settling into normalization

"Only You" ~ Dean Jackson (behappy.me format):

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.

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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.

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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.

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Careful to walk around a friend’s work

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.”

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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.null 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.

 

 

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Staying organized

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.

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Getting Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

"They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life." —Jane Austen:

I had the most wonderful garden outside my kitchen door when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  H, who was four at the time,  was a painfully early riser (still is).  He and I would make our way to the kitchen super early in the morning, open the sliding glass door and let in the cool mountain air.

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I would brew my coffee as H would go in and out the back door, eating green beans he’d just picked.

We grew many things in our sweet little garden, including several varieties of peppers. I remember once, we had a houseguest who was so concerned that A, a toddler at the time, was clumsily tromping between the tomato plants and touching the jalapeños. She hovered over A, following closely behind him, uttering a constant stream of warnings and words of caution:

“Don’t step on the watermelon vine…”

“Don’t touch the peppers…”

“They will burn your hands and mouth…”

“Put that spade down, it’s sharp …”

“Don’t pick that tomato, it’s not ripe yet…”

 

Our well-meaning houseguest wanted to prevent A from injury. I know her heart was in the right place. However, it seemed to me that most of her interactions outside in our garden were  peppered with fear and negativity.

That’s when I realized that I am a believer in natural consequences. I don’t think we should rescue our child every time they are uncomfortable.

 

I know what it feels like to eat a jalapeño. They’re really spicy. When I worked at a Mexican restaurant in college, I experienced a capsaicin burn from a jar of pickled jalapeños that went all the way up to my wrist. Now that hurt!

moments before she missed the nail and hit her thumb

As I watched A explore the fruits of our garden, I knew that he may try to pick something under-ripe, taste or touch something spicy, or bring me something sharp. I knew that if he did, he might cry or be uncomfortable.

 

I also knew that if he did, he would survive the whole ordeal and come away with the new knowledge of what he should avoid in the garden.  

 


A few years later, I learned that I was parenting in a way that seemed to be aligned with with the Montessori philosophy.

H with his Grandfather and a tiny goat


Montessori is a
way of being that is respectful and collaborative. Dr. Montessori taught us that children are scientists collecting data with their five senses. Children need to collect experiences and feel feelings with a minimum of interference.  

 

It is naturally important to guide a child to prevent any real harm.  But we do not need to rescue children from all things.

We can support them through a hard or uncomfortable moment by listening, and with words of understanding, allow the child to feel his or her feelings without judgment. This way, adults can “help” a child who is struggling without actually doing anything!

 

That is what we do in the Montessori classroom.  We do not help children with things they are capable of doing themselves.

 

Here is a glimpse into a Montessori work period. Watch as the boy in this video struggles to put away The Bead Chain. Notice the adult is nearby the whole time. Take note how the adult helps.

He had a few tears when told, “You got this! Take your time and count every bead” and left to try on his own. He was able to count the last chain alone.

The video reminds me of a boy who joined my class at age 3 (I’ll call him Frankie). He had a very strong sense of order. Frankie had to have his clothes just so. He called all athletic shorts, no matter the color or style, “my favorite shorts.” It took me forever to realize it was a type of shorts Frankie preferred, rather than an individual pair of favorite shorts.

 

This guy struggled daily with his socks. You know the seam across the toe of the socks? He wanted that seam to sit perfectly across his toe in a certain way. He would sit and struggle, taking his sock off and on again, over and over until he was satisfied that it was right.

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If it was wrong, he would throw up his hands, cry out and start again. So here’s how I used a minimum of interference with him:

  • The first week he was in my class, I would go to him and say, “I see you are struggling with your sock.” And he would tell me he just couldn’t do it.
  • I would offer to show him “how” on one foot and let him try with the other.
  • After showing him how to put his sock on a few times, I would let him work at it on his own, let him struggle.
  • If his cries of frustration seemed like they were escalating, I might’ve gone over and said a word of encouragement like, “I know you can do it. I saw you do it yesterday.”
  • I would sit nearby.
  • I might offer open-ended alternatives like, “I wonder if the blue socks in your cubby are easier,” or “I wonder what it feels like to put shoes on WITHOUT socks.”

and the bottom line:

  • I would only help if he actually said the words, “Can you help me? I tried and I still can’t get it.”

 

Frankie struggled with putting on his socks for the better part of a year.

He pushed through the feelings of frustration, feelings of failure, and feelings of disappointment.

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If I had rescued Frankie, I would have robbed him of his work. He needed to have those feelings. When he learned his new skills, he learned what success can feel like.

 

If we come upon a hurdle in life that is barely out of our reach, rather than having someone swoop in and rescue us, isn’t it better to struggle and get that sense of accomplishment when we succeed?
Using a minimum of interference means offering your child support when they need it. Listening. Acknowledging feelings without judgment. Staying positive.

In this way, struggles become more about perseverance, and how to deal with frustration or anxiety.

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UPDATE:

Just after I posted this, Marie Aragon, a sweet woman with whom I did Montessori training, shared a well-written article from the Huffington Post titled “The Most Valuable Thing You Can Do For Your Kids”, that supports what I have expressed here in this post. Click here to read it.

Also, I want you to check out a podcast called Unruffled by Janet Landsbury. She is Awesome! She often reassures parents that all of the feelings that children express are okay.  Even the loud, expressive, unpleasant feelings. She gives specific tips about how understand children and their behaviors. The episodes are short and packed full of helpful information.