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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 part of a routine to bring students from controlled chaos outside to upright and facing forward inside, April 13, 2017.
Nicholas McVicker
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.
What Learning Looks Like: The Art And Science Of Classroom Transitions
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."

With an actual buzzer marking the end of the workday every second counts for teachers. That is why they are under pressure. Reporter Megan Burks says it is also a science. Painting sidewalk are. Hula hoops and hopscotch The preschool model and UC San Diego Mesa child development center is all about free choice within reason. It is time to clean up friends. When it is news desk music time the teacher has an elaborate system to get preschoolers from controlled chaos outside to upright and facing forward inside. I usually give five-minute warnings any time we do a transition that way it is a little bit easier on the kids. As they are doing that transition I always ask if they can help help others I notice a lot of kids really like to be helpers. She then uses song Can you find a seat please? All right now let's put on our seatbelts. Even after all that one boy turns his back and goes for a Dr. Seuss book another stairs into space. Young children particularly those under five years of age have trouble with flexibility tasks that we would find really straightforward. The ability to the controller thinking so we can switch from one task to another. Says when young children do not follow demands it is not because they are ignoring you or choosing to misbehave it is because that outer layer of the brain is still developing. Projections from one neuron to other neurons are getting surrounded by these fatty sheets called myelin sheaths. That process greatly speeds up neural conduction and kinda reduces noise. It is like inflating the dryers -- wires of the drywall and it's like editing clunky computer code or the first draft of the manuscript. The brain gets edited in the same way. There is not a lot of proliferation neurons what there is is pruning back their selective death of nuance that are not well connected to other neurons and there's synapses that do not contribute in to overall coherence. We speak of growth and development of getting better. In the nervous system it is also really important to be cutting back on the parts that are not helping you be the most efficient nervous system you can be. A blank stare and repetitive behavior is like spinning wheel on your computer screen. The processing speed is a cognitive science term and is a little bit slow. He says there is also things that adults may take for granted the kids are still learning to communicate and do not always pickup on body language and voice intonation and the memories cannot take on as much as ours. The given instructions in small bites and repeat them a lot. We start -- saw in the classroom is a lot of scaffolding. We saw adults interact with kids to guide and regulate and constrain their behavior. They are doing things to reduce the memory load Put your books on the shelf. Songs go a long way as well. Put your books on the shelf you can do it all yourself your books on the shelf Joining me is Catherine Allen director of early care and education and UC San Diego. Look into the program. Thank you for having me. Listening to have his teacher handled the group of preschoolers was very enlightening. I think many parents think their children are not paying attention to them if they do not follow instructions. The need to be instructed sort of every stuff either way. Can you talk about why these methods work so well? Natalie did a really nice job of illustrating how by taking those instructions and breaking them up into smaller steps a child can go from one situation to another with out that situation. If you will remember from the story what Natalie did as the children were cited in our free choice should -- the situation where they were able to explore their environment they were enjoying what they were doing some of them is active play and they were transitioning from that time to their circle meeting time. So that was really important because if they are absorbed and something they are doing it can be very stressful and very frustrating if they suddenly get whisked away from that That given an opportunity to process that there would be a time of change. After that she used to son. By using the song she engaged them and they became involved in the cleanup process. Even facilitated the opportunity to to the task more quickly an opportunity to go sit inside on the rug and get a book so that they began calming their bodies and teachers were able to support the children who were having a little bit more difficulty getting through the task. To use the song again together their attention with supportive putting the books away and I went into their morning meeting time and were better able to bestow during that time but then she mixed it up again by having a song where they actually got to have that choice and follow the instruction again of going to the middle of the circle and dancing when it was their turn. The got to have self-expression and be created and have some control over what they were doing. They understood what it was that she expected of them. Children go through so many transitions throughout the day. Is there a different way that these transitions should be approached. I think it is important to remember that there are multiple transitions but they are all predictable within a routine so there's never an unexpected surprise for the child that makes them ill uncomfortable. They have some anticipation of what is going to come next week or even in a situation where there might be an unexpected surprise like the emergency alarm goes off the air used to the kids for what it means to gather at a certain time or the strategies that are being used for they are familiar with and understand the person -- purpose behind them it's a lot less stressful together in the situation and they have the ability to follow that instruction. What is the age range for this kind of mental processing that goes on for kids. This particular class was 2.5 to 5-year-old children that in a mixed age group So what is really fascinating for me is that children are born with one organ that is not fully developed and that is their brain. So for the first few years there's an enormous amount of growth happening in the brain and what we want is for that to be healthy development so that they can cope with these transitions and the different things that will come from this life and we want them to be successful and they referred to the fact that we are not actually supporting the social and emotional skills so that they have the foundation to be able to navigate the situations and be able to use words to express their feelings and ask questions then they are going to actually lose the ability to be is focused on other situations. I am interested in the fact that there's free choice in the classroom featured in the story that we heard. We'll explain how the concept of free choice works when teaching very young children as you say rely on a certain sense of predictability to transition from one thing to another. In the future of the children -- one example of that is the children are painted creatively by rolling and avocado seeing clearly and they could not do that all the same time so right there there is the process of understanding that they could not be there all at the same time and that they needed to wait there was the turn to do so so they were the transitioning. To have free choice during that time to explore and discover and learn and what they are interested in and they can creatively set up the environment. I've been speaking with Catherine director of early care and education at UC San Diego. Thank you so much. Thank you again.

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.

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

"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.

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.
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.

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.

What Learning Looks Like: The Art And Science Of Classroom Transitions
What Learning Looks Like: The Art And Science Of Classroom Transitions GUEST:Kathryn Owen, director, early care and education, UC San Diego

With an actual buzzer marking the end of the workday every second counts for teachers. That is why they are under pressure. Reporter Megan Burks says it is also a science. Painting sidewalk are. Hula hoops and hopscotch The preschool model and UC San Diego Mesa child development center is all about free choice within reason. It is time to clean up friends. When it is news desk music time the teacher has an elaborate system to get preschoolers from controlled chaos outside to upright and facing forward inside. I usually give five-minute warnings any time we do a transition that way it is a little bit easier on the kids. As they are doing that transition I always ask if they can help help others I notice a lot of kids really like to be helpers. She then uses song Can you find a seat please? All right now let's put on our seatbelts. Even after all that one boy turns his back and goes for a Dr. Seuss book another stairs into space. Young children particularly those under five years of age have trouble with flexibility tasks that we would find really straightforward. The ability to the controller thinking so we can switch from one task to another. Says when young children do not follow demands it is not because they are ignoring you or choosing to misbehave it is because that outer layer of the brain is still developing. Projections from one neuron to other neurons are getting surrounded by these fatty sheets called myelin sheaths. That process greatly speeds up neural conduction and kinda reduces noise. It is like inflating the dryers -- wires of the drywall and it's like editing clunky computer code or the first draft of the manuscript. The brain gets edited in the same way. There is not a lot of proliferation neurons what there is is pruning back their selective death of nuance that are not well connected to other neurons and there's synapses that do not contribute in to overall coherence. We speak of growth and development of getting better. In the nervous system it is also really important to be cutting back on the parts that are not helping you be the most efficient nervous system you can be. A blank stare and repetitive behavior is like spinning wheel on your computer screen. The processing speed is a cognitive science term and is a little bit slow. He says there is also things that adults may take for granted the kids are still learning to communicate and do not always pickup on body language and voice intonation and the memories cannot take on as much as ours. The given instructions in small bites and repeat them a lot. We start -- saw in the classroom is a lot of scaffolding. We saw adults interact with kids to guide and regulate and constrain their behavior. They are doing things to reduce the memory load Put your books on the shelf. Songs go a long way as well. Put your books on the shelf you can do it all yourself your books on the shelf Joining me is Catherine Allen director of early care and education and UC San Diego. Look into the program. Thank you for having me. Listening to have his teacher handled the group of preschoolers was very enlightening. I think many parents think their children are not paying attention to them if they do not follow instructions. The need to be instructed sort of every stuff either way. Can you talk about why these methods work so well? Natalie did a really nice job of illustrating how by taking those instructions and breaking them up into smaller steps a child can go from one situation to another with out that situation. If you will remember from the story what Natalie did as the children were cited in our free choice should -- the situation where they were able to explore their environment they were enjoying what they were doing some of them is active play and they were transitioning from that time to their circle meeting time. So that was really important because if they are absorbed and something they are doing it can be very stressful and very frustrating if they suddenly get whisked away from that That given an opportunity to process that there would be a time of change. After that she used to son. By using the song she engaged them and they became involved in the cleanup process. Even facilitated the opportunity to to the task more quickly an opportunity to go sit inside on the rug and get a book so that they began calming their bodies and teachers were able to support the children who were having a little bit more difficulty getting through the task. To use the song again together their attention with supportive putting the books away and I went into their morning meeting time and were better able to bestow during that time but then she mixed it up again by having a song where they actually got to have that choice and follow the instruction again of going to the middle of the circle and dancing when it was their turn. The got to have self-expression and be created and have some control over what they were doing. They understood what it was that she expected of them. Children go through so many transitions throughout the day. Is there a different way that these transitions should be approached. I think it is important to remember that there are multiple transitions but they are all predictable within a routine so there's never an unexpected surprise for the child that makes them ill uncomfortable. They have some anticipation of what is going to come next week or even in a situation where there might be an unexpected surprise like the emergency alarm goes off the air used to the kids for what it means to gather at a certain time or the strategies that are being used for they are familiar with and understand the person -- purpose behind them it's a lot less stressful together in the situation and they have the ability to follow that instruction. What is the age range for this kind of mental processing that goes on for kids. This particular class was 2.5 to 5-year-old children that in a mixed age group So what is really fascinating for me is that children are born with one organ that is not fully developed and that is their brain. So for the first few years there's an enormous amount of growth happening in the brain and what we want is for that to be healthy development so that they can cope with these transitions and the different things that will come from this life and we want them to be successful and they referred to the fact that we are not actually supporting the social and emotional skills so that they have the foundation to be able to navigate the situations and be able to use words to express their feelings and ask questions then they are going to actually lose the ability to be is focused on other situations. I am interested in the fact that there's free choice in the classroom featured in the story that we heard. We'll explain how the concept of free choice works when teaching very young children as you say rely on a certain sense of predictability to transition from one thing to another. In the future of the children -- one example of that is the children are painted creatively by rolling and avocado seeing clearly and they could not do that all the same time so right there there is the process of understanding that they could not be there all at the same time and that they needed to wait there was the turn to do so so they were the transitioning. To have free choice during that time to explore and discover and learn and what they are interested in and they can creatively set up the environment. I've been speaking with Catherine director of early care and education at UC San Diego. Thank you so much. Thank you again.