Tips From the Toddler Whisperer

In the past few months, Zach’s picked up a few bad habits due to a lack of awareness and consistency on my part.  His amazing Montessori guide – a veritable toddler whisperer – gave me some suggestions to minimize our struggles and support Zachary’s development.  I thought I’d share them with you, in case you find yourself in the same boat…

1. Make it fun

As some of you already know, bedtime is the toughest part of the day for us.  Zach is tired and I’m beyond exhausted.  I want to get him ready for bed as efficiently as possible, and he wants to do everything BUT go to bed.  I work all day with elementary-aged students, who for the most part do what you ask and don’t run away with their underwear on their head (although you’d be surprised…).  So, I forget that Zach is not even two yet, and for him life is one giant party.  

His guide told me to make things fun – make the bedtime routine into a game.  My first thought was, “I don’t have the energy for that.”  But I also don’t have the energy to chase him around and get angry, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Of course, it worked!  We sang, played body part peek-a-boo, and before he knew it he was ready for bed and we were both in a better mood.  

This is not my style at all; I’m a very matter-of-fact, “git er done” kind of person, which is why I work with elementary children and not with toddlers.  But it’s also been a reminder that the adult has to meet the child where they are, in order to guide their development.

2. Encourage independence

A few months ago, Zach learned how to say “help” in English and Spanish, which quickly evolved into “help me”.  It is the cutest darn phrase coming from a tiny tot, and of course my husband and I melt every time we hear it and obligingly come to the rescue.  We were reacting as any caring parents would; he was learning that the more he used the phrase, the less he had to do on his own. 

During our parent-teacher conference, Zach’s guide pointed out that our son was quick to say “help me”, even for challenges he could easily overcome on his own.  I had the sinking realization that, despite all my training and experience, I wasn’t encouraging my child’s independence!  All the Montessori training in the world does you no good unless you take the time to observe yourself and the child, and analyze how your choices are impacting his behaviors.

I decided to approach Zach’s desire for help the same way I do in the classroom: stay busy!  When a Montessori guide has 25 or more students in one class, there’s no possible way she can help them all.  She’s always busy giving lessons, and the children see this, so they quickly learn to work through challenges creatively and independently.  Only truly insurmountable problems are brought to the guide, and even then, she only provides the minimum help necessary.

Zach had plenty of struggles yesterday, including peeling a mandarin, stacking a pile of Legos onto a wheeled Lego car, and putting together a puzzle.  I heard his plea for help and each time replied with an encouraging smile: “Try by yourself a little longer while I finish folding clothes/making dinner/doing the dishes.”   If help was truly needed, I acknowledged his request with genuine pleasure but gave the least assistance possible, retiring the moment my participation became obsolete.  Not surprisingly, he was perfectly capable of doing everything on his own or with minimal intervention.  My hope is that soon the words “help me” will be replaced with the words “I did it by myself!”

3. Stop the “evil” and re-direct

When Dr. Montessori coined her famous phrase, “Follow the child”, she meant we should follow the child’s DEVELOPMENT, not let the child do whatever he pleased.  Along with following the child, she also stressed that we should “stop the evil”, or put an end to any behavior that is not conducive to positive development.

Zach has started throwing things, mostly when he’s frustrated, tired, or can’t find the words to express what he wants.  The behavior began gradually, so it escaped my over-burdened radar until Zach’s guide brought it up.  She recommended asking Zach to look me in the eyes, telling him that his behavior is not acceptable, and re-directing him to a different activity.

I’ve put it into practice at home and it looks something like this: “I notice you’re feeling angry because the puzzle pieces won’t fit.  I won’t let you throw puzzle pieces.  I’m going to put this puzzle away.  Would you like to throw a ball outside or help me wash the dishes in the sink?” 

With my words, I’m telling Zach that I understand his feelings and their source.  I’m also establishing a limit and letting him know what happens if he oversteps it.  And I’m giving him two manageable alternatives: one that will satisfy his need to throw and the other that will provide a calming experience that requires focus and self-control.

I find it useful to have pre-established phrases or prompts so I always know what to say in the heat of the moment.  Here’s my version:

“I notice you are feeling _________________ because ________________.  I won’t let you ____________________.  I’m going to _______________.  Would you like to __________________ or ________________?”

 Here’s what I’ve learned this week:

  • The preparation of the adult is an on-going journey that requires you to stop, look, and listen – to yourself, your partner, and your child.  
  • It takes a village to support a parent and raise a child.  
  • Your child’s Montessori guide can provide a clear and objective window into your child’s development.  Don’t be too proud to listen and learn.  (And please don’t give her the old “Well, do YOU have children?” excuse.  You know she’s right.  Suck it up and do it.)
  • Mistakes only become failures if you don’t learn from them.
  • If you want your child’s behavior to change, modify your own first.

And finally, remember this:

“Parenting without a sense of humor is like being an accountant who sucks at math.”




On Making Mistakes…

We’ve all heard that we should allow children to make mistakes, let them learn from their errors, etc. etc.  However, I recently came across an interesting article by Alfie Kohn.  He argues that letting children make mistakes without providing a supportive environment is not only not helpful, but can actually be detrimental.  Here are a few highlights:

Maybe the problem is that the educational environment [in traditional schools] emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself…

Jerome Bruner said this: We want students to “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.”

What is clear is that the very environments that play up the importance of doing well make it even less likely that doing poorly will have any beneficial effect.

Coincidentally, my latest post on http://www.MariaMontessori.com illustrates how a quality Montessori environment provides the type of support necessary for mistakes to become opportunities for learning and growth.  Enjoy!


Choosing a Montessori School: Uninterrupted work period

Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time.  You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus.  You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts.  Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:

Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.

Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?

Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.

What does this have to do with Montessori?  All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”.  As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older).  A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.

Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence.  She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential.  Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”

True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.

In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.”  Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers.  Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.

While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori.  The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school.  The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom.  It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education?  It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!

You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”.  She doesn’t.  But she also doesn’t have to.  The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process.  The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.

Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working?  Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?”  Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.”  Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”

Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”

If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!).  And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!

Would this child have chosen to learn about Europe if he only had 45 minutes?

Montessori Nuggets: When Your Child Knows Better Than You

This morning, while browsing through my Montessori books, I came across a short speech that Dr. Montessori gave in England, ca. 1930.  I have taken the liberty of transcribing it to this blog from the book “The Child, Society, and the World”.  As you read this speech, it’s important to remember that the Montessori approach is an entire philosophy, with each principle dependent on the presence of many others to function properly.  Therefore, when Dr. Montessori talks about giving children freedom, keep in mind that supporting concepts such as limits,  consequences, and a prepared environment are implied.  People who choose to apply only parts of the Montessori philosophy and ignore those that they find cumbersome very quickly run into problems and then erroneously conclude that the method doesn’t work.

It’s also important to note that if a child has been “helicoptered” his entire life, then it is all he knows.  When suddenly given freedom, we cannot expect the child to be capable of following developmental drives that have been forced into dormancy for years.  In a Montessori environment, we often receive children who are incapable of handling freedom because they have never experienced it.  They have a hard time making productive choices and are unwilling to work independently, preferring instead to be told what to do and insisting that the teacher stay by their side.  A wise teacher will not abandon this child in unfamiliar territory; she will give him appropriate choices based on his needs and interests and will provide clear limits he can understand.  She will observe the child objectively and will recede into the background as his Nature-given drives reawaken and take over, remaining a steadfast beacon of security he can turn to in times of need.  A parent who wants to support a child’s development might consider doing the same.


When Your Child Knows Better Than You

 Dr. Maria Montessori

If a foolish mother frog said to her tadpoles in the pool, “Come out of the water, breathe the fresh air, enjoy yourselves in the young grass, and you will all grow into strong healthy little frogs.  Come along now, mother knows best!” and the little tadpoles tried to obey, it would certainly mean the end of tadpoles.

And yet, that is how so many of us are trying to bring up our children.  We are anxious that they shall grow into intelligent, useful citizens, with fine characters and good manners.  And so we spend our time and patience correcting them, telling them to do this, not to do that, and when they want to know, “Why Mummy?”, we don’t stop to find out why we interfere, but put them off with “Mother knows best.”

We are in exactly the same position as the foolish frog if only we could see it.  This little life that we are trying to mould needs no forcing and squeezing, no correcting or fault-finding to develop its intelligence and character.  Nature looks after children in the same way as she sees that the tadpole grows into a frog, when the time is ready.

“But,” I can hear you say, “shall we leave our children to do as they like?  How can they know what is best for them when they have had no experience?  And think what little savages they would grow up to be if we did not teach them manners…”

And I would answer, “Have you given your children a chance even for one day of doing what they like without interference?”

Try it and you will be astonished.  Watch and see how something catches their interest.  Perhaps they see you turn a key in the lock and want to do it too, or help you sweep, or just make some funny little pattern with pebbles on your tidy floor and on any ordinary day you would say, “Don’t get in the way, play with your toys.” 

But today give them the key, try to find a little brush for them to sweep with, leave the pattern on the floor and see how absorbed they become.  It is often not enough for children to do a thing once or twice, but they will perform the same simple action over and over again until they seem to have satisfied some inner urge.  You will be surprised how they keep out of mischief when they are allowed to busy themselves with something that really interests them.

But if you interfere impatiently and stop some absorbing occupation, you will destroy your child’s concentration and perseverance – valuable lessons he is teaching himself.  He will be dissatisfied, and filled with a sense of disappointment and restlessness, and will very likely find an outlet in deliberate mischief.

And what is this troublesomeness that we are so afraid of if we do not correct little children?  We say that we correct them for their own good, and a great deal of the time we honestly believe it.  But it is strange how often what we feel to be their good amounts to the same thing as our own comfort.  We are all so busy with our grown-up, froggy work that we forget that the little tadpoles have work of their own to do – the work of growing into men and women.

And this work which only they can do.  The greatest help we can give them is to stand by and see that they are free to develop in their own way.  We can on the other hand make their work very hard.  Iff we persist in saying “Mother knows best” and try to form their growing intellects and characters by our own standards, we shall succeed only in destroying self-discipline, we shall break the child’s power of concentration by trying to fix his attention on matters which he is not yet interested in, and he will grow deceitful if we insist too harshly.

But if we change our whole attitude and say to ourselves, “Baby knows what is best for him.  Let us of course watch that he comes to no harm, but instead of trying to teach him our ways let us give him freedom to live his own little life in his own way,” then perhaps we shall learn something about the ways of childhood if we are observant.

… Children live in a world of their own interests, and the work they do there must be respected, for though many childish activities may seem pointless to grown-ups, nature is using them for her own ends.  She is building mind and character as well as bone and muscle.

The greatest help you can give your children is freedom to go about their own work in their own way, for in this matter your child knows better than you.


How School Should Be

I must admit I have mixed feelings about Trevor Eissler’s newest video.  I find the first half   a little harsh and melodramatic (and hey, I’m clearly not a fan of traditional education).  Some public and private schools are making an effort to think outside the box and buck the testing trend, and they’re having some success.

I also don’t understand the title of the video. Seems a bit over-the-top, as if saying that Montessori children are somehow “better” than children educated by other method.  Really, Montessori doesn’t need this kind of elitist image…

I do think that many parents and educators need to be woken from their stupor, though, and if this is the way that we’re going to achieve that then Trevor gets my vote.  Watch it for yourself and let me know what you think!


Biology for all ages

The new Michael Olaf newsletter has fascinating information on exposing children of all ages to the wonders of Mother Nature.  In Montessori, subjects generally taught in high school, such as biology, are made accessible to even the youngest children.  We identify the child’s “sensitive periods” (windows of opportunity in which the child is driven to develop certain psychological/cognitive characteristics) and “teach to the sensitive periods” by providing aspects of each subject that will interest the child and therefore satisfy his development.

Thus, the very young child, who is driven by his senses, is introduced to biology through a sensorial exploration of smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and textures.  The pre-school child, with his hunger for words, will learn the names of leaves, animals, and body parts with lightning speed.   In elementary, the child is driven to classify the plant and animal kingdom, and to experiment in order to satisfy his burning desire to know “why, why, why”.

Instead of segregating and restricting subjects to certain age groups, we should challenge ourselves to find out how to bring all subjects to all age groups in a meaningful and appropriate way.