Just eat the damn marshmallow

In their zeal to produce self-regulating, calm, marshmallow-postponing students, schools are failing non-conformists, writes Elizabeth Weil in The New Republic. Do we want a generation of Stepford Kids?

In the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the late ’60s, nursery school kids were left in a room with a marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it they’d get two marshmallows later. One third were able to defer gratification. The tots with self-control went on, “or so the psychologists say, to show the straight-and-narrow qualities required to secure life’s sweeter and more elusive prizes: high SAT scores, money, health,” Weil writes.

Her daughter is not a marshmallow kid. In second grade at a private school, she resisted “the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.” The teacher didn’t discipline her. He recommended occupational therapy.  Teachers don’t punish, Weil writes. They “pathologize.”

She met a Seattle mother whose son was referred for testing because he had trouble sitting crossed-legged. The mother “learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing.”

Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

Punishing students for misbehavior has been “problematic” for teachers since the 1975 Goss decision, says Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at New York University. The Supreme Court found that schoolchildren  have due process rights. “As a result, students can say to teachers with some authority, ‘If you do that, my mom is going to sue you.’ And that changes the score.”

Instead of controlling students through rewards and punishments, teachers are supposed to get students to control themselves. Social and emotional learning (SEL) teaches self-regulation to produce a “good student, citizen, and worker” who won’t use drugs, fight, bully or drop out.

However, there’s no evidence SEL improves academic achievement, Weil writes. Meanwhile, as small children are expected to show more self-control, diagnoses of attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are soaring.

When I asked Zimmerman, the New York University education historian, if schools had found a way to deal with discipline in the wake of the students-rights movement, he said: “Oh we have. It’s called Ritalin.”

The push for self-regulation coincides with a sharp decline in measures of independent thinking, Weil writes.

The Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking judge originality, emotional expressiveness, humor, intellectual vitality, open-mindedness, and ability to synthesize and elaborate on ideas. Since 1984, the scores of America’s schoolchildren have dropped by more than one standard deviation; that is to say, 85 percent of kids scored lower in 2008 than their counterparts did in 1984.

Suppressing feelings is mentally draining, according to Stanford Professor James Gross, author of the Handbook of Emotional Regulation.

The federally funded Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is pushing its model for social-emotional learning, pre-empting other ideas, some educators complain.

Self-regulation and “grit” may be “lost in translation” in the classroom, writes Sarah Sparks on Ed Week‘s Inside School Research.

Lessons in virtue from Macbeth and a duck

Jessica Lahey is a convert to character education after teaching at Crossroads Academy, a private K-8 school in New Hampshire, that uses Core Knowledge and Core Virtues curricula.

Schools that teach character education report higher academic performance, improved attendance, reduced violence, fewer disciplinary issues, reduction in substance abuse, and less vandalism. . . . students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work.

And it’s “easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence,” she writes in The Atlantic.

The core virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice — make it into nearly every lesson we teach at our school and every facet of our daily lives on campus.

. . . In my middle school Latin and English classes, we explore the concept of temperance through discussions of Achilles’ impulsive rages, King Ozymandias’ petulant demand that we “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Macbeth’s bloody, “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

Literature isn’t the only teacher. When a mother duck built her nest near the main school pathway, students had to learn to control their curiosity. Mom Mallard could handle students walking by, but left her nest if they paused for a look.

 In Stanford’s famous experiment on self-control, children were faced with the immediate reality of one marshmallow versus the promise of two marshmallows if they can just wait for fifteen minutes. The children who were able to resist temptation and wait fifteen minutes for that second marshmallow had better life outcomes in the form of lower obesity rates, higher SAT scores, and higher levels of education. Self-control itself does not make a kid smarter, or fitter, or more proficient at test-taking, but it’s the essential skill hidden within all of these positive outcomes.

. . . Here on our campus, our marshmallow is a duck. Our students must weigh their desire for a quick peek at Mom Mallard with the promise of ten ducklings waddling around our playground in 28 days.

“Character education teaches children how to make wise decisions and act on them,” writes Lahey. It’s not a bit of “fluff” tacked on to the real curriculum. It must be woven into lessons on Achilles, Ozymandias, Macbeth and a mother duck.

Self-control at 3 predicts health, wealth

Three-year-olds with poor self-control are “more likely to have health and money problems and a criminal record by the age of 32, regardless of background and IQ,” according to research conducted in New Zealand and Britain. From Reuters:

They found that children with low self-control were more likely to have health problems in later life including high blood pressure, being overweight, breathing problems and sexually transmitted infections.

They were also more likely to be dependent on substances such as tobacco, alcohol and drugs, more likely to be single parents, have difficulty managing money and have criminal records.

The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

In the New Zealand study, teachers, parents, observers and the children themselves assessed their ability to tolerate frustration, persist in reaching goals and think before acting.

Researchers also looked 500 pairs of five-year-old fraternal twins in Britain.

They found that the sibling with lower self-control scores at age five was more likely to start smoking, do badly at school and engage in antisocial behavior at age 12.

Children can learn self-control skills, said Alexis Piquero, a Florida State criminology professor who was not part of the research team. “Identifying low self-control as early as possible and doing prevention and intervention is so much cheaper” than dealing with the problems as impulsive children grow up.

Via FuturePundit.

This sounds like another version of the Stanford marshmallow experiment:  Preschoolers who are able to delay gratification did much better in school and in life than the marshmallow grabbers.