Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology
Volume 17, Number 3, 2018
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based
Early Childhood Program
Elena Bodrova, PhD
Deborah J. Leong, PhD
Tools of the Mind, Denver, Colorado
e article describes Tools of the Mind—an instructional program developed 25 years
ago and now implemented in a variety of early childhood settings across the United
States and in Canada. Based on the principles of cultural-historical psychology, this
program addresses developmental and learning needs of young children by oering a
comprehensive curriculum and by delivering professional development for early child-
hood educators. e article provides examples of how Vygotskian and post-Vygotskian
ideas get embodied in Tools of the Mind instructional strategies with a special empha-
sis on make-believe play as a leading activity for preschool- and kindergarten-aged chil-
dren. e authors discuss the results of several evaluation studies conducted on Tools
and how these results helped to shape the current state of the program.
Keywords: Vygotsky; post-Vygotskian; Tools of the Mind; early childhood; executive
Tools of the Mind (Tools) is a unique example of an early childhood instructional pro-
gram based on the principles of cultural-historical psychology that is implemented in the
United States. While American educational landscape had seen examples of Vygotskian-
based curricula designed for older students (e.g., Campione & Brown, 1990; Newman, Grin,
& Cole, 1989; arp & Gallimore, 1989) most of the previous attempts to use Vygotskian-based
pedagogy with younger children were limited to individual instructional strategies such as the
use of “Elkonin boxes” to teach phonemic awareness (Clay, 1993) or the use of measurement to
introduce the concept of number (Sophian, 2007).
In contrast to these interventions aimed at promoting isolated areas of child development,
Tools applies cultural-historical approach consistently throughout the entire curriculum—from
the design of specic activities and materials to the organization of student’s daily experiences
in a classroom to the use of dynamic assessment in ongoing monitoring of student progress.
e hallmark of Tools’ activities is the emphasis on children’s development of self-regulation.
Self-regulation (often referred to as intentionality or deliberateness by Vygotskian scholars) is
a mental facility necessary for the development of higher mental functions (Vygotsky, 1987)
and one of critical prerequisites for school success (Elkonin, 1977, 1978). In addition to
© 2018 International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology 223
224 Bodrova and Leong
Vygotskian educational philosophy, Tools approach to promoting self-regulation is also
informed by Alexander Luria’s work on the genesis of voluntary actions as well as by the recent
developments in cognitive neuropsychology, particularly in the area of self-regulation/executive
In Tools classrooms, children are given multiple opportunities to practice self-regulation
in specic (“focal”) activities where self-regulation is a focus as well as in the activities where
self-regulation strategies are embedded in the context of academic tasks. At the heart of Tools
curriculum are instructional strategies designed to promote the development of mature make-
believe play since such play is considered by Vygotskians both the leading activity for preschool-
and kindergarten-aged children and the “school for deliberateness” (Elkonin, 1978, p. 287).
Unlike small-scale Vygotsky-based interventions delivered primarily by researchers (e.g.,
Brofman, Rabinovitch, & Karpov, 2018), Tools was from its inception designed as a comprehen-
sive curriculum to be used by regular classroom teachers in early childhood classrooms. First
developed and pilot tested in Denver, Colorado in 1990’s, Tools has expanded to many other
states and has been implemented in a variety of early childhood settings including public and
private preschools, Head Start, Even Start, as well as half-day and full-day kindergarten class-
rooms. Outside of the United States, Tools is now being used in Canada.
Developing Vygotskian-based Early Childhood curriculum in the context of American edu-
cational system presented us with a set of challenges: some of these (like dealing with dierent
educational philosophies and classroom practices) we expected and the others we had to face as
they emerged. Among the latter ones was a tendency to “push down” content and pedagogy ini-
tially designed for older children to kindergartners and now even preschoolers. is required us
to maintain a ne balance between ever growing demands of state and national academic stan-
dards and the goal to help young children develop cognitive and social-emotional competencies
that cultural-historical scholars consider developmental accomplishments unique to preschool
and kindergarten age (Elkonin, 1977; Karpov, 2005). For Tools it meant that none of the mate-
rials or activities could be simply adapted from the curricula designed by post-Vygotskian edu-
cators in Russia or in Europe but had to be built “from the ground up” in response to the specic
demands of the US early childhood classrooms. It also meant that to ensure successful imple-
mentation of the curriculum across the United States we had to align Tools with preschool and
kindergarten learning standards and assessments in 18 states and 160 school districts and pro-
grams. Finally, while many of the Vygotskian-based instructional practices were developed in
the context of fairly uniform system of state-run Soviet preschools ECE settings in the United
States vary greatly in the quality of classroom environment, in the duration of time children
spend in the classroom, as well as in the professional background of the teachers. Making Tools
work in these diverse settings and with diverse children they serve added to the complexity of
Since implementing Tools often means for teachers a considerable departure from famil-
iar instructional practices as well as a paradigm shift in thinking about teaching and learning,
the professional development component is as crucial for the success of Tools as the curricu-
lum itself. Tools trainers have been delivering professional development and technical assis-
tance to thousands of teachers, teacher assistants, administrators, and support sta with their
educational levels varying from high school to advanced degrees. e Tools professional devel-
opment program also follows the Vygotskian approach, scaolding teacher learning through a
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 225
system of coaching, workshops, and self-reection activities designed to provide teachers with
an understanding of child development and learning and to help them master specic instruc-
Applying the Principles of Cultural-Historical Approach in an Early Childhood Classroom
Tools is grounded in the Vygotskian theory of development and learning. e curriculum also
incorporates the contributions of other cultural-historical scholars including Piotr Galperin,
Daniel Elkonin, Alexander Zaporozhets, and Leonid Venger. e contributions made by post-
Vygotskians to the eld of early childhood education could be epitomized in the idea of ampli-
cation of child development. e term “amplication” was rst coined by Vygotsky’s colleague
and the founder of the All-Soviet Institute for Preschool Education, Alexander Zaporozhets.
Zaporozhets proposed the idea of amplication as the answer to the push down curricula on one
hand and as an alternative to the notion of “spontaneous development” of young children on
the other. Amplication underscores the role of education in child development, emphasizing
that properly designed educational interactions within developmentally appropriate activities
do not interfere with the development of young children but instead promote it. e idea of
amplication, therefore, is the application of Vygotsky’s principle of instruction leading devel-
opment to Early Childhood education.
In Tools classrooms, carefully planned activities and instructional strategies are designed to
“amplify” children’s social-emotional and cognitive skills and to support children’s internaliza-
tion of mental tools—“tools of the mind.” Among the rst tools children learn is self-talk or “pri-
vate speech.” According to Vygotsky, private speech in young children is both an outgrowth of
“public speech” and a precursor to verbal thinking. Private speech supports the ability to think
at the time when children’s higher mental functions are not fully developed (Vygotsky, 1987).
As it was later found by Alexander Luria, (Luria, 1969) and then conrmed by many studies
within and outside Vygotskian framework, private speech has another important function: it
helps children regulate their behaviors, both overt and mental (Berk, 1992; Winsler, de Leon,
Wallace, Carlton, & Willson-Quayle, 2003). To promote the use of private speech Tools teachers
model its use as they engage children in complex multi-step activities. In addition, teachers sup-
port children’s use of “public speech” as a precursor to the private speech by replacing calling on
individuals with encouraging children to discuss their answers with each other.
Another kind of “tool” used by young children is external mediators, that is, objects that
assist in carrying out intentional behaviors (Vygotsky, 1978). Tools teachers introduce children
to a variety of such tools—from simple external mediators such as counters and manipulatives
to more sophisticated ones such as a number line. roughout dierent Tools activities, chil-
dren use specically designed external mediators that help them better remember the directions
for an activity or pay attention to the role they play in a specic activity. An example is Buddy
Reading where children “read” books to each other, which exercises self-regulation in turn tak-
ing and requires children to develop the ability to remain in the role of “reader” or “listener” for
the entire activity. To help children remember their roles, Tools teachers use cards with the pic-
tures of “lips” and “ears” reminding children that “lips read and ears listen.” With some practice,
children internalize the rules and become able to stay in their roles without the support of the
picture cards. As children learn to use these tools they become encouraged to create their own
symbolic representations (in drawing, scribbles, or in writing) that can be used to support their
memory or assist in their social interactions with their peers.
226 Bodrova and Leong
According to the “law of development of higher mental functions” (Vygotsky, 1978)
children’s self-regulatory abilities rst originate in social interactions and only later become
internalized and independently used by children. is means that to develop self-regulation,
children need to have an opportunity to engage in “other-regulation.” ey must act both as sub-
jects of another person’s regulatory behaviors and as actors regulating other person’s behaviors.
In Tools classrooms, the primary context where children engage in other-regulation is make-
believe play (described below). In addition, many of Tools activities are designed in such a way
that children take turns with one child performing a task (e.g., counting objects) and the other
checking the result, consequently sharing the activity. By engaging children in this shared activ-
ity, Toolsaccomplishes two goals. First, it maximizes children’s engagement as children do not
wait for the teachers’ help but help each other or work as much as they can on their own. Sec-
ond, by assuming strategically identied roles (such as “doer” and “checker”) children learn to
co-regulate by acting and then monitoring and evaluating the actions of their partner and thus
learning the criteria that they will apply to themselves. Eventually children internalize these
regulatory actions that they will apply to their own work. In respect to the development of self-
regulation and executive functions, such activities build cognitive and social competencies that
are hallmarks of self-regulated learning (Schunk, 1999). In addition, these activities provide
optimal contexts for children to practice perspective taking and develop insights into theory
of mind that are associated with the development of executive functions and social-emotional
competence (Carlson, Mandell, & Williams, 2004; Hughes & Ensor, 2007).
e Vygotskian principle of social mediation of learning is operationalized in Tools through
establishing adult-child and child-child interactions. Social mediation in Tools classroom takes
place in the form of adult- or peer-provided scaolding and in the form of mature make-believe
play children engage in with their peers.
Scaolding interactions are used in the course of formal or informal instruction to help a
child move from being assisted by an adult or by a more competent peer in performing a new
task to being able to perform this and similar tasks independently (Bodrova & Leong, 2007).
ese interactions must fall within each individual child’s Zone of Proximal Development so that
they would support the very skills and knowledge that are on the edge of emergence (Vygotsky,
1978). When providing scaolding, a teacher or a peer tutor does not make the task easier but
instead makes the learner’s job easier by giving the child maximum support in the beginning
stages and then gradually withdrawing this support as the child’s mastery of a new skill increases
(Bruner, 1985). us, eective scaolding provides only temporary support and is withdrawn
once these new mental processes and categories are fully developed and can be used by the child
without any outside assistance.
Not all scaolding is created equal: an appropriate scaold is the one that not only makes
it easier for a child to complete a current task or brings to the surface behaviors most mature
to date, but plays a role in the child’s “construction of mind,” inuencing the development of
mental categories and processes responsible for the child’s performance on a variety of tasks.
From Vygotskian perspective, scaolding may exist in dierent formats ranging from teacher-
child interactions when they work on a task jointly, to teacher introducing child to a strategy or
a “tool” the child will be later able to use on his/her own, to the teacher planning for a specic
context or environment where the child will be supported by other children (Bodrova & Leong,
2007; Campione & Brown, 1990; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). In Tools classrooms, teachers
provide scaolding in a variety of formats and across various contexts not limited to academic
tasks and introduce children to a variety of “tools” that promote their development.Pdf_Folio:226
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 227
As a comprehensive curriculum, Tools contains multiple activities targeting all major areas
of child development and intended to be used in large group, in small groups, as well as by pairs
of children and by individual children. One example of a large group activity is Story Lab—
the Tools version of read-aloud. Unlike a typical read-aloud activity, Story Lab is designed for
children to practice one comprehension strategy—from visualization to prediction to character
empathy—at a time with an picture card reminding children what to focus on as they are listen-
ing to a story.
Many of the small group activities are designed to be played by children as a game with min-
imal or no support by the teacher. In these games, children practice literacy and math concepts
while at the same time learning to follow increasingly complex sets of rules. All games included
in the Tools curriculum share some common characteristics that make these games compatible
each other but only with their own past results and children are not prohibited but are instead
encouraged to help each other when somebody does not know the answer. An example of such a
game is Number Line Hopscotch where children jump from one numbered carpet square to the
next following various instructions (starting from # 5, in reverse order, etc.).
e paired activities such as Buddy Reading and Numerals Game are designed in such a way
that children take turns acting out dierent roles (see the description of “doer and checker” and
“lips and ears” above). Many of these paired activities also have an imaginary component: for
example, in Market Farm activity, a child spells a word letter-by-letter as she orders items from
the farm to sell at the market while her partner tries to match each word with the picture of the
All Tools activities are designed to be multi-level so that children of varying abilities can
engage in social interactions with each other over the same content. is design prevents ability
grouping and promotes the sense of community in all children. Tools teachers learn to support
children of dierent abilities within the same activity by providing dierentiated scaolding
to all of them. is makes Tools curriculum an ideal t for multi-age classrooms as well as the
inclusion classrooms. Another distinct feature of all Tools activities is that these are designed
to “grow with a child” from early preschool years into kindergarten constantly presenting chil-
dren with new levels of challenges. is makes activities and their variations too numerous to
describe in this article so we limited the description of Tools classroom to just two examples to
illustrate how Vygotskian principles are embedded in daily experiences of preschool and kinder-
Supporting Make-Believe Play as the Leading Activity of Preschool and
For Vygotskians, certain children’s activities produce the greatest gains in their development.
ese “leading activities” are age-specic and provide the best conditions for the acquisition
of cognitive and social competencies most critical for child development at this age (Chaiklin,
Hedegaard, & Jensen, 1999; Karpov, 2005). For children of preschool- and kindergarten age,
make-believe play is such leading activity while the primary-grades students engage in the activ-
ity of intentional academic learning (frequently referred to as the “learning activity”) (Elkonin,
1977; Leont’ev, 1978). Vygotskians cite multiple benets of make-believe play focusing espe-
cially on play’s contributions to children’s developing symbolic thinking and self-regulation. In
with the goal of building classroom community: children and teams do not compete with
228 Bodrova and Leong
their writings, however Vygotsky and his colleagues limited their denition of play to the dra-
matic or make-believe play and did not include such activities as object manipulations and explo-
rations that are precursors to play in toddlers and younger preschoolers. Neither did they include
such activities as games and sports considering these to be an outgrowth of play in children of
Unlike many of Western scholars Vygotskians do not believe that play develops sponta-
neously in all children once they reach preschool age but rather associate the level of play sophis-
tication with the certain features of a child’s social situation of development, namely the adult
mediation of play. If the opportunity to learn how to play was absent in children’s prior expe-
rience these children would benet from scaolding, however teachers should not attempt to
turn child play into teacher-directed activity (Elkonin, 1978; Mikhailenko & Korotkova, 1990).
While Vygotsky himself did not specify what kind of play makes it a leading activity, some
of his students indicate that children need to reach a certain level of play in order for it to start
having its benecial impact on child development. In his book Psychology of Play, Daniel Elkonin
(1978, 2005) introduced the idea of “mature” (also called “advanced” or “fully developed”) play
emphasizing that only this kind of play can be a source of development in early childhood. When
playing at a mature level, children create an imaginary situation; use objects-substitutes as play
props, take on and sustain pretend roles, and follow rules determined by a pretend scenario and
by a chosen character in particular.
Unfortunately play that exists in many of today’s early childhood classrooms across the
world often does not reach this level of maturity: even 5- and 6-year-old children who accord-
ing to Vygotsky and Elkonin should be at the peak of their play performance play only with
realistic props, enact play scenarios that are stereotypical and primitive, and display a reper-
toire of themes and roles that is rather limited (Miller & Almon, 2009; Smirnova & Gudareva,
2004). Researchers attribute this apparent decline in play to changes in the culture of childhood
such as the disappearance of multi-age groups with older children serving as play mentors to
the younger ones, and the increase in time children spend in adult-led activities or playing with
With modern culture seldom giving young children an opportunity to develop mature play by
serving as “play apprentices” to older children, early childhood educators have to assume a new
position of play mentors. True to the Vygotskian approach, promoting mature play became of
on the main directions of Tools with a special focus on adult’s role in scaolding children’s play.
Scaolding is designed to support the main components of mature play such as using toys and
props in a symbolic way; developing consistent and extended play scenarios; taking on a pretend
role and staying in it for an extended play episode or a series of play episodes; and consistently
following the rules determining what each pretend character can or cannot do.
An essential part of scaolding is helping children to plan their play. Elkonin (1978) identi-
ed planning as one of the features of mature play, describing the developmental trajectory of
play as moving from abbreviated planning followed by extended acting out to extended plan-
ning followed by abbreviated acting out. As with other components of play, role and scenario
planning can benet from adult scaolding. In Tools preschool classrooms children engage in a
planning session preceding their playtime. e teacher starts by asking children what they want
to play or what they want to be, encouraging them to discuss the choice of the roles with their
peers. By making planning a necessary step in play, the Tools teachers direct children’s attention
to the specics of their roles and to the existence of rules associated with them. e planning
process rst takes place orally; later in the year, children are encouraged to represent their plansPdf_Folio:228
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 229
in drawing or pretend writing. As children’s play becomes more mature, teacher scaolding fades
away and children initiate discussions of their future play on their own leading to longer play
episodes with more elaborate pretend scenarios.
By kindergarten age, most children are expected to develop the level of make-believe play
that allows them to engage in a dierent kind of play—games with rules—where they abide
by decontextualized and often arbitrary rules (Leont’ev, 1981; Kravtsova, 1999). Unlike make-
believe play that is open-ended, games with rules make children focus on the outcome and plan
their actions accordingly. Experience with playing games with rules helps children develop plan-
ning and monitoring abilities essential for performing learning tasks. Unfortunately, many chil-
dren entering today’s kindergarten do not have higher levels of play that have been associated
with the development of self-regulation (Berk, Mann, & Ogan, 2006; Elkonin, 1978) and are
therefore unprepared to conform their actions to mandatory rules and norms of a classroom
(Miller & Almon, 2009; Ugaste, 2007). erefore, teachers in the Tools kindergarten classrooms
have to support play in two ways: (a) by continuing to promote mature and intentional make-
believe play as a part of daily activities and (b) by facilitating children’s transition from make-
believe play to playing games with rules.
To support make-believe play while at the same time building listening comprehension skills
in kindergarten children, Tools implements a series of dramatization activities where children
act out stories from chapter books read to them during the read-aloud time. After reading a
story, the teacher takes children through a series of exercises designed to help them see the
perspectives of dierent characters in the story, identify and summarize main events, think
about the beginning middle and end of stories, and to predict alternate endings. Later, during
center time, children act out the storyline, and are encouraged to make a prediction for the next
chapter. Children draw and write their predictions and act them out and after listening to a new
chapter compare their predictions with what actually happened in the book.
To facilitate kindergartner’s transition from make-believe play to playing games with rules,
Tools teachers engage children in learning games with increasingly complex rules. ese games
are designed to support learning of specic academic content along with other competencies
such as self-regulation or perspective taking. Similar to the games used in Tools preschool, many
of kindergarten games include external mediators (such as a magician’s hat in a counting game)
that help children sustain a specic role.
Scaolded Writing—A Key Component in Tools of the Mind Literacy Program
Scaolded Writing is a Tools method to teach writing that exemplies the application of the
Vygotskian approach to a novel classroom situation that had not been previously addressed
within the cultural-historical framework. In addition to following Vygotsky’s (1997) views on
children’s mastery of written language, this method incorporates specic strategies used by
Vygotskians in designing curricula for preschool and primary grade students.
Discussing the pedagogy of teaching writing, Vygotsky (1997) emphasized that “teaching
must be set up so that reading and writing satisfy the child’s need” and that the goal of the
instruction should be “to teach a child written language and not writing the alphabet.” At the
same time, Vygotsky advocated early (at age 3-4) instruction in writing that emphasizes the
communicative and instrumental function of written language and not the mechanics of its pro-
duction. True to his own belief that good instruction should lead development and not follow
230 Bodrova and Leong
it, Vygotsky explained the value of learning to write early not in the context of preparing chil-
dren for formal schooling, but in the broader context of using cultural tools for supporting the
development of higher mental functions.
is view of teaching writing stands in sharp contrast to the instructional practices com-
monly used in American classrooms where children are taught isolated sub-skills such as letter
formation and spelling in the contexts determined by a published curriculum and not by “the
child’s need.” As a result, many children continue to struggle with learning to write in spite of
many hours spent practicing often at the cost of play and other activities essential for their
Unlike these practices, Tools rst introduces writing in the context of the activity that is
the most meaningful for young children: make-believe play. In preschool, 3- and 4-year old chil-
dren make their play plans by using scribbles and drawings. is also follows Vygotsky’s (1997)
insight about the genetic roots of writing being drawing and play. Tools teachers are encouraged
to help children elevate the level of their play and to make their drawings more representational
before focusing on writing letters.
While still supporting children’s oral message and drawing, teachers begin modeling writing
as they “record” children’s oral messages by drawing a line for each word in the message. After the
oral message gets “recorded” both the child and the teacher repeat the message pointing to each
line as he or she says the word. Once children develop consistent one-to-one correspondence
between the words in the oral message and the lines, teachers begin writing on these lines, ask-
ing a child to prompt each word in a sequence. Soon, children begin to plan their own messages
with the help of the lines, but at this time they still need teachers’ help in writing the words.
As children learn sound-symbol correspondences for the most frequent letters, they attempt to
write some of the words independently, placing one or more letters on each line. See Figure 1
for an example of the use of Scaolded Writing by a preschooler.
Tools kindergarten teachers also use Scaolded Writing with their students gradually
increasing the number of contexts for writing. Some of these contexts still involve play (e.g.,
when children write a chapter summary to act it out in a center). Children also write plans for
their center activities; write down riddles and tongue twisters (to later “torment” their parents
and siblings) and correct errors in the writing of a ctitious mouse, which they believe to live in
their classroom. All these activities solidify children’s understanding of writing as a tool of com-
municating to oneself and to the others. As a result, children in the Tools classrooms develop
and sustain interest in writing and surpass their peers in mastering literacy concepts and skills.
See Figure 2 for an example of the use of Scaolded Writing by a kindergarten student.
RESEARCH ON TOOLS OF THE MIND: RESULTS AND CHALLENGES
From the very beginning, Tools has been an evidence-based curriculum and all of its materials
and activities were not only research-based but also piloted and rened with the help of class-
room teachers. e early studies employed primarily microgenetic design focusing in-depth on
the changes in a single process such as writing as it had been systematically scaolded (Bodrova
& Leong, 1995, 1998). ese microgenetic studies were used to examine whether a specic
instructional procedure produced changes in the child’s behavior. ese were focused on improv-
ing procedures and the design of instruction.
e rst evaluation study was quasi-experimental in design and compared preschool and
kindergarten classrooms that implemented Tools strategies with non-Tools classrooms. AtPdf_Folio:230
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 231
FIGURE 1. An example of a preschooler’s use of Scaolded Writing on his play plan. e message
reads: I am going to y the helicopter.
that time, only few Tools strategies were developed, however the dierences between chil-
dren in treatment and comparison groups were signicant in several areas of development
which resulted in Tools being nominated as the rst innovative early childhood programs to be
included in the UNESCO’s international database INODATA (Bodrova & Leong, 2001).
232 Bodrova and Leong
FIGURE 2. An example of a kindergartner’s use of Scaolded Writing in a fact book. It reads:
Trees in the rain forest make medicine. Coco beans grow in the rain forest.
e rst formal evaluation of the eectiveness of Tools was conducted by the National Insti-
tute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in a study where teachers and their students were
randomly assigned to either Tools or control classrooms (Barnett et al., 2008). e study was
conducted in a school district with a high level of poverty and a predominantly non-English-
speaking population. All of the classrooms were state-funded preschool classrooms with the
control group implementing an established, district-created model described as a “balanced lit-
eracy curriculum with themes.” Children (88 in Tools classrooms and 122 in control classrooms
ages 3 and 4) were compared on social behavior, language, and literacy growth. e Tools cur-
riculum was found to improve classroom quality and children’s self-regulation, as indicated by
lower scores on the Problem Behavior dimension of the Social Skills Rating Scale. In addition,
there were gains in language development, however these eects were smaller and did not reach
conventional levels of statistical signicance. Teachers trained in Tools scored higher on the
CLASS instrument in classroom management, use of classroom time, and appropriate engage-
ment interactions that challenged children to learn at the next level.
Tools’ impact on children’s self-regulation/executive functions was the focus of a sepa-
rate study that used a sub-sample of children participating in the Barnett et al. (2008) study
described above. In this study (Diamond, Barnett, omas, & Munro, 2007), children with
one year of Tools and two years of Tools were compared with children with similar demo-
graphic characteristics who had no Tools experience. All children were administered computer-
ized tests designed to measure their executive functions—the neuropsychological correlate ofPdf_Folio:232
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 233
self-regulation. At the time of the study all children attended kindergarten and were an average
of 5 years of age. To test executive functions, children were assessed on the Hearts and Flow-
ers (Dots) and Flanker tests. e results showed that on the test trials requiring minimal use of
executive functions(EF), children in the Tools and control conditions performed the same how-
ever in those conditions that taxed EF, children in Tools did signicantly better than controls.
Further analyses comparing the child’s scores on the two EF tests and the academic achieve-
ment measures collected on the Tools children found that the higher the level of EF, the higher
the achievement scores. In addition, children’s results on the EF measures correlated with the
teachers’ ratings of their behavior on the Social Skills Rating Scale. Another interesting outcome
of this study that was not formally measured but was however reported by the data collectors:
Tools graduates seemed to demonstrate higher task persistence, i.e. children kept asking the
testers to let them try one more time after the test was over and they felt they made errors.
In contrast, children from the control group got easily discouraged after they made a couple of
errors and did not want to keep trying.
In the years following the Barnett et al. study, there were several randomized controlled
studies (RCTs) where the entire Tools curriculum or some of the elements of the program were
compared with other early childhood curricula (Clements, Sarama, Unlu, & Layzer, 2012; Loni-
gan & Phillips, 2012; Morris et al., 2014; Wilson & Farran, 2012). In all of these studies children
in the Tools classrooms showed the same yearly progress on academic measures as children in
the control classrooms. In addition, children in the treatment and control conditions did not
dier on the measures of self-regulation, although self-regulation measures used in these stud-
ies were dierent from the ones used in the Diamond’s study of 2007.
e results from these four studies led to a redesign of the Tools program for both preschool
and kindergarten. e earlier (2001-2008) evaluations of Tools occurred on a much smaller scale
with the developers doing all of the training. e four studies described above overlapped with
the contracts Tools was executing simultaneously, so the sheer number of teachers being trained
at the same time (over 2,000) meant that the lack of formal structure to training as well as
resources for trainers led to diculties with scaling that were not anticipated. Consequently,
inconsistency in the quality of training. Issues associated with rapid scaling and with dening
the delity of implementation were not worked out in advance leading to problems in training
and in some instances with compromised delity. Resulting changes in the training and the
development of the iScaold (a technology based training platform) have led to more positive
Changes in training led to an ecacy study showing stronger results. Researchers compared
academic achievement, behavioral self-regulation as well as the performance on EF tasks of
kindergarten students that were or were not enrolled in Tools (Blair & Raver, 2014) is time,
the results were consistent with earlier ndings in Diamond et al. (2007) and Barnett et al
(2008) studies: in addition to showing better results on a battery of EF tasks, children enrolled in
Tools outperformed their peers on literacy and math tests with strongest eects in high poverty
schools. Most compelling is the data showing that students carried these gains into rst grade,
with even higher results in reading and vocabulary. ese stronger outcomes may reect the
fact that the development of executive functions actually improves how children learn, mak-
ing learning more eective, even beyond kindergarten. e long-lasting eects of Tools train-
ing were also evident in the area of behavioral self-regulation, with children in Tools classrooms
demonstrated higher levels of social-emotional competence, lower rates of aggression, and lower
occurrence of behavior problems compared to their peers in control classrooms. Similar to thePdf_Folio:233
234 Bodrova and Leong
achievement gains, these behavioral outcomes were also carried into rst grade where Tools cur-
riculum was no longer implemented (Blair, McKinnon, & Daneri, 2018).
A second kindergarten study with matched controls was conducted in Canada (Diamond,
Lee, Senften, Lam, & Abbott, submitted). In this study, children in 9 Tools classrooms also sur-
passed their peers on the measures of pro-social behavior, achievement, and executive functions.
Relative to controls, children in Tools classrooms had signicantly higher reading, writing, their
ability to work independently and cooperatively, and their ability to get along with, and be kind
and helpful to, each other
Positive impact of Tools training on children’s EF was also demonstrated in a recent exper-
imental study conducted in Canada. In this study, preschool children attending Tools class-
rooms were compared to their peers participating in another play-based curriculum. Children in
Tools classrooms made greater gains on the behavioral measure of executive functions and the
eect was most signicant for children initially rated high in inattentiveness and hyperactivity
(Solomon et al., 2017). Qualitative study of teachers’ perceptions of Tools eects on children also
emphasizes the value of Tools in promoting cognitive and social competencies in preschool and
kindergarten students. Among most signicant outcomes of implementing Tools these teach-
ers listed fewer classroom behavior problems, more collaborative behaviors, and higher levels of
communication and verbalization (Imholz & Petrosino, 2012).
While many children in Tools studies were dual language learners (DLLs), the specic eects
of Tools training on DLLs has been studied only recently. One experimental study conducted
in two large urban Head Start program focused on the eects of Tools on academic growth in
children with varying degrees of mastery of English and Spanish. e ndings in this study
showed positive eects on children’s English math and literacy abilities as well as Spanish vocab-
ulary. In addition, for most outcomes, Spanish-dominant children demonstrated larger growth
in academic ability than their English-dominant peers (Daneri, Blair, Hammer, & Lopez, 2017).
A smaller nonexperimental study identied the best conditions for implementing Tools instruc-
tional strategies in a bilingual classroom. In this study, bilingual instruction during storybook
reading followed by literature-based dramatic play resulted in greater gains in English pro-
ciency in DLL preschoolers compared to English-only and nonplay conditions (Cohen, Kramer-
Vida, Frye, & Andreou, 2014).
High mobility of children typically enrolled in Tools classrooms makes it dicult to obtain
data on long-term eects of the program, although testimonials of teachers and administrators
indicate that these eects are positive. e only study that reports such data was conducted in
a high poverty school district that had been implementing Tools for many years. e purpose
of this study was to examine the sustained impact of participation in the Tools preschool pro-
gram on language arts, mathematics, reading, and writing achievement in middle school. Using
a nonexperimental, quantitative, longitudinal design, the achievement of the original cohort of
students who participated in the program was examined over two consecutive years. e results
of the study suggest that participation in the Tools program increases the overall achievement
of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and the writing performance of African American
students (Millaway, 2015).
Tools is a living program and as such it continues to evolve addressing new challenges and
attempting to solve new problems all the while staying true to the principles of the cultural-
historical approach. After successfully applying Vygotskian views of written speech to teaching
writing, we are now applying the same approach to teaching reading. Our rst experience of
using it with kindergarten children is encouraging: when reading “satises the child’s need” toPdf_Folio:234
Tools of the Mind: e Vygotskian-Based Early Childhood Program 235
learn new information and to share it with their friends children spend much more time reading
and read well above their grade level. With further renement of our program we hope to add
one more “tool of the mind” to young children’s toolboxes.
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Disclosure. e authors have no relevant nancial interest or aliations with any commercial interests
related to the subjects discussed within this article.
Correspondence regarding this article should be directed to Elena Bodrova, Lakewood, Colorado. E-mail: