The XX Factor

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?

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.