Preschoolers demonstrate stronger academic achievement when lessons about caring and mindfulness are integrated into the traditional curriculum, say educational researchers in Wisconsin. The new lessons also improved performance on tasks that predict for future success by measuring skills like self-restraint, discipline, and kindness.

Led by Professor Richard Davidson, founder of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, researchers led students aged four to six years old in thinking about the people who are most helpful to them. In one example, students were asked to reflect on their bus driver and the specific role this person played in their lives. 

One of the students' favorite games was called "Belly Buddies" in which mental focus was turned toward a small stone resting on their stomachs while lying with their backs against the floor. Lessons that encourage positive behavior in the young should be fun, confirms Sam Wang, neuroscientist at Princeton:

"It is not necessary for learning willpower or the teaching of willpower to be unpleasant for the child. In fact, the learning of willpower in children is most effective when the child is having fun. When children play, they’re learning more; they’re relaxed; they’re happy."

 

After introducing mindfulness lessons into the classroom, researchers measured the impact of the curriculum in several ways: they gave students stickers, which they could either keep for themselves or give away to others; they tested students' ability to delay gratification by offering an immediate reward or a larger prize if students waited; and they watched how good students were at switching tasks (an indicator of mental alertness). 

In addition to scoring better on their academic work, preschoolers who received mindfulness and caring lessons showed less selfish behavior than the control group of students who did not receive the lessons. Researchers hypothesize these results come from an intermingling of emotional and cognitive abilities that are especially present in young children. One way to raise the general level of achievement, they suggest, is to integrate emotional lessons into the regular academic curriculum.

Read more at UW-Madison School of Education.

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