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What Learning Looks Like: The Art And Science Of Classroom Transitions

A child at the Mesa Child Development Center puts her finger to her lips as p...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: A child at the Mesa Child Development Center puts her finger to her lips as part of a routine to bring students from controlled chaos outside to upright and facing forward inside, April 13, 2017.

When young children do not follow demands, it is not because they are ignoring you or choosing to misbehave. It is because they lack something called "cognitive flexibility."


KPBS is exploring learning at the cellular level in a new education series called "What Learning Looks Like." The goal is to help us understand how learning happens — or should happen — in our everyday lives.

With the brain development of young children on the line and an actual buzzer marking the end of their workday, every second counts for teachers. That is why they are often under pressure to reduce the time they spend transitioning students from one task to another.

Teachers say there is a real art to it. It is also a science.

"Young children, particularly children under five years of age, have trouble with cognitive flexibility tasks that we would find really straightforward, really simple," said Gedeon Deák, a cognitive science professor at UC San Diego.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to control our thinking so we can switch from one task to another. It is what lets adults multitask. For preschoolers, a lack of it is what teachers constantly have to work around.

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

"I usually give a five-minute warning every time we do any kind of transition, that way it's a little easier on the kids," said Natalie Graber, a teacher at UC San Diego's Mesa Child Development Center. "And then as they're doing that transition, I always ask if I can have helpers. For instance, 'Can I have a helper help me with putting the blocks away?' Or, 'Can I have a helper help me clean the tables?' I've noticed a lot of kids really like to be helpers."

Graber's approach is multi-tiered. She steers children who do not help with cleanup toward the classroom library. Some read with aides, others build teepees with books. Then she breaks into song.

"Put your books on the shelf, on the shelf," she sings, getting the children to sing and clap along.

From there, Graber employs familiar phrases and routine.

"Can we do crisscross-applesauce?" she says when asking the children to sit on the floor with their legs crossed.

"Now let's put on our seatbelts." The kids pull imaginary seatbelts over their chests and make clicking noises. This means to sit still.

But even after all of that, one boy who's new to the class turns his back to Graber and goes for a Dr. Seuss book. Another stares listlessly into space.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

While his classmates listen to their teacher at the Mesa Child Development Center, a child who is new to the class plays with a book, April, 13, 2017.

Graber does not take it personally. When young children do not follow demands, Deák said, it is not because they are ignoring you or choosing to misbehave. It is because the outer, noodle-like layer of their brain is still developing.

"The projections from a neuron to other neurons are getting sort of surrounded by these fatty sheets, called myelin sheaths, and that process greatly speeds up neural conduction and it kind of reduces noise in neural conduction," Deák said.

Put another way, it is like insulating the wires behind your drywall to keep the electrical currents going where they are supposed to go. What is also happening is a bit like editing clunky computer code or the first draft of a manuscript.

"The brain gets edited in the same way," Deák said. "There isn't a lot of proliferation of new neurons during childhood, but what there is, is pruning back. There's selective death of neurons that aren't well connected to other neurons and there's pruning of synapses that aren't contributing to the overall coherence of different states of activation in the brain.

"We think of growth and development as getting bigger, but in the nervous system it's also really important to be pruning back on the parts that aren't helping you be the most efficient nervous system that you can be," he added.

Special Feature What Learning Looks Like

KPBS is exploring What Learning Looks Like at the cellular level to help us understand how learning happens — or should happen — in our everyday lives.

A blank stare or repetitive behavior in children is kind of like the spinning wheel on your computer screen. Their processing speed — that is actually a cognitive science term — is a little slow.

But Deák said the research sometimes puts too much emphasis on the physical changes in the brain. He said there are also things adults take for granted, like the fact that children are still learning to communicate. They might not pick up on the body language or voice intonation that adults have come to understand. Their memory also can not take on as much as ours.

And sometimes it is just that children's basic skills are shaky. When an adult hesitates to start a new task, it is often because we dread the challenge. When children have trouble switching tasks, it can be because their skill set is not automated yet. The actual act — of putting a book on a shelf, for instance — takes novel brainpower. Kids do not have the automation adults use to propel themselves into something new.

Deák's advice to teachers and parents: get eye contact, give instructions in small bites, and repeat them a lot. He said Graber's approach is perfectly tailored for the cognition of 3- and 4-year-olds.

"What we saw in the classroom is a lot of what we call scaffolding — adults interacting with kids in a way to help guide, regulate and constrain their behavior," Deák said. "They're doing things to reduce the memory load for children to be able to follow through with an activity without having to remember a lot."

Deák said cognitive flexibility develops throughout our youth, but that children begin to gain more control around 4- or 5-years-old.

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.


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