Friday, January 04, 2008

The Praise and Punishment Game Part 1: Praise

The Montessori Dictates Against Praise and Rewards vs. Getting the Little Buggers to Do What You Say.

Yes, believers, it's true that my gurus are opposed to praise and rewards, though the jury is still out on what constitutes punishment. However, their only real beef is with the praise part, because life provides its own rewards and punishments. Here, let me explain as best I can. Please pipe up in the comments if I miss anything, all you Montessorians out there. Thanks, NOLA mom, for asking one of my favorite questions. Now I know how Judith Martin felt the time a Miss Manners reader asked her to explain how to send secret messages with calling cards.

A big part of the Montessori philosophy is that, if you work to please yourself, success is its own reward. This is the core belief behind all the self-correcting activities, aids to independence, freedom to choose your own work, and community-building care-of-environment (by "environment" we mean dusting and polishing as much as we mean composting) activities. According to the gurus, praise from adults works against independence. It sounds like a tough quandary, but actually, it just takes a few small changes of habit--often only habits of speech--to turn the focus of success away from the adult and back to the child.

A little child is working to perfect herself--that is to be a successful member of her society--and so naturally seeks approval from adults, whom she perceives (on some level) as having accomplished this goal. Simply put, the child is hard-wired to try to be like the adults she sees around her. There are several ways in which adults can indicate acceptance and approval of the child's efforts. One way is applause and verbal praise, and another is respectful acceptance and a normal, courteous reply.

It's easy to see why adults want to applaud and praise children. After all, we are already (for the most part) accepted as worthwhile members of our society. To feel that our efforts have been recognized, adults look for accolades. Accolades help us believe that what we have done is a little bit better than expected, or than what everyone else did. It makes us feel special. As we have all experienced, this is a double-edged blade, no?

Praise is certainly an expeditious way of getting a person to do what you ask/want them to do. However, some inherent pitfalls of praise-driven obedience are: what happens when no one is there to praise the child? Will she still behave? Will the child be able to maintain good habits when those habits don't feel special? What happens when the child becomes an adolescent and is no longer willing to work for the praise of parents and teachers, but in an effort to carve out her own identity, is pointedly indifferent to such praise? The list goes on.

The (arguable) premise is that a little child does not need to be made to feel special, but to feel welcome and appreciated. Children, of course, enjoy applause and praise, and will work very hard for even the simplest reward. Ask any elementary school teacherwhat a child won't do for a sticker by his name. Children, just like the rest of us, learn through our praise/reward system that "special" is king. They develop an appetite for praise and applause, and can begin to feel that efforts that are not applauded are not worth making. Ever feel like that? Right. We could, and many Montessori types have, follow this thread to the root of a litany of common social pathologies and self-esteem issues.

The fact is, everyone can do special things, but much of life is not particularly laudable. Most of what we do is not special, but habitual. Montessorians strive to lend integrity to a child's habits and to make him feel successful even when he is not feeling particularly special. What we hope is that this helps the child maintain his personal integrity even when nobody is looking.

Everyone wants to feel successful, but perhaps that feeling can be had without anyone else's approval. By shifting the "reward" back onto the child, we have a way around the applause cycle, and can allow the child to experience her own success, instead of developing a need for adult-driven incentives to succeed. One can achieve this without a lot of stilted "how does that make you feel" language. Saying "thank you" instead of "good job" is a subtle language change, but it effectively shifts focus away from the act itself, and the adult's judgment of it, and back to the value of the child herself. After all, it's not the work, but the child that needs appreciating. You could also try "You must be so proud!" instead of "I'm so proud of you!" You can do this little trick with any number of praise-y phrases.

What's a little harder (at least in my family) is to back away from "Hooray for You!" and thunderous applause whenever the child does something cute or clever. A great performance ought to be applauded, it's true, and I encourage outrageous whistling and applause following living-room concerts, but life doesn't have to be a performance to be good. Sharing a child's satisfaction might mean meeting his success with a hug, a smile, and a "Look at that! You did it! Aren't you happy about that?" They light up just as much for that one as for a big round of "YAY!" I swear.


testdriver said...

to NOLA mom--

I almost forgot that your question had a point-- what about a school that uses ABA with Montessori "stuff"? I guess it depends on your own parenting style.

It's true that a child will be allowed to fixate on one activity for a very long time in Montessori school. I think that, originally, this was probably not a problem since the first Montessori schools were for "defective" children in orphanages, where no one expected much of anything from them, and they certainly didn't have parents who wanted the very best education for them and had ideas about what that would look like. (Both modern conditions are, of course improvements, regardless of whether they complicate the montessori method or not :))

What happened was that the children were allowed to focus on one activity for as long as they needed to feel satisfied that they were finished with it. I don't know how long that was for any given child, but it would depend on the particular pathology, if indeed there is one. I do know that the result was a much higher functioning child (higher than what, again, I don't know) and the discovery that this philosophy benefitted "normal" children as well.

So back to the point, I think that the montessori "curriculum" without the philosophy is basically a traditional preschool with slightly upscale manipulatives. This is a totally acceptable way of educating people, but if you try to adopt a Montessori-style attitude at home, you may find you run into trouble as the philosophies clash.

I have always told parents that the most important indicator of your happiness and success in Montessori school is whether or not it agrees with your parenting style. If the rules are fundamentally different at home and at school (of course they will be a little bit different...) you may have confusion and acting out on the part of the child, who is trying to figure out just what in the world is going on here.

In short, I think if your school is using behavior modification by a reward system, you should be consistent with that at home. It's a compromise, but a necessary one. Another compromise would be to have a shadow teacher who is experienced with autistic children in a regular Montessori classroom--to help you (and your Montessori teacher) determine whether your child's fixation on a particular activity is pathological or not.

Either way, consistency is key. Developmentally appropriate activities with nice toys associated with them are a really good thing. I would just say that a school that is both "Montessori" and reward-based calls for careful scrutiny. Look at circle time activities, mealtimes, worktimes, and make sure you agree with the structure of the day as well as the teaching style. Then, if it all checks out, just keep the compromises consistent at home.

Keep me posted!

Melissa said...

We encountered a funny side-trip of the method at our house. Our son, almost one year, wasn't clapping, a developmental milestone that all of my non-Montessori friends assured me was a prime indicator of him growing up to be a successful human being. I was really starting to wonder what was wrong with him-- after all, he had hit every single milestone before schedule-- why not this one? Then we went to a story hour at the library, and they clapped after every song the infants "sang"-- and I realized that we had never done the whole "WHOO! Yipee!" act for him-- he had hardly ever seen clapping. He was pretty fascinated when I clapped along at the library, and so I tried clapping some at home just to see-- guess what? Now he can clap. Although when you ask him too he mostly shakes his head "no" and grins. Although he does love some applause when he stands up at the tiny piano, shaking his bottom and bobbing his head like Ray Charles.

testdriver said...


Ha ha! I love it! I'm afraid that will never happen with Nuvy and Van. Too many adoring grandparents!!!

Nuvy, I have to admit, is a complete ham. Not that THAT runs in the family :)

NOLA mom said...

I inspired a post! How exciting -- Ha! Almost like praise. ;)

The Montessori school that uses ABA is actually in Canada, and as I live in New Orleans, my son will not be able to attend. I stumbled upon it online and emailed the director, who was kind enough to reply. I was amazed that she was blending ABA with Montessori.

ABA is controversial even outside of Montessori circles, for all sorts of reasons, and I am conflicted about starting the program, but we will start soon because I felt a nice connection with the student-therapist we will be working with and an even better one with her therapist supervisor, and because when something is wrong with your child, there is little you won't try to help.

The trouble is, my instincts guide me towards different ideas, ones that are more in line with the true Montessori approach and my attachment parenting roots (oh, they really aren't all that disparate; both tell you to follow the child). To me the arguments against praise make sense for the typical child, and yet my child is not typical. But his very symptoms lead me to think that child-directed methods, in particular Montessori methods, will work well for him. The multi-sensorial approach taken in Montessori is well suited to the sensory integration problems many children with Autism (and quite a few without) have; the procedural nature of the activities builds motor planning skills (some might scoff at the elaborate hand washing directions, but the rigor and ritual of such activities seems an important lesson); and the emphasis on independence—a sort of inside-out independence—is a wonderful thing for a child who faces a long list of things he can’t do every day and too many people (some adults now, his peers soon enough) who focus on those weaknesses while glossing over the strengths.

Behaviorism works too, in its way, but with a top-side-down, outside-in methodology that concerns me. Still, that approach, limited though it seems, is supposed to yield results that are tangible and immediate, which could encourage and motivate all of us.

What I took from your reply is that I should pick a method and stick with it, and of course you are right to suggest consistency, but what I am hoping to do is balance ABA protocols with Montessori methods. I want to do everything EVERYTHING I can and I want to do it now. Right now. My sense of urgency is matched only by my sense of feeling overwhelmed, but the upside is all of this must be training me to be a better parent to my almost 6 mos old baby boy, right? I want to learn about these methods for him too.

My 3 yr old son might (might!) be autistic, but he’s not stupid, he knows when we are trying to manipulate him with bribes, excessive praise and the like, and he’s also a perfectionist who would rather not do something if he feels he can’t do it well. He’s a handful and a puzzle, and I am just trying to crack the code.

So testdriver of the Montessori method and cyber-guru to all of us in your blogging audience, what do you think? Is it possible (or advisable) to marry behaviorism with Montessori?

And as long as I’m on a roll, can I plant the seed of a potty training post in the future (to include the fate of g diapers—are we for them or against them)? :)

testdriver said...

NOLA mom--

Well, I'm sorry to hear that you can't check into the Canadian school you mentioned, but glad to hear that I don't have to totally relocate you in my head. Someone called NOLA mom living in Canada? This is way too primordial and disorienting for me! :-)

You know, I think it's fine to mix philosophies, as long as you are able to make some sense of the mix in your own head, which it sounds like you're working hard to do. The praise/reward thing is a very important core element in Montessori programs though, as it's fundamental to a Montessori idea of respecting the child's growing identity. To blend that with a behavorist system could work, but it would have to be a very subtly thought-out blend. My only caution is to make sure that the people you're handing your child off to are working as hard as you are to make all the connections fit.

A good therapist who is really on the ball is going to be a great ally for you. I think you're wise to establish that relationship right away. It sounds like you have a very smart guy there, who's probably increasingly aware that education-type people are going to try to get him to change himself so that he fits better with their expectations for someone in a "student" role (and for that reason, I think a very philosophically Montessori program might actually be great for him--a little less manipulation of his personality). If his mixed-philosophy educators don't have their heads on straight before they start tampering with him, I have a feeling he may respond poorly to them, and if he senses a lack of integrity in their approach, perhaps with a justified lack of respect. I would hate to see you run into difficulty simply because the people who are taking care of this bright, sensitive person are trying to do so with sloppy methods.

I say this because I've seen one too many preschools out there selling Montessori (or whatever they're selling) with a philosophical twist, and it turns out that either their Montessori training is inadequate, or they're not trained at all, but are only cosmetically a Montessori program.

Case in point: I toured a school near my home that called itself a Montessori school, but when I asked where their teachers had trained, the director told me that they had just one Montessori-certified teacher on staff, and that she personally trained all the rest of the teachers and support staff. What that says to me is that their staff is under-equipped for carrying through a cohesive philosophical program, whatever philosophy it might be. A single individual training otherwise day-care certified people on the fly like that is not going to be able to impart the kind of depth that is necessary for a teacher to make minute-to-minute judgments with philosophical integrity. It just doesn't work that way. She can train the teachers in giving the lessons, or structuring the time, or whatever, but an hour's observation in the classroom is (and was!) telling. The Montessori stuff was alarmingly superficial, and what was underneath was nothing special at all.

So yes, I think Montessori and Behaviorism could be combined to create a successful educational alloy, but it wouldn't be easy, so I would make sure I had top-notch people doing the mixing. Of course, it sounds like you're way ahead of me on that. I hope to hear more about what the program he's going to be in is like.

btw-check out She writes a very smart blog, and while I've never met either of them, I wonder if your little boy and her little boy might have some things in common.

testdriver said...

And another thing...

Of course you know I'm out of my depth with autism/aspbergers recommendations. I probably know just enough to be dangerous to myself and others... just know I'm writing in the spirit of a mother trying to fly blind, as all mothers, at some point, have to do.

also--I did not like gdiapers at all. Eew. Messy, cumbersome, and leaky. Great idea, execution could use a little work, no?

Meg Hicks said...


Congratulations on your little boy - he's too cute. I was recently reading Silvana Montanaro's book Understanding the Human Being. She talks about the crises of development in a child's first three years, but doesn't really elaborate. Could you explain?

And I have a 2 year old who is starting to get really interested in toileting. What is the Montessori way of toilet training?

NOLA mom said...

Out of your depth with autism/asperger's recommendations? Well, that makes two of us! And actually, we are in good company, as the "experts" can't even agree!

I read over your posts a few times and had to chew them over a while. Such good advice, but so hard to do! Or is it? My first thought was that a careful blend of philosophies would never fly because every therapist is trained in her own specialty, but actually there is hope yet. We are going to try making the "reward" playful interaction as much as we can, which doesn't seem so much like a reward in the conventional sense ("here, do this and I'll give you a cookie.") Hopefully, this will be a good compromise. I thank you for taking the time to give me advice.

And do you know what? I have another question! I'll bet this one is easier. So, I'm starting my 6 mon old on solids, and I offer him a little breast milk or water out of a small glass at meal times. I had let him take "sips" (if that's what you could call his licking, slurping, dribbling maneuver) out of my own water glass every now and then, and let him sip water out of a little plastic medicine cup a few times, but when I offer him his own little glass, he puts his mouth on it, then makes a face and turns away. Did I miss some sort of window here? Any idea why this is happening and what I should do (keep introducing it? Back off a while?)