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Learning About Our Approach: Child-Initiated Work, Practicing Patience and Intentional Inhibition

Submitted by Heather on Sun, 07/07/2013 - 12:51

I want to start this entry with an excerpt from a book MIND IN THE MAKING by Ellen Galinsky, a book focused on exploring children's learning and development from the perspective of current brain research. This section in the book starts with us reflecting on our own experience with patience and focus.

Inhibitory Control (pg. 23)

"Think about your day so far and tally up the times you were on automatic pilot-- when you didn't really have to think or make decisions about what you were doing, such as getting up, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, or getting your favorite food for breakfast. These tasks didn't require much conscious focus or self control; you just did them.

Now think about the times that were just the opposite-- where you had to make a real effort to stick with the task and be intentional about what you wanted to achieve. These times demanded what is called inhibitory control-- or what some researchers, such as Mary Rothbart of the University of Oregon, refer to as effortful control.

Adele Diamond defines inhibitory control as "the ability to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate." Here are some examples:

being able to pay attention even when there are lots of distractions, such as paying attention to your child when you've just had an unpleasant conversation with someone else and this conversation is preoccupying you;

sticking with something you are doing after you've had an initial failure-- inhibiting the strong inclination to give up;

being able to stop and think before you act, such as not blurting out something but thinking through what you really want to say or not hurting someone who has hurt you (tit for tat); and

acting appropriately when tempted to do otherwise, such as continuing to work on something when you're bored.

You'll notice that inhibitory control involves controlling your attention, your emotions, and your behavior to achieve a goal...

...distractions can be internal or external, but inhibition is needed both for focused or selective attention and for staying focused on what you need to hold in your mind (aiding working memory)...

We also need inhibition if we have an initial failure on something we are doing--inhibition helps us resist the strong urge to simply give up. And inhibition is critical in social relationships."

Now back to Caterpillar Cottage and a couple of instances of in-the-moment emergent curriculum that the children created on the playground. The following is a child-chosen activity that exercised some of the most important brain muscles in getting ready for group times and instruction in Kindergarten, inhibitory control.

Some of the children were working hard on taking turns to tell their stories about amusement parks. This was during our outdoor free choice time. They had built an area with the big blocks to sit inside of together and eat snacks from their lunches. Teacher Heather was sitting with them and they all started telling stories about Sea World, Lego Land, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios, Disneyland and Disney cruises.

It was clear by the looks on their faces and shifting bodies as they waited quietly for their turn to talk, that they were working hard on their patience and inhibitory control. They would raise their hands and each child would get a turn in the order of raised hands, this sometimes meant waiting for 3 children to tell their stories before they would get a turn. Occasionally they would look at the friend who was talking and say "That's too long! I need to talk now!" Teacher Heather would remind them that their turn is soon and acknowledge how hard it is to wait when you have something you want to say.

These children all showed incredible patience as they waited for their turns, and persisted with this activity for about 15 minutes when they could have run off to play other games at any moment. It was a group effort that they all benefited from.

They told about roller coasters, specific rides at Disneyland, boats, the way the rides moved and how it made them feel. They talked about funny feelings in their tummies and some of them liked it and some of them didn't. They also talked about how sometimes they scream on rides and some of them don't.

Several other children also engaged in a self-initiated waiting activity, with taking turns on the trapeze bar. They were taking turns using the trapeze bar and sitting in a chair or on a stump while they waited for their turn. This went on for a while and gave them all practice in waiting for their turn.

As an extension of this very important work these children are engaged in, I would encourage all families to ask your child questions about how difficult it is for them to wait when other people are telling stories and they have something to say or when they have to wait to do something. Open up a conversation to see how they feel about this, and once they've told you, you might share with them about times when it has also been hard for you to wait patiently. Keep this as open-ended as you can, and help your child to understand you are listening and want to know how they feel by making eye contact and not interrupting them when they talk. This seems so straightforward, yet it is so common to interject our own thoughts into a conversation when our child is trying to tell us something.

You may be noticing that sometimes (or often) your child interrupts your conversations, which is very common for this age and some years to come because they have not fully developed this brain mechanism to control their impulses. This can be frustrating for adults, just as it is for them. One approach we use at preschool when we need a child to wait for a moment, is to gently place our hand on their hand or arm and make brief eye contact with a smile while we keep talking, this lets them know we hear them, but that they need to wait for a moment until it is their turn.