The holidays for me is about time to relax and slow down, and it’s about time with my family. When my husband and I are working and the boys are in school, it seems like we’re always in a rush so time to play and connect are crammed between school, homework, making dinner, putting food into our mouths, and bedtime. If you’re a parent reading this blog, you likely agree there’s not enough hours in a day.
My younger son A., loves to bake. During the winter break I baked with him three times and he baked with his Grammy once as well. We made a gingerbread house from scratch! We also made raspberry thumbprint cookies from Save Room For Dessert. Although A. loved pressing the center of his cookies with his thumb, we should’ve used a bigger thumb to allow for more jam!
As an avid watcher of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country on PBS, I know the term mise en place. This is a french cooking term that translates to “everything in its place”. What it really means is to gather up all the necessary ingredients and supplies before beginning a task. This concept is very Montessori. I was reminded of this concept when listening to episode 95 of the Happier podcast.
When we bake together it’s my job to guide the order of the process. On the cooking shows they have everything all measured out into tiny glass bowls all in a row. My boy likes to scoop things with the measuring spoons and level them off with his fingers, so I just put the ingredients out on the counter for him to measure. He can read the recipe but he needs help understanding some of the terminology and remembering which step is next. Rather than instructing him by following the recipe myself and telling him what to do, I ask him questions, make suggestions, and confirm his decision-making. We have a lot of fun baking together. He dances to the rhythm of the Kitchen Aid mixer and he always licks the spoon.
Dr. Montessori called the classroom together with the trained adult “the prepared environment”. A lot of thought and consideration is put into what goes onto the shelves of the classroom. Every activity is complete with the exact materials needed to complete the task and practice the isolated skill. Just like on America’s Test Kitchen, the Montessorian considers the mise en place making sure everything is in order before beginning a task. Whether it’s the apple cutting activity, or the stamp game, the work should be clean, complete, and as I tell the children “neat and tidy” as it sits on the shelf waiting for the next child to use it.
The first week back from winter break I took a group of 10 older children, ranging from 4 1/2 to 5 years old, to work in our school’s vegetable garden. Before beginning, I sat with the children and showed a group lesson on the life cycle of a plant. We sat on the deck in the crisp afternoon air and discussed seeds, seedlings, which part is the stem, what does a seed need to grow, etc. I told the children how my dad taught me to use a string to make straight rows when planting.
I showed them the materials I had collected:
tongue depressors to mark the rows
a sharpie marker
6 sticks (I had the rarely used white colored pencils)
2 rakes & 2 hoes
After our discussion, we headed to the garden. We dug around preparing the soil, taking turns watching and digging. This was a particularly patient group, waiting for their turn. However, I recommend bringing a basket of gardening and plant books for the children who have trouble waiting their turn to work. There are so many awesome books about gardening and all things related. Gail Gibbons has two great books on the subject: From Seed to Plant andThe Vegetables We Eat. The children enjoyed looking at the broccoli and cabbage that was already successfully growing in the garden as well as giving their friends advice about how to do the task at hand.
We tied yarn to the white pencils and stuck them in the ground. I showed them how to make a little trench all along side the string. Their favorite part was putting seeds in their hand and letting them sprinkle them in the trench and cover them up. We moved the string to repeat the process for the rest of the seed packets, then labeled the planted rows with the sharpie marker on the tongue depressors.
We ran out of time to water the seeds before it was time for a water break and a well-deserved snack. Thankfully, our toddler group took charge of watering the seeds later in the afternoon.
Before setting off to do any task, consider mise en place. By making sure to gather up all the materials and supplies you will need, you decrease the chance of frustration, and increase the chance of being successful and having fun.
Praising your child won’t get you what you want. Praise and rewards create temporary results.
A baby responds to its mother’s or father’s praise. The baby gets excited tries to keep going seeing how pleased the parents are. The parent’s expression relays an excitement that is motivating to the baby taking its first steps. Around 24 months, the relationship between the parent and child becomes more complex. Praise and rewards can become confusing to the child. That’s because children at this age become sensitive to manipulation and inadvertent patronizing, and begin to question their parent’s motivation for praising them. When a parent continues to praise and offer rewards to a child after 24 months, they can potentially damage their relationship with their child as well as tarnish their child’s self esteem without even realizing it.
In the Montessori classroom, we do not praise the children. Rather, we celebrate their growth and accomplishments with them. We also don’t believe in rewards or punishment, only the consequences of one’s own actions. Dr. Montessori teaches us four important elements that work in place of praise and rewards:
Emphasis on effort
When my son was two, one of the things he said the most was, “My do it, Mama! No, My do it!” Children want to do things by themselves. They want to do what we do, and deep down they want to please us by being successful. In the Montessori classroom, we watch the children all the time to see what skills they are developing. We present them with activities that appeal to their interests as well as to their capabilities and developmental needs. Then we get out of the way to let them practice.
Pay attention to your child’s developmental level. Allow her to do what she is capable of doing. And be patient. A child’s process is soooo much slower than ours. Letting your child do things by herself, at their own pace, will help build self confidence, and your child will trust that you have her back without taking over. Help without getting in the way. “Help” by supporting rather that doing it for her.
A three and a half year old girl in my class, I’ll call her Maria asked me to show her how to do a complex, 4-layer puzzle depicting the life-cycle of a frog. I showed her how to turn over all the pieces so that she could sort the pieces by number first, stacking up the ones, the twos, etc. I sorted one or two until I could see that she understood the concept, and then I sat quietly while she sorted. When she was ready, I turned over the ones and told her to do those first. There was only 2 pieces so it was easy for her. I pointed to the twos and told her to do those next, the rest come later. She pulled the pile of twos pieces toward her but she only turned one over. She didn’t even look at the image on the puzzle piece. She asked,”Where does this one go?” She wanted me to tell her. I suggested she turn over the rest of the twos. I suggested looking at the image, maybe start with the face of the frog. Maria started to lurch out of her chair, flopping back into it with a grunt, her eyes welling up. I turned over the pieces of the twos and pointed to the face of the frog and pointed to where I thought it went. Maria was still grunting and flopping, ready to throw the puzzle. I suggested she take a break and get a tissue and come back when she was calm. This scenario went on and on. We took deep breaths, I pointed, she worked the puzzle. She cried, she flopped and grunted, she would get a piece in and it was calm for a second as she looked at me. I would nod and smile. The cycle continued! I have no idea how long we were there together in her struggle. She did it. We high-fived and I said, “Phew! That was tricky! You struggled, and you did it.”
That WHOLE thing happened with Maria for the next two days in a row. Each time, I celebrated her effort and her perseverance. Now she does the layer puzzles without my support.
Dr. Montessori designed didactic materials that were self-correcting. The materials have a built in control of error. That means that after the initial lesson, the child teaches himself. The Montessori materials “tell” the child when he has succeeded. Failure is inevitable. The child works alone, doing and re-doing the activity until he gets it right. Failure is part of the lesson. Each time he repeats the activity, he is lengthening his attention span, improving coordination and independence which leads to improved self confidence.
Montessori philosophy emphasizes process over product. Philip, a four and a half year old in my class, struggled and toiled day after day to push through and complete a booklet of addition equations In the Montessori classroom we focus on celebrating or acknowledging only the traits they have the ability to change like strategy or level of effort rather that intelligence.
Phillip took FOREVER to stay focused to work the addition strip board to manage the 15 equations. He worked at staying organized (my version of encouragement sounded like “ooo, look how organized you are today. Yesterday, your strips were all over. Not today!”) He worked on staying on task (My assistant and I would intercept the best friend who would often come over to distract Phillip). He worked so hard for several days, a bit at a time on that booklet. And yet the actual booklet was abandoned. The little stack of papers, stapled together was less important than working the addition strip board and experiencing addition.
Studies show that if you over-praise a child, they actually LOSE motivation. It makes sense when you dig into it: if you get praised for lots of little things, or things that are easy for you, the praise loses its power. An alternative outcome of a child that is over-praised may result in a child that seeks excessive amounts of verbal commendations. Zach is three and a half and he loves to draw “pictures for my mom” every day. When he was ready, I showed him how to make the shapes of some letters with chalk on a green chalkboard. I did a few examples of an “e” and said, “eh eh, like elephant”. He did one lumpy “e” and looked at me. I smiled, raising my eyebrows, “keep practicing.” The next one he did was perfect. “I did it!” I told him he could practice “eh” for a while and then switch to another letter, and that I was moving on to help another friend. Zach did another “e” and another and another and after each time he came over to me seeking my approval. To add a little context, Zach does this for all kinds of activities, not just this one cool thing he’s done for the first time. He expects praise after every accomplishment. He doesn’t look to himself for validation, he looks to the adults, and to his best friend and truthfully to anyone passing by.
If a child perceives your words of praise to be insincere, he will likely dismiss the praise altogether. And if the praise is perceived as manipulative, the child can begin to question if you’re trustworthy which may cause a rift in your relationship. A child is more likely to behave in the way that you request or suggest if he trusts you and if he thinks you trust him. I like this article from Parenting Science about the effects of praise.
InNurture Shock, the authors relay the study done by Carol Dweck in which she studied groups of 5th graders and the effects of performance when their intelligence is praised and alternatively when their effort was praised. The children who were praised for their intelligence didn’t work as hard on the second test. The children who were praised for their effort tried just as hard, or harder on the second test.
When you celebrate with your child
State the facts, rather than opinion
Focus on their effort and their strategy
Set them up for success
Don’t compare them to anyone else
Focus on the process and not the final product
The Self-esteem of a child is a delicate thing. We want our children to grow up to be self-confident adults, therefore we need to celebrate with them in ways that have long lasting results.
As I started to feel more centered at home, naturally I was able to feel more calm in the classroom. Although, yelling wasn’t really an issue at school, staying calm and centered was.
I observed myself through the day.
I watched for triggers. What was happening when my jaw would tighten or my voice would change tone? When my shoulders would tighten? Here’s the short list:
When a child doesn’t get what he wants and so he throws a loud, emotional “tantrum.”
When a child chooses to ignore or disrespect either an adult, or another child.
When a child interrupts me when I am speaking to either an adult, or another child.
Analyzing the emotional triggers allows me to look at the whole picture. Once I have identified the trigger within myself, I am often able to let it go before it comes up.
Let’s break it down.
How do I stay calm when a little kid throws a tantrum when she doesn’t get what she wants?
The first thing that is important to understand about tantrums:
All of the child’s feelings are important.
All of the child’s feelings are ok. (even if we don’t like how they are reacting)
Here’s a list of a child’s fundamental needs from the lobby at work.
I don’t know if it’s new, or if I just noticed it for the first time while waiting for my lunch to warm up in the microwave. I like it because the list describes what every human wants. I think people sometimes forget that children are just tiny humans trying to navigate the world just like we adults.
If a child is expressing his or her feelings loudly and disruptively, as adults, we often get triggered. We feel embarrassed, frustrated or angry, maybe out of control. Typically the child wants something and we want something different.
Here’s a mental checklist that guides me:
Check in with myself
Remember that today is a NEW day
Listen and acknowledge the child’s feelings
State the expectations
Allow the feelings
It’s not personal
It will pass
When you check inwith yourself, it’s helpful to have a mantra or maybe a visualization to help you stay calm. What children need when they’re feeling out of sorts is a calm, confident leader. Children don’t know what to do with all of those big feelings, and so you need to be the calm and confident one. Believe me, children can smell doubt, so be strong. My mantra comes from one of my favorite child care authors, Janet Lansbury:
In fact, the title of her podcast is my go-to mantra: Unruffled. I recommend the podcast to assistants in my classroom. When attempting to help or redirect a child who is freaking out about something (usually because the child is wanting to do something that he’s not supposed to and needs to be redirected) I imagine myself wearing a pretty white cotton sundress. I take a deep breath and as I exhale and put my shoulders back, I imagine all of the wrinkles falling out of the dress. I try to relax into a calm and confident place before approaching the child.
I added today is a new day to my checklist a few months ago, when I saw this video from the Association Montessori International (AMI) website. In it, the woman suggests that, as parents and teachers, if we hold on to yesterday’s drama and conflict, not only is it a disservice to the child, it may also cause the conflict to continue. So saying “ugh, here we go again! He always does this…” could be making it more likely to continue. Holding on to something—some behavior a child did yesterday—could potentially perpetuate the undesired behavior. So let yesterday go and treat the moment as the first time.
When a child disagrees with you (aka throws a tantrum) you must remember that all his feelings are ok. His feelings are normal.
Now, what the child does with his or her feelings, that’s another thing.
In the photo series above, I told Helen, “It looks like you’re done with this map. Your pencils are all over the place and you keep walking away.” Helen threw herself on the floor and yelled at me, telling me “no.” I held the line, reminding her that she could put the work away and do the rest in the afternoon or tomorrow. When she’d finished expressing her displeasure with me and she had purged her “emotional backpack,”aka tantrum, and she was calm enough to hear me, I calmly and confidently asked how I could help to put part of the map away. She’s so fiercely independent, which I love, that she said I could help by just watching.
When a child interrupts me I feel, what? Annoyed. Rushed. Disrespected. The strategies I use in the classroom for interrupting are the same ones, basically, that I use at home.
If I can, I start with a proactive approach. I tell my assistants that I will be giving a lesson to someone and therefore I will not be available for a bit. (Likewise, if I am at home, I tell my two sons that I will be on a phone call, for an example, and won’t be available for however long.) My assistant knows to protect my lesson presentation by intercepting any children who appear to need help from me. Next, I have some hand signals that I use to let people know the status of my availability. If I am working with a child and someone comes over, saying, “Ms. Natalie, Ms. Natalie!” (or rather, “Miss Nat-O-lee!”) without taking my eyes off my work, I will put up one finger near the child about to interrupt. One finger up lets the child know that I will be with them in a moment if they are able to wait a minute. Alternatively, if I put my whole hand up, that indicates that I am gonna be a while and the child should find another adult for help if possible. My assistants also watch for these signals and intervene when necessary.
If I feel myself being interrupted a lot/more than usual, it is a red flag that I need to re-teach the children what my hand signals mean and why they are important. If I focus on it for a week, it usually improves dramatically.
If two children are having an argument in which one or both of them are feeling dismissed or disrespected that appears to be escalating, I step in and act as a mediator. Let’s say Helen and Connie are in a disagreement over who had the red pencil first.
Both girls have their hand on the pencil and neither one is willing to give in. I would step in and ask what’s going on or some such thing, at which point both girls would start to explain that “I had it first, no, I had it first!” I would remind the girls that we have to take turns to talk. I would ask one girl her side of the story and reflect back what she said, then do the same thing with the other girl. Then I would state the facts without judgment.
“So what I hear is that Helen was using the red pencil and she wasn’t done. Connie saw the red pencil on the table beside Helen and no one was touching it, so Connie thought it was available. Is that what happened?”
After both girls feel heard, the next part is the tricky part. Helen, would you be willing to tell Connie when you’re done with the red pencil? She REALLY wants to use it next.” Usually the child complies at this point. (The tricky part comes when Helen says,”NO! I’m never going to be done with the red pencil!” At which point I would offer to help find Connie an alternative that is available, hoping she goes along with the suggestion).
Here’s the key: If a child is disrespecting me or another adult, it doesn’t feel good. Respect is a foundation I firmly believe in. If the adult treats the child with respect, the child will typically reciprocate. If a particular child is not responding to my requests or instructions, often it means I need to take the time torebuild a connection with that child. Sometimes the child is being such a turkey that the last thing I feel like doing is sitting down and spend extra time with him or her. I know from experience, though, that it works like magic to just be there, listening to a child who has recently been acting out of sorts talk about how many snails or rolly pollys he counted on the way to school or whatever. When the child feels heard and respected, he will feel more calm and will act more respectful during tense times.
I always try to remember, it’s not personal. This moment will pass.
Next time I want to post about an ongoing struggle of mine: taking time for me.
I bet you’re wondering why I haven’t posted in a month. I KNOW! I’ve been over my head busy with school and also with mom duties. I now know what my mom meant when she referred to herself as a glorified taxi driver and short order cook.
I work at a school that is all day, year round. So school is open 7am to 6pm, five days per week, all year long. In April and November, I meet with the parents of my students. We fit the parent meetings in among my already-busy day with the Montessori work. I enjoy the time to connect home and school and touch base with the parents of the people I see each day. It is, however, so very hard to intermingle 2 or 3 meetings within an already-full day. May is coming to an end so I am not sure that April parent meetings can excuse me from such a long blog absence! Cub scouts, Boy scouts, gymnastics, Karate, nightly family dinners, allergies. Excuses and explanations abound.
I just joined the Amazon Affiliate program, which I am hoping will hold me accountable to posting more regularly. The affiliate program allows me to put links in this blog for products that I recommend. I personally vouch for every singleproduct for which I provide a link.
I asked my husband, my closest girlfriend, and my assistant, who is a young mother of a toddler, what insights I could offer to my blog followers. They all had the same answer: I want to know how you keep your cool. The answer: I work at it every day. I want to share my journey along that subject in two parts.
Part 1: home
In December of 2014, I was the lead teacher of my first classroom. We were still working on Normalization and I was doing my best to keep my head above water. When I was struggling in those first months as lead, it was pointed out to me that my attitude at home with my husband and my boys was what you may call “less than desirable.” I was stressed and I was taking it out on my loved ones. I was so focused on problem-solving school dynamics that I was neglecting myself and I was neglecting the needs of my family. My house was a mess. I lost a lot of weight. I wasn’t sleeping. My fuse was short and my temper was high. Work was so taxing that I didn’t have anything left to give when I got home from work.
On January 1st, 2015, I made the resolution to balance home and work.
I needed to look for triggers.
I needed to get my emotions in check.
I needed to work on yelling less.
Some of the changes I made at home were simple techniques that made all the difference. I just took a close look at the parts of the day that were triggering me to lose patience. I scrutinized those times and used tips I had heard here and there to prevent problems.
Prevention was the key. I needed to be PRO-active rather than RE-active.
I asked my husband to help me figure out ways to get more sleep and more exercise. He added me to his gym membership, suggesting that I use exercise to “sweat out the stress.” He would send me off to the movies by myself or suggest that I make a date with my girlfriend, Kim, who lives in South Austin. He’d send me to bed at 10 pm each night. He also suggested I see an allergist recently, thinking that my sleep was disrupted by seasonal allergies. I resisted the allergist for a long time, like an idiot. When I finally went, turns out I am allergic to everything! Once my antihistamine cocktail was adjusted, I slept more consistently. My husband also encouraged me to “leave work at work.” I still struggle with this one, although I would like to think that I am getting better at it. When my work is people, it is hard to leave them at work when I carry then in my heart and in my mind each evening.
As I looked for times at home that stressed me out, I found one major culprit:
The morning routine was hard. I felt like I was always yelling because we were always in a hurry.
1: I had to think about food.
Pack lunches for the boys and myself
Make sure everyone had breakfast
Plan something for dinner
Is there enough coffee?!?
2: I had to think about clothing and gear.
Jackets, hats, etc…
Always on the search for shoes and socks
Is that homework assignment in the backpack?
3: I had to think about time.
What time do I wake up?
What time do I wake the boys up?
Am I allowing enough time for independence?
Is there enough time for transitions and travel?
I reluctantly set my alarm 15 minutes earlier. I started the coffee maker first! Priorities! I love coffee. Summer Moon Blue Blazes is one of my favorite coffees right now. I consider it a treat, however. My standard every-day coffee is Ruta Maya. If we’re really feeling fancy, we go to Texas Coffee Traders and get honey process coffee beans from Costa Rica… While the coffee was brewing, I got dressed and then lined up lunch boxes and filled them with food I hoped my kiddos would eat. It was so much better to make the lunches BEFORE waking everyone up for the day when the kitchen is quiet.
As the morning routine became our typical rhythm, I realized I enjoyed getting up earlier. It wasn’t a big deal. I felt no more or less tired. After awhile, I began to express my urge to be creative by incorporating some bento box style ideas in the boys’ lunches. I would spell the boy’s name in cheese with these cute little cutters. I separated the ingredients with colorful silicone cups.
Instead of forks, I’d send adorable animal picks. I cut the sandwiches and watermelon with this neat thing called Pop Chef. I wish I had taken more photos of my creations, but I didn’t know I’d be blogging about it one day! Back then, the process was just for me to have a bit of fun with a creative outlet, by myself, early in the morning. Finding this little bit of fun just for me was an eye-opener: I needed to take care of myself so that I could take care of others. (I am still CONSTANTLY working on this one!)
When lunches were completed, I set them by the front door. If I had enough time after preparing the lunches, I would put 2 cups of water in a saucepan with 3 TBS salt, 2 TBS sugar, 3 cloves of garlic, and a dozen peppercorns on to boil before I headed to wake the boys.
I tried to make the wake-up part of the routine the slowest and the most playful of the process. I would come into the room the boys share singing the words, “morning smooch patrol.” I would gently wake each boy with loving kisses, waking up different parts of their bodies. “Good morning kneecap. Good morning earlobe, good morning shoulder blade.” My younger son, with eyes still closed, would pucker up and scootch to the edge of the bed for a kiss.
Most days,the gentle approach worked (if they went to bed on time). If, on some days, they were less responsive to a gentle approach, I would firmly say their name, tell them to wake up, and ask if they wanted my help by picking out their clothes. Sometimes, after several minutes of the gentle approach, if they were still falling back to sleep, I would use a friendly, lighthearted, and yet firm warning. “I’ve allowed time for you to wake up slow. Get up and get dressed. I know you’re tired, but I am afraid it’s time. I’m going to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I expect you dressed and in the kitchen in 10 minutes.” If they struggled a lot, once they were awake and in the kitchen, I would tell them they’re showing me that they may need an earlier bedtime when they have such a hard time waking up and then I would set myself a reminder to move bedtime up 15 minutes. It’s rare nowadays, but occasionally, one of the boys is behind schedule and he’ll have to walk to the car barefooted with his shoes in his hands.
Here’s a great article by one of my favorite parenting authors, Dr Laura Markham, about why routines are so important for children. She says, “While helping children feel safe and ready to take on new challenges and developmental tasks would be reason enough to offer them structure, it has another important developmental role as well. Structure and routines teach kids how to constructively control themselves and their environments.” My boss and I are constantly suggesting Dr. Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. It helped me understand my children’s emotions. Dr. Markham also offers strategies for getting your own emotions under control.
While the boys ate breakfast, I would take a few minutes to prep for dinner. I would pour the brine from the stove into my favorite prep container. It fits a whole chicken with room to spare! I would add enough ice to cool the brine before adding a roasting chicken. I would snap on the lid and put it in the fridge. Having a plan for dinner relieved the stress that comes in the evening. I would put the chicken in the oven when I got home from work and fix a few sides while it cooked. Nightly family dinners were a priority in our house when I was growing up and they are still a priority now that I have a family of my own.
I played around with the amount of time we needed in the morning. It turned out that the boys needed one full hour to wake, dress, eat, gather their gear and head out the door. The boys had fun picking out the alarm tone on my phone that would signify that it was time to go. The playful robotic ringtone they picked once made me crazy; however, it made them giggle and then walk like robots to find their shoes. I observed that both boys should NOT go to get socks at the same time. They will start to play and NEVER come back! Send them one at a time, and they are more successful. If the alarm goes off and they “don’t hear it,” then it’s time to pick a different ringtone. Carrie Contey is someone to follow. Her blog and her lectures have helped me to understand how young brains work, and how to acknowledge and control my own emotions when interacting with my children. She often suggests that laughter and being playful during transitions helps re-frame typically stressful times of day.
Just observing and changing the morning routine helped me so much to balance work and home, and to be proactive rather than reactive. I have since used the same strategies with other hectic parts of my day with success. I recently added a backpack corral so that the boys have a place to put their school gear, jackets and shoes when they come home from school. We’re still getting used to it. I regularly have to walk my 2nd grader through the process of putting his stuff where he will be able to easily find it when the alarm goes off in the morning.
When we all pile into the car to head to the elementary school, I do the check:
“Everybody have shoes?”
“Everybody have a lunchbox?”
“Does everybody have pants?” (hoping for backseat giggles)
“Did you remember your smile?” (met with sarcasm from the 5th grader)
“Anybody need a smooch? You were so fast today we have time for kisses!”( the little one always falls for this one)
I think it’s important to “catch” kids doing the behavior you want.
When we acknowledge children for doing what they should be doing, they are more likely to do it again. Sometimes I acknowledge my own successes too, like, “hey, that was pretty good. I was worried that we were behind schedule and still, I didn’t yell even once.”
I found my resolution to yell less a success (and still going strong!). I am human, however, and I still occasionally raise my voice when it looks like I am going to be late for work . But by looking for emotional triggers, as well as by working on self-care, I am able to more successfully balance home and work while staying calm and centered.
Four and a half years ago, I was hired to co-teach with another trained Montessori teacher. She had the lead position and I taught lessons and supported her by managing the classroom (I like to equate it to being an air traffic controller).
She was hired 3 months before I was and she had carefully arranged the furniture in the classroom to fit what her training had taught her. I didn’t question the layout of the classroom at that time because I was her subordinate and she had 5 years more experience as a lead teacher than I did. Along the long wall of windows, my lead teacher arranged all of the shelves in rows perpendicular to the wall (like a ladder). The wall opposite the windows had a large area for walking and for working on rugs. Again, because the lead teacher had more experience, I accepted the classroom setup as it was, although secretly, the configuration looked—and felt—odd to me.
The first few months there were so hard.
The children were out of sorts.
They were rude to each other, they were dismissive of the adults and disrespectful to the classroom and everything in it.
The school had only been open for 4 years, and there had been a number of different adults that had come and gone. At the time, I thought maybe the children just needed consistency. After all, children need time to build relationships and to trust the adults who care for them. The relationship building process takes time.
So I waited.
I watched. I took notes. I looked for patterns of behaviors. I worked on building relationships with the children. I modeled appropriate behaviors and gave lessons on Grace and Courtesy as I wrote about in a previous post. I showed lessons about control of movement like the ones found in Beth Phillips’s Walking the Line in the 3-6 Classroom.
I looked to my lead teacher for guidance and I watched her struggle.
And then I began to notice something.
The children did not have work that met their need for challenge and purpose, and therefore, they flit from activity to activity without sinking into deep concentration.
As I observed the children at work, I noticed that the open layout of the classroom—with the tables and shelves all up against the one side—allowed for a long runway through the space. The children literally ran through the room. There was no reason to slow down and walk with intention. There was a huge free space to unleash their boundless, frantic energy.
The lack of purpose and intention spilled out into the backyard, too. The children dangerously tested boundaries and pushed limits. They didn’t respond to the adults at all. The whole situation was concerning and overwhelmingly exhausting.
And then, something unexpected happened It had been building for several weeks unbeknownst to me. The lead teacher and our school director had a difference of philosophy that required a parting of ways.
Our boss pulled me aside one day after she and the lead teacher had struggled with their differences and asked, “Are you ready to take over this classroom?”
It felt like a left hook to the jaw!
The lead teacher was leaving the school, and it was going to push ME into the lead position!
Yikes! I was immediately faced with a huge responsibility. Although I was worried that I lacked experience and that I might be in over my head, the school director had confidence in me, so I decided to trust her judgment and step up to the challenge.
The first thing I did was rearrange the furniture. I arranged the shelves and tables in the classroom to somewhat resemble rooms and areas, like in a home. The children would have to walk through the environment with care not to bump the tables and shelves as they made their way, meandering through the space. I would show the children how to carefully walk around a friend who has work on a rug on the floor and how to be mindful of their own body within the space.
Again, I waited.
I watched. I took notes. I looked for patterns of behaviors. I worked on building relationships with the children. I modeled appropriate behaviors and gave lessons on Grace and Courtesy. I gave lessons based on what the children seemed to need.
Most importantly: I set limits.
I love this quote from Montessori Northwest, a teacher training center in Portland:
“Maria Montessori recognized that when allowed freedom of choice within clear, firm and reasonable boundaries, children act in positive ways that further their development. Freedom is frequently misunderstood, and many people take it to mean that children can do whatever they want. Montessori believed that freedom without boundaries was abandonment….But this freedom within limits allows for the natural development of self-regulation.”
In chapter 14 of Dr. Montessori’s book The Absorbent Mind, she wrote,” One of the mistakes of modern times is to consider movement separately from the higher functions.” Control of movement starts in infancy as a baby learns to hold up his head or learns to grasp a toy. Montessori taught us that the child’s “work is inseparable from movement.”
Many of the learning materials that she designed have movement built into the lesson. The long red rods for example, are designed to be carried one at a time with care and concentration to the work rug. Indirectly experiencing the decimal system, ten times the child walks to the rug. Ten times the child walks back to the shelf to restore the rods.
Not only is the concept of length learned, self control, body awareness, concentration, muscle memory are practiced as well.
It took about six months as lead teacher for the children in my class to normalize. And although we had our ups and downs (and still do, in my current classroom), when we divert from normalization, I always look at how children move through the classroom. I show the children how to walk the line. I revisit the lessons of grace and courtesy. I take time to make personal connections with the little people.
When things in my classroom are, as my mother-in-law says, “fruit basket turnover”, again, I return to the foundations, including grace and courtesy, personal connection, and control of movement.
Young children need freedom to move and yet they need purpose, guidance and limits. Taking time to connect and build relationships with each of the children, showing the children lessons on the work that is just the right amount of challenge will settle them in a way that is remarkable.
Some people forget that love is tucking you in and kissing you “Good night” no matter how young or old you are Some people don’t remember that love is listening and laughing and asking questions no matter what your age Few recognize that love is commitment, responsibility no fun at all unless Love is You and me
Love Is by Nikki Giovanni
There is a room in my house in which I rarely set foot—for fear I may puncture my foot on a Lego.
I think the room was designed to be a formal dining room, but formal anything is just not my style. So instead, the room has always been a playroom, as well as a place where our guests stay.
Cubbies and shelves hold bins, boxes and baskets for toys and supplies. Although everything (okay, okay, most things) have a place, I allow my boys to spread out books, toys and projects in that one room, and leave them there, untouched.
And in contrast to my classroom, where the children are required to restore each work before choosing another, I don’t require that the boys even tidy up the playroom every day. The exception is when guests come to stay.
When H was a toddler, we tidied the playroom each evening together. I would remind him what belonged together and where things went. He would help while he sang “What’s Gonna Work? Teamwork!” at top volume.
Around age four, I knew H could tackle cleaning the playroom solo, so I decided to modify our schedule a bit. I told H to clean the playroom while I finished dinner.
But just ten minutes later, when I went in to check on him, he was playing!
Through trial and error, I discovered if I sent him to clean the playroom alone, he still didn’t really understand what I meant, so he’d either put everything into one big, tangled mess in the biggest basket he could find or he’s get distracted and start to play.
By telling him to “go clean the playroom,” I was being too vague. He still needed my guidance.
I still had to show him that when I said,”Clean your room,” it meant something specific, like: *Put the blocks back in the green basket and then restore the basket on that shelf. *The books go on the shelf with the binding facing outward. *Trash needed to go in the trashcan, and abandoned socks needed to go to the hamper. Even now that the boys are 8 and 11, I still have to guide the clean-up a bit. I still model for them what my expectation of a clean room looks like by doing it with them.
Today, my help looks different. I take a supporting role. I make an observation, and then ask which part should I do, like, “ I see lots of Legos, books, and stuffed animals around. Which one do you want me to do and which ones do you guys want to do?”
If one of the boys stops cleaning, I make another observation. “It looks like you’ve stopped cleaning. Do you want to play with Legos when we’re done cleaning? Yes? Ok, that sounds fine. Which Legos do you need to leave out and which can you put away?” Then we clean up everything else with the promise that they can play a bit later.
Although they work well for some families, I don’t do chore charts of any kind. When the boys were one and four, I had a chart that had
daily tasks for which each boy was responsible. The chart was not for chores, but for self-care things that needed to happen each day. In fact, the responsibility chart was put into play because I felt like a nag. It worked well for the tasks that each child needed to remember to do each day, such as clearing his own place at the table, putting his own laundry in the hamper, brushing his teeth, etc. The boys had a feeling of accomplishment when they could see all they’d done, and—bonus—I did a minimal of reminding.
The best part: when the patterns of responsibility were intrinsic, the chart hung unused.
Today in our family, when some chores need to be done, we tell each other and it happens. There are no stickers, there are no rewards, and there’s no allowance associated with personal and family responsibility. We have a “we’re all in this together” thing going on.
That’s grace and courtesy: care of self, care of others, and care of environment.
As I said in my last post, when Dr. Maria Montessori began work in her first classroom back in the early 1900s, she developed a teaching style using the practical applications that prepared children to normalize, allowing the mind and body to work together. Dr. Montessori’s aim was “to allow the child to do, in a more perfect and orderly manner, what he strives to do in any case by his own natural impulses.” (Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work)
When I mention the phrase, Grace and Courtesy, you may automatically think of manners. Saying please and thankyou, or holding the door for someone coming out of a shop. When I brought up Grace and Courtesy to a group of well-seasoned Montessorians over lunch this past weekend, my colleague Patti said, “Grace and Courtesy isn’t what you do, it’s who you are.” It’s a bit of both what you do and how you do it and it comes from the heart.
In the classroom, we teach Grace and Courtesy lessons and we support the children as they practice both with each other and with the adults. Montessori Publications has a great collection of the lessons given in the classroom. The skills learned in these lessons happen inside, outside, and at all times of the day. Just like I had to show my toddler what I meant when I ordered him to clean his room, I show the children:
How to greet the teacher
How to use a quiet voice
How we hold things with two hands
How to wait their turn to talk
How to have polite conversation
How to ask permission to walk past
How to walk closer to talk to each other
How to resolve conflict
To name a just a few! I even show a child who is running how to stop and look around to see if it’s a good time and place to run, and then confirm his declaration, “We can run later when we’re outside.”
There’s lots of other things that go along with using grace and courtesy in a community. Things that are more tangible and more concrete, such as the lessons that I mentioned in my Practical Life post:cleaning up a wet spill with a rag or a sponge, sweeping the floor, restocking when you used the last of something, restoring your work where it belongs, and keeping your work space organized.
A lovely book called The Peace Rose by Alicia Jewel uses something tangible, like a rose or other artificial flower, that two children can hold when handling something invisible: feelings and conflict resolution. It is a lesson that helps when the children take turns to say how they feel using “I” statements and coming up with a solution together.
Modeling is key when it comes to Grace and Courtesy. Your walk has to match your talk. Act like you want your kids to act.
If your spouse is in the living room and you’re having a conversation from the kitchen as you finish the dinner dishes, your child will imitate by trying to chat with you from the next room, too.
Two sisters made their way through my classroom. Both girls struggled with this issue. They would call my name, or just start telling me whatever it was that they needed to say from across the room. I would gesture an exaggerated beckoning hand gesture until the blue-eyed girl came closer. Then, before she said anything, I would exaggeratedly say, “Thank you so much for waiting until you were close to talk to me. You were so far away, I couldn’t hear you.” When in fact EVERYONE in the room had heard her.
I remember asking the little sister about her house, wondering if she had a big house with maybe a great room or something. I just knew it was their family culture to have conversations through a kitchen pass-through or some such thing. If those kinds of long-distance conversations are part of their family culture, and the whole family is on board, that’s ok. It’s really a matter of teaching the child to observe and adapt to the culture of different environments. We’re quiet in a library, in a museum during a flag ceremony, or in a place of worship, for example.
Please and thank you are only one tiny part of Grace and Courtesy. Social manners encompass so much more. Understanding emotional needs of yourself and others is an important life skill. Being a part of a community, whether it is a family community or a school community has its own skills set and expectations.
Grace and Courtesy is a very BIG important thing that we sometimes forget is even there. Children need us to support them as they learn, how to be gracious, how to be thoughtful, how to wait, how to be helpful, how to stay organized, and how to be aware of their own needs. We can show our children these aspects of life without nagging, rewarding, punishing or shaming. If we can guide them with respect, with modeling, with observing and offering a helping hand in a supporting role, the qualities we desire to see will start to become our child’s natural impulses.
Isn’t it interesting how children imitate the grown-ups in their lives? We can’t deny that our kids pick up words and phrases that we say (keep it clean, folks!). When cracking pecans in the front yard some years ago, my two-and-a-half year old hit his thumb and dropped an f-bomb. The phrase sounded a lot like something from Papa’s work buddies. I asked him to repeat what he had just said, and so he did. Yep. That’s what I thought….
Our babies smile when we do, laugh when we do, and copy us all the time. And they do it with such purpose.
Young children are drawn to do the chores and activities that their parents do around the house. We’re told that we should read and also
write in front of children so that they will understand the value of these skills. Entire marketing campaigns monopolize on the fact that children desire to imitate their parents.
Like when mowing the lawn … as a toddler, my son H had a bubble-blowing toy lawnmower that we were constantly filling with bubble solution so that he could help his Papa mow the lawn.
And in maintaining a home … H and his toddler buddy spent hours “fixing things”with a set of plastic construction tools. They hammered and twisted and sanded, even if there was nothing but air beneath their little fingers.
And while cooking … When my younger son, A, was three, he had an extensive collection of dishes and pots and pans with which he would make me imaginary gourmet toddler meals, including blueberry pizza, whipped cream sandwiches, and peanut butter salad.
One area of the Montessori foundation is called “practical life.”
It relates to a child’s natural desire to imitate adults and fit into this world with purpose. Initially, Dr. Maria Montessori and her assistant taught the children in her first classroom to take care themselves and their environment out ofnecessity. There were simply too many students for the two adults to attend to. The children had to learn to tie their aprons and wash their own dishes, among other things.
What Dr. Montessori discovered from this was interesting. She discovered that many chores used in everyday life helped the children to “normalize.” These life skills, such as sweeping up a spill, sorting forks and spoons, and folding laundry, all allow the child’s mind and body to align.
Life skills that Dr. Montessori included in the “practical life” curriculum are lessons in:
grace and courtesy (making eye contact, saying thank you, waiting for a turn to speak, etc.)
care of self (toileting, blowing nose, zipping a jacket, etc.)
care of the environment (watering the plants, sweeping the leaves off the back porch, clearing the lunch dishes, feeding the pets, etc.)
control of movement (control and strength of the hand, fine and gross motor skills, impulse control, etc.).
The Montessori philosophy of Practical Life is really simple when you break it down.
First, the number one way to create successful behavior in children (or if you’re more of a glass half empty type: the number one deterrent of undesirable behavior in children) is: Purpose. When a child has purposeful work, when a child feels helpful, when a child is proud of his accomplishments, he is his best self (That’s what Dr. Montessori called a normalizedchild.).
In a Montessori classroom, we prepare activities that allow children to practice a specific skill. The children practice scooping beans from one bowl to the next, for example. They practice buttoning and unbuttoning fabric on a frame. They practice pouring water from one container to another. The skill is isolated so that it’s simply one skill. There are only one or two steps. At home, the skills your kid needs to practice will not be isolated. The skills he will need to learn and to practice will come up naturally and might contain many steps.
So many parents are scared of messes. I love messes! Messes are an opportunity for your child to practice body control, hand/eye coordination, attention to detail, and concentration. Last week, my student, “Tommy” chose to do a science work with which the child explores how water moves and flows. There’s a big container and some foam shapes that float and stack. The child basically builds a waterslide, and then scoops water and pours it to see how it flows on the structure.
“Tommy” used this work for a very long time, using it as it was designed to be used, and when he was done, he experimented by pouring the water back into the narrow pitcher rather than the larger, easier bucket provided for the work.
Naturally the majority of the water spilled onto the floor.
I just watched. I even protected him from friends (and adults, too) who were ready to correct him and to point out his large spill. Next, “Tommy” sat on the floor with one of the foam shapes in his hand, carefully dunking it in and out of the half-filled pitcher, watching as the water level rose and fell. When he was done with that, he stood up and started to walk away.
This is when I spoke to him, saying,”That’s quite a lot of water on the floor. Are you going to get another towel or do you want to get the mop?”
I didn’t hear his response, although he returned in a few minutes with the mop. “Tommy’s” whole experience, including the cleaning up, took 50 minutes. This four-year-old boy was deep in concentration for a very long time and he was experiencing many important things including order, sequence, gravity, water displacement, flotation, surface tension, volume, to name a few. If I had interrupted him to prevent a mess, he would have missed the whole opportunity!
Have a whisk broom and dust pan available for your child for when he makes a little mess (or a BIG mess!) Here’s a whisk broom my boys use at home. Get down with him and talk him through the process of cleaning up step-by- step together. He’s seen you use the broom. Now let him do it while you watch. As his body becomes more coordinated, you will help less and less.
When your child has a sniffly nose, show her, standing side by side in front of a mirror, how you blow you your nose and let her blow her own nose.
When your child has a shirt with buttons in front, show her how to button it and let her practice. If you see that your child really tries to fasten the buttons, and she cannot, only supply her with knit shirts she can don by herself. Try again a few months later with buttons. The same goes for blue jeans or overalls. You should not have a button frame like we do in the classroom that isolates the skill of buttoning. You can offer your child a real shirt of her very own to practice buttoning (while it is OFF her body, is easier at first).
An important side note here. A child may show an interest in something that he is not yet ready to do. Children often show an interest in reading and writing before they are ready to tackle those skills. My Montessori colleague Beth Phillips, at Academy Montessori Preschool in Albuquerque, NM wrote, “In Montessori, I am trained to observe the child for indications of both needs and readiness.” In her blog, Montessori Publications, which you can read here, she talks about how a child can only understand academic material once they have normalized. Observing your child without engaging is important. See what he is interested in and at the same time, see what he is capable of.
Watch your child. Show him how…then get out of the way and let him try. Let him struggle a bit. Let him persevere.
I hope you found my explanation of Practical Life helpful. I welcome your questions and comments. Next time I plan to post about Grace and Courtesy.
Just like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, it turns out, I had Montessori inside me all along. I had to take those parts of myself and let them grow.
In August of 2007, I was immensely pregnant and expecting my second child. I knew I would need to spend some time bonding with the new baby so I set off to tour preschools. I wanted a school that was a just-right fit for my bright and articulate son, who would soon be three years old.
I know every mom thinks her kid is the smartest kid on the planet. I am no exception. But no, really — my kid was so clever and so articulate. It was crazy how much more verbal he was than his two year-old peers. He started to talk exclusively to his teachers. He even began to take on the profound stutter of the teacher at his twice-a-week Mother’s Day Out program. His peers couldn’t have a full-on conversation with him, so he decided he would chat up the teacher instead. The stutter passed, thankfully, but what lingered for me was a nagging feeling that a play-based program wasn’t the right learning environment for my little man. I thought he needed something more.
Several people (including my mom and my mother-in-law, both of whom often offer sound advice) suggested that I look at Montessori schools, so I decided to start there.
During my first tour, I felt overwhelmed. The director walked me through a mixed age, mixed-skilled classroom, telling me that Montessori was about “experiential learning and supporting independence and autonomy.”
What?! Come again? My 8-months-pregnant brain became cloudy and overwhelmed by what she was saying to me, so instead, I focused on the children working in the classroom. I was impressed. Rather than zipping wildly from one bleeping toy to another, the children were calm. The room was quiet and peaceful. There were activities rather than plastic toys. Instead of an alphabet of animal-shaped letters and distracting cartoony posters littering the walls, the room was decorated like a home with lamps and plants and framed art. I saw children sitting at little tables, deep in concentration. I saw two children on the floor poring over a map of the world together. It was clear at a glance that the children were independent and had purpose. I was surprised that it took me several moments to locate the teacher in the room. She was practically invisible, quietly assisting a child with a box of letters spread out on a table.
As I hoisted my huge, round belly into my car after the tour, tears of joy and relief fell. I knew that some of the tears were hormone induced. Fine. Pregnant women cry at the drop of a hat. But I was alsocrying because I knew this kind of school was perfect for my curious and clever kid.
I enrolled my guy into a Montessori school shortly before his third birthday. The classroom was small, warm and inviting. It felt like home. As I began to learn more about the way Montessori teaching works, I realized something: I was already incorporating many of the foundations of the Montessori philosophy into my parenting style, and I didn’t even know it.
I used real language and didn’t use baby talk. (To this day it bugs me when a parent says “horsey” or “doggie” to their child!)
I followed my child’s curiosity and stayed out of the way as he experienced new things. (I offer open-ended questions to lead him to find his own answers and I “help” without doing it for my kid.)
I set clear expectations and I allowed appropriate choice. (My husband and I have firm boundaries with our boys and we respect them as much as we expect them to respect us.)
A few years later, I enrolled my second son into the toddler program at a Montessori school.
That’s when I found myself lingering in the coatroom just after I dropped the boys off. Parents weren’t allowed in the classroom, so I hung around and asked questions. I wanted to see what was going on in that school! I was jealous that my boys got to go there every day and I had to go to the grocery store, run errands, clean house, and all that boring mom stuff. I took on any and every task that teachers gave me. I volunteered to Xerox copies, cut paper into booklets, sharpen pencils, organize office supplies, and whatever else they would let me do, just to get an idea of what Montessori was all about. The director of the school was so patient with me for several months. She must have thought I was crazy! One day, she handed me a business card for the Montessori training center.
I completed my Montessori certification from the New Mexico Center for Montessori Education in 2012. I have worked at Hawthorne Montessori school, here in Austin, Texas since I got my certificate. Both my boys attended Montessori through their kindergarten year.
The parts that are ingrained in me — my parenting style, my core beliefs, my inner voice — are what drew me to that Montessori school building. I found the building. But I think parts of the Montessori way of life had me all along. I just never knew it.
Please join me on my blog journey next time as I explain what Montessori calls “Practical Life” activities and why they are essential in a child’s development.