. However, if you have a “growth mind set” you believe that if you work hard at something, you will improve and gain skills, and if you keep trying different strategies you will figure it out. Dweck’s research has shown that a person’s mindset affects their potential for success, and further, she has discovered that mindset can be taught, and potential for success can be increased.

Frost-Lewis came across Dweck’s research with older students and wondered if it would be possible to teach very young children; three, four and five year olds about how their brain works and to develop a “growth mind set”. So she tested an initial lesson with positive results during last school year with four and five year olds. Based on this intial success, she decided to develop a full unit of study with ongoing follow through for the school’s faculty. This new set of lessons is now being rolled out at The Peppermint Tree for all students three years old and older.

This learning unit is designed to instill in these very young children the belief that they can improve through effort and practice. “I want to get to our students early so they build a belief that they aren’t born “dumb”, or “smart” but instead they have the ability to build their skills, and in turn build their brain.” And, the lessons are having an exciting effect around the school. The school’s Head Teacher, Carol Sullivan, says that a few days after her class of Kindergarten and pre-Kindergarten students participated in the “brain” lesson, “there was a puzzle that one of the children was having trouble with. When I asked him if he remembered what Miss Val said, another classmate started singing the “brain song” from the lesson to him. Before I knew it, other classmates joined in singing the song to him. He then was encouraged to try harder and, and finally was successful in completing the puzzle.”

Getting children to be persistent at working through difficult tasks, instead of giving up, or “melting down” into a tantrum, is an age-old problem that teachers and parents have always had to deal with. However, Casi Diver, Peppermint Tree Pre-K teacher, has noticed through her work with young children for over twenty years, that the children in her classroom today are much quicker to give up than those of the past. “Our world is a place of instant gratification and hectic schedules. It is so much easier for an adult to zip up a child’s coat or tie a shoe when running perpetually late, but what lessons are we unwittingly taking from the children? Are our children missing a key step in developing persistence, tenacity, and developing their brains to go the extra mile?”, asks Diver. She has embraced the new lessons and has taken the extra step of communicating the content to her students’ parents in her weekly classroom newsletter, so that they can reinforce the lessons at home.

The parent responses have also been quite positive. One parent provided the following feedback about her four-year-old son’s experience with the lessons. “It made my day when my son came home from preschool and told me excitedly that your brain lights up, it has grey and red squiggly things called brain cells and that they connect and make you smart.”

“My goal is for every graduate of The Peppermint Tree to take with them an understanding that they have a great potential within them, and if they work hard, they can continue to develop and do great things in the world. We are teaching them how the brain works so that they will never doubt this conviction about themselves. We are engaging all of their senses and using many teaching strategies such as, acting out the process of neurons firing, creating art images of the brain, singing songs about persistence and building the brain, reading books about famous inventors who had to try many things before making their famous discoveries, to reinforce and ensure that all our students internalize this message and use it to grow throughout their lives. ”, says Frost-Lewis. New brain research shows that when people learn new skills and work hard at them, the area of the brain responsible for that work becomes denser and larger. Why not let children in on the secret of how they can grow their own brains? This knowledge empowers them and they become giddy with excitement as they unlock one of life’s important lessons: that hard work and practice is what helps us each achieve at our highest possible level.

Reference: Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. By: Blackwell, Lisa S.; Trzesniewski, Kali H.; Dweck, Carol S. Child Development, Jan. 2007, Vol. 78 Issue 1, p246-263.

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