Healthy habits of mind

What is the relationship between the concept of healthy habits of mind and the early childhood education profession?

Early childhood education professionals help children develop healthy habits of mind.
Early childhood education professionals help children develop healthy habits of mind.

A recent national trend in education is the development of statewide standards of quality for early childhood education programs. The Michigan Department of Education has developed and refined our own early childhood education standards (revised in 2013). These standards are a comprehensive guideline for quality and provide detailed benchmarks of high expectations for all types of early childhood care and education programs. After a careful survey of the standards, we identified several terms that have not been used previously in many early childhood education texts, and our purpose in this article is to help families and professionals who work with young children to become more knowledgeable about these terms.

Let’s address the term “healthy habits of mind.” This term is used throughout the Early Learning Expectations for 3 and 4 Year Olds section of Michigan’s early childhood education standards. There are general definitions of the term and specific examples throughout the entire document.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development website shares Arthur L. Costa’s publication of “Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success.” In this book, Costa has a chapter on “Describing the Habits of Mind” where he describes habits of mind as “the characteristics of what intelligent people do when they are confronted with problems, the resolutions to which are not immediately apparent.” He goes on to describe the following 16 healthy habits of mind:

  1. Persisting
  2. Managing impulsivity
  3. Listening with understanding and empathy
  4. Thinking flexibly
  5. Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
  6. Striving for accuracy
  7. Questioning and posing problems
  8. Applying past knowledge to new situations
  9. Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
  10. Gathering data through all senses
  11. Creating, imagining, innovating
  12. Responding with wonderment and awe
  13. Taking responsible risks
  14. Finding humor
  15. Thinking interdependently
  16. Remaining open to continuous learning

If we apply this concept to our knowledge of early childhood education best practices, we can think of healthy habits of mind as a way of thinking about problem-solving in general. It is an approach to solving problems rather than a particular technique for solving problems. Early childhood educators and parents teach many of these concepts to young children. As with all interactions with children, we must consider the age or stage of development of the child with whom we are dealing. Not all of the concepts that Costa identifies are necessarily applicable to all young children. Michigan State University Extension suggests educators and parents focus on children who are in the pre-operational stage of development, generally ages 2 to 7 years old.

An example of how early childhood education professionals help children develop healthy habits of mind can be illustrated by examining the process of conflict resolution with young children. When children struggle over who gets to use a toy or demonstrate hostile aggression, we coach children through a specific process that calls upon children to use language and cognitive skills to solve a problem. For example, Kittie and Janet both want to use the sieve for sifting sand at the texture table. They are both tugging at the sieve and shouting. Of course, sand is flying everywhere. When an adult approaches, the adult secures the sieve and talks to the children, asking them to describe what is happening and how they are feeling. Young children have strong feelings and benefit from having adult support to label their feelings. The adult summarizes what the children are saying in a calm, non-judgmental manner so the children can begin viewing the situation in an intellectual rather than a totally-emotional, reactive manner.

Asking the children to talk about the problem of wanting the same toy rather than physically grabbing the toy helps the children think through the situation too. Once the children feel calmer, they can start thinking about a solution to the conflict that is acceptable to both of them. The adult may help them with solutions at first, but if the process of conflict resolution is used regularly, children begin to supply their own solutions. As the children work out a solution by talking, the adult maintains a watchful eye to ensure the process does not devolve into aggression and that both players are satisfied.

Throughout the entire conflict resolution process, the adult is prompting the children to think and express themselves with respect, thus using their intellectual skills to solve a problem. This adult is teaching how to persist, how to question and pose problems, and applying past knowledge to new situations. These are all healthy habits of mind.

Teaching healthy habits of mind can occur in other problem-solving situations that do not involve conflict as well, such as finding a way through a muddy playground with stepping in puddles or choosing the best way to stack blocks so they don’t fall. These are problem-solving situations that are well within the grasp of preschool children. An experienced early childhood professional or parent knows we face these types of challenges every day. When we use strategies such as helping children recognize their emotions, asking open-ended questions and using observation skills to notice details, we help children develop their own healthy habits of mind. When we model healthy habits of mind, we also make children aware of our own healthy habits of mind.

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