What's Wrong With Gold Stars and Timeouts?

What Women Really Think
Sept. 30 2009 1:11 PM

What's Wrong With Gold Stars and Timeouts?

KJ, I agree that the idea of having adults hover around playing kids to make sure their games are on track seems a touch overbearing-not for teachers, necessarily, but certainly for parents. But the part of Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine article on the " Tools of the Mind" program that stood out to me wasn’t the image of micromanaging adults but the question of how, exactly, they’re supposed to regulate the kids given the rules of the program. In the "Tools of the Mind" classrooms, Tough writes:

There are no gold stars, no telling the class that they are all going to have to wait until Jimmy is quiet; even timeouts are discouraged. When there is a conflict-when, say, Billy grabs a toy from Jamal-the Tools of the Mind teacher’s first questions are supposed to be: What was it in the classroom that made it hard for Billy to control himself? And what mediators could help him do better next time?

Advertisement

But what’s wrong with gold stars? I understand the premise that kindergarteners should be trained to value self-control for its own sake, rather than seeking extrinsic rewards. That was the explanation my parents usually gave when I asked why, unlike all my friends’ parents, they didn’t give me money or a fancy meal out when I got a good report card. But a gold star is hardly a $20 bill. When students work toward earning one, it’s not the star itself they seek. It’s the approval from an adult figure; the recognition that they’ve done well. Still extrinsic, yes, but not such a bad thing to encourage. After all, we spend our adult lives working to please the powerful people above us; why not train kids to do the same?

When I read the rules about the types of discipline "Tools of the Mind" bans, I was reminded of a video of my cousin from his Montessori school days. My cousin, all dark curls and dimples, was filmed at each of the work stations in school, where teachers sat beside him as he completed tasks. The instructors weren’t supposed to tell him he was right or wrong, but just ask questions to nudge him along. Sort of like how "Tools of the Mind" teachers should ask why a student is misbehaving rather than punish him for it. You can see the teachers occasionally struggle with this verbal gymnastics. One asked him to spell "fox." He did, then added, with glee, "Did you know a fox is a coyote?" Since she couldn’t shoot back that it wasn’t, she instead said "You know that a fox is like a coyote." Grinning, he explained, "It is a coyote." And that was that.

In my family, we still coo "It is a coyote" whenever someone is being needlessly obstinate. But the thing is, a fox is not a coyote. And my cousin’s school’s teaching philosophy prohibited the teacher from saying as much, just as it sounds like the rules of "Tools of the Mind" strip teachers of some authority to reward good behavior and punish bad. Elena Bodrova, a child development scholar who helped build the "Tools of the Mind" curriculum, explains the thinking behind the no timeouts rule: "These kids are not born criminals. Even if they do something that is completely out of bounds, they do it because they can’t stop themselves." I appreciate that sentiment, and the encouragement for teachers to understand why kids are acting out. But sometimes you need to lay down the law-to punish repeated bad behavior or say that no, a fox is not a coyote.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 10:27 AM 3,000 French Scientists Are Marching to Demand More Research Funding
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.