On Parenting, Theory and Practice

Rediscovering Motherhood

An American friend and colleague who lives in Asia recently shared with me that her in-laws had moved out of her house.  They had been very involved in raising her children, so I asked if she missed having the help.  She texted back, “No.  I’m forced to be the mom and it’s what my kids want and what family is supposed to be.”

As I sat staring at her words on my screen, the last seven years of my life – my entire parenthood journey – flashed before my eyes.  I remembered how both times I had a baby I told myself that I’d stay home with them until they were three.  And how, by the time they were each 15 months old, I was desperate to find a job – any job – that would transport me away from the solitude, burden, and relentlessness of motherhood.

Though I enjoyed my teaching job, it was also a band-aid that covered up the rawness of parenting and kept its suffocating weight at bay for ten hours a day.  Yes, as a teacher I was still working with children.  But, they were other people’s children, not my own.  The responsibility for my students’ outcome didn’t rest solely on my shoulders.

Ironically, my hyper-focus on work ended up dragging me, kicking and screaming, back to stay-at-home motherhood.  The burden of a more-than-full-time job dictated the rhythm of my children’s days.  My night-owl son struggled mightily with 6am wake-ups, and spent the day being angry and uncooperative. My daughter cried daily at drop-off for two years, was constantly sick, and threw massive tantrums.  I fretted and lost sleep over other people’s children, all the while downplaying the struggles of my own.

Like an illness that forces you to slow down and reassess your life, their cries for help finally broke through to my mothering instinct – that part of me that for several years had lain curled up in a ball, shaking its head and refusing to fully engage.  Mercifully, conditions at work conspired to push me in a new direction, and finally one day I packed up my belongings, picked up my children, and drove away.

Homeschooling became my new project, and I threw all my energy into re-creating a mini-classroom at home.  But my children were only vaguely interested in the materials.  They played outdoors, built intricate LEGO creations, read lots of books, and reveled in their new freedom.  And while I fretted over incomplete lesson plans, a voice from my heart told me: “Leave them alone. They’re doing the work of childhood.  You go work on yourself.”

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Crap.  I’d been avoiding working on myself for years.  “Teacher” was a label that had allowed me to work on others.  But I was no longer a teacher; I was “just a mom”.  Being a mom meant I had to become reacquainted with the vulnerabilities of motherhood.   I had to examine my own shortcomings and anxieties, lest I inadvertently pass them on to my children.  I also had to identify and dissect my triggers, and remain present through the chaos.  I had to move past society’s cognitively dissonant perceptions of motherhood, and craft a definition that rang true to me.

Being vulnerable is exhausting.  It’s also some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.  Someone on my Facebook page wrote: “Homeschooling is a gift you will never regret giving to your children.”  And I’m starting to realize that, in addition to homeschooling being a gift to my children, rediscovering motherhood through homeschooling has been a gift to myself.  It’s a gift I never even knew I wanted, and one that I now can’t imagine living without.

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If you know someone who would enjoy reading this essay, please share it with them!

 

 

Montessori Theory, On Parenting

A Village: Its Value and Values

A Montessori learning community is a dynamic village, whose success – defined not in financial terms but by the growth and joy of the children – depends on the collaboration and shared values of all its members.  What role do you play?

The Montessori Guide

Each environment (classroom) is steered by a well-trained and experienced Montessori guide.  She needs to have a profound love for children and a vision of their immense potential;  keep herself immersed in Montessori theory and continuously educate herself on aspects of human development; and be receptive to respectful feedback. But no matter how passionate, qualified and dedicated the Montessori guide be, she cannot fulfill the mission alone.

Administration

Administrators are the torchbearers of the school’s Montessori values.  They serve as a sounding board for the guide’s ideas and challenges; help parents and guides understand each other; and uphold the practice of Montessori philosophy (to the exclusion of all others) through comprehensive parent education, effective professional development, and consistent observation/feedback in the classroom.

Parents (at home)

Parents who choose a Montessori education for their child need to understand the impact their home life has on the functioning of the classroom community.  When the values of the home align with the values of the chosen school, the child transitions smoothly between his two environments.  This continuity of values and expectations allows him to feel safe, accepted and successful.  Parents who offer clear limits and hold their children (and themselves) accountable; provide a loving home environment rife with opportunities for connection; and model a growth mindset have children who come to school ready to reap the benefits of a truly transformational education.

The Parent Community (at school)

A parent community provides the “village” that allows families to successfully navigate the pressures of modern society and stay true to their core values.  The village upholds the school’s values and uses them as a guide for how they treat the children, staff and each other.  They volunteer their time and talents towards the upkeep and improvement of the school.  Children see their parents’ commitment towards school and begin to understand its value.

Stronger Together

In a society that tries to outsource or outwit the most challenging aspects of child-rearing, it takes commitment and vision to be a member of this type of community.  Only when we each understand and embrace our role – and find the humility to admit that we need each other – will we begin to be of service to the children.  It truly does take a village.

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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.”

 

 

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All in Good Time

Dr. Montessori realized early on that young children were concrete thinkers.  This means that their brains have a hard time interpreting concepts that cannot be isolated and experienced through the five senses.  Color is one such concept.  Hues are almost always connected to an object: “red” apple, “blue” sky, “yellow” duck.  The very young child struggles to separate the name of the color from the object it belongs to, and this can bring about imprecise impressions that take time and effort to sort out.

tabletsTo support the child’s precise assimilation of these concepts, Dr. Montessori developed the Sensorial materials.  She isolated the concept – in our example, color – and made everything else about the material the same.  The Color Tablets vary only in color and can be sorted and classified, allowing the child to have a clear and tangible experience of an otherwise abstract concept.   We in Montessori refer to these tangible experiences of abstract concepts as “materialized abstractions”.

There are some abstract ideas, however, that can’t be completely “materialized”, and which only become accessible through daily life experiences once the brain reaches a certain level of maturity.  One of these is time.  In Elementary, we have a material that the children use to learn to read an analog clock.  We also provide children with experiences that allow them to “feel” and “see” the passage of time, but the concept can only be truly grasped when the brain is ready to do so.  timer

Cooking gives children many opportunities to experience the passage of time, and it’s one reason why it’s one of my favorite developmental tools.  During our recent Thanksgiving feast preparation, a six-year old and a seven-year old were making cornbread in a crock pot.  The recipe called for the bread to be cooked in the slow cooker for two hours.

The seven-year old took one of our two kitchen timers, the type that goes up to 60 minutes and is set by twisting a knob, and turned to me: “The recipe says ‘two hours’.  Our timer only goes to sixty minutes.  How do we time the bread?”

I said, “Hmmm, what could you do?”

The boy thought for a second and his face lit up.  “We can turn the timer to 60 minutes and when it rings, we can turn it to 60 minutes again!”

The six-year old, who had been listening quietly to the exchange, suddenly got very agitated.  He took the other kitchen timer, ran over to us, and cried out with excitement: “No, I have a better idea!  Let’s set BOTH timers!  One hour and one hour makes TWO hours!!!”

 

 

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Montessori: No Holds Barred Education

Some of my 7- and 8-year old students recently received a lesson on the B.C./A.D. timeline. A couple of students decided they wanted to reproduce the timeline (a very long series of paper strips, divided into centuries) and illustrate important historical events on it.

One young 7-year old, a lover of history, was especially engaged with his project, pouring over books to hunt down dates for the sinking of the Titanic, the discovery of America, the building of the Great Pyramids, and the end of World War I.

At one point he approached me and said he wanted to know when the last Ice Age ended. I helped him find the information in a book, and we both learned that, according to that source, the last Ice Age ended about 35,000 years ago. He wanted to know how many centuries that was, so I took this opportunity to give an impromptu long division lesson. I gathered my older students, explained the boy’s conundrum, and asked them to take out the Racks & Tubes (a material for long division).

We set up the problem (35,000/100) and worked out the solution. The other children went back to their individual work and the boy and I returned to his timeline to ponder 350 centuries worth of history.

“The oldest century I have here is the 50th century B.C.,” he said, looking back over the 70 centuries he had marked off.

“Your timeline will need to be five times as long as it is now,” I pointed out, thinking he might not understand what he was getting himself into.

His eyes widened. “Cool!!! Where can I get more strips?”

I think we’re going to need a bigger classroom. 🙂

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Stop Doing Montessori, Start Living Montessori

When you’re new to Montessori, it’s easy – and quite common – to get sidetracked by the concept of the Montessori materials.  They are certainly fascinating objects, and parents often spend lots of time and money either buying authentic Montessori materials for the home or creating “Montessori-inspired” activities in hopes that their child will be transformed into a focused, self-controlled, and creative little person.

The time has come to put away your wallet, laminating machine, and hot glue gun. You can buy or make materials until you’re blue in the face, but it is highly unlikely that building a Pink Tower or transferring pom-poms will help your child reap the true benefits of Montessori if you ignore the principles of the philosophy.

I invite you to stop DOING Montessori and start LIVING Montessori.

Begin with three simple steps…

1. Understand the sensitive periods: During the first six years of life, all children experience finite periods of heightened interest in the following four areas of development: order (placement of objects in the environment, sequence of daily routines, etc.); language (interest in making sounds, then forming words, then learning the sounds of the letters); senses (first developing all five senses and then refining them); and movement (first developing the ability to move and then refining coordination).

By educating yourself on the sensitive periods, you can start to notice when your child is entering a particular phase.  You can then analyze your home life to see if you’re providing enough support for your child during these important times.  For example, if your child is entering the sensitive period for order, you should make sure that toys are always put away in the same spots and that routines are followed in the same order every day.

I recommend reading the descriptions on the sensitive periods in the book “Montessori From the Start“.  Even if you don’t have time to read the entire book, do yourself a favor and read the excellent outlines of these important phases in your child’s life.

2. Understand the human tendencies: Adults and children alike need to satisfy certain drives in order to thrive and feel fulfilled.  Dr. Montessori identified these qualities and created an approach to human development that supports these human needs.

In an excellent article about the human tendencies, Julia Volkman explains: “We are all driven to communicate, socialize, imitate, explore (we are curious), move, be exact/precise, concentrate, repeat, maintain/discover order, achieve independence, realize perfection/control errors/improve ourselves, control ourselves (physically, intellectually, emotionally) and work.”

Read the article in its entirety to gain a deeper understanding of the human tendencies.  Then, spend some time observing your child as he plays and interacts with others.  Note how he manifests these tendencies and think about how you can support them through experiences in nature, family life, cultural experiences, etc.

3. Learn to observe: Dr. Montessori wrote that teachers (and anyone who wanted to understand children) should have the soul of a scientist.  Scientists spend hours and hours observing their subjects and taking objective notes about their behaviors; Montessori teachers do the same.  They don’t jump to conclusions or get emotional about what they are seeing.  They simply sit down, observe what the child is doing, and take notes without interfering (unless someone’s safety is at stake or a material is being mistreated).

After a period of observation, they look over their notes and make educated conclusions about the child’s needs based on their knowledge of the sensitive periods and human tendencies.  You can observe your child all day long, but if you don’t know what to look for (see #1 and #2), you won’t know how to support his development!  Here’s a worthwhile article from the amazing blog “How We Montessori” on observing in the home environment.

Observation notes can seem boring to the untrained eye.  But from those dull details springs forth a colorful picture of a child you might not be familiar with, because you’ve always been too busy trying to direct his activity to see him for who he really is (I speak from experience…).

I’ll address other concepts in a future post, but I guarantee that by simply focusing on these three steps you will begin to see your child in a completely new light – the light of his untapped potential.

 

 

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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!

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The Moveable Alphabet

A trainer once asked my classmates and me the following: “If you were on a deserted island and could only take two Montessori materials with you to support a child’s intellectual development, what would they be?”  We pondered, debated, and finally concluded that for math it would have to be the Golden Beads that represent the decimal system and for language it would be the Moveable Alphabet.

The Moveable Alphabet was developed by Dr. Montessori when she realized that children had the mental capacity to analyze the sounds in words way before they could synthesize them.  The former is what we do when we write, while the latter is how we read.  During a child’s first year in a Primary environment, we spend a lot of time playing Sound Games, which help children understand that words are composed of sounds.  Around their third birthday, we start introducing the Sandpaper Letters – individual letters cut out of sandpaper and glued on wooden boards – which is how children learn what sound each letter makes and how the letter is written. 

In a genuine Montessori environment, we NEVER refer to a letter by its name, because we are preparing the child to write and read.  Think about it: when you write or read the word “cat”, you are saying [c]-[a]-[t]… You are NOT reading “cee-ay-tee”!!  So why teach the names of the letters?  It’s a testament to children’s intelligence that they can learn to read in traditional environments where they have to be taught that “cee says [c]”.  Why confuse the poor children?

When a child writes a word with the Moveable Alphabet, he does so phonetically by analyzing the sounds he hears as he says a word slowly out-loud.  Because English is not a phonetic language, many words will be misspelled.  We never correct a child, nor do we ask him to read the word back to us, because they can’t read yet!  (Sometimes a child will ask you to read to him what he wrote; all Montessori teachers have hilarious stories of decoding phonetically written words… My favorite is “wnsupnetaim”, or “once upon a time”.)

Eventually, after weeks and weeks (and sometimes months) of using the Moveable Alphabet, the child will start reading the words back spontaneously (and that’s when you leave the room, shed a tear of joy, send a quick thank you up to Dr. Montessori, and do a happy dance).  And later on, perhaps when the child is five or six years old, he will become curious about correct spelling, and you can guide him in his new awareness.  But only when he’s ready.

Check out The Very Montessori blog, where you can see several examples of pre-schoolers writing with the Moveable Alphabet.