Montessori Moments

October 3, 2009


John is a 4.5 year old boy from a broken home.  His parents are bitterly divorced and he lives with his dad, step-mom, and twin toddlers from the current marriage.  John sleeps over at his mom’s house every other Wednesday and every weekend.

The dad and step-mom are very nice, but very young and very overwhelmed with so many little children.  John came to my class one year ago as a 3.5-year old, because his previous teacher couldn’t handle him.  Through a lot of tough love and positive discipline in the prepared environment, John began to settle down and find joy in the Montessori materials.  This was a long and arduous process, which took most of the year, but I could see genuine progress and maturity around the time we celebrated his fourth birthday towards the end of the school year.

I still struggled to help him find purposeful work, and he refuses to do anything related to sandpaper letters or the moveable alphabet, so he’s at least a year behind where he should be academically.  However, he was happy, understood the limits, and was always eager to help.  He even displayed strong concentration when working with metal insets and constructive triangles, and his coloring work went from dark and aggressive to colorful and well-organized.

At the beginning of this school year, he was still doing relatively well, although there was the expected rowdiness associated with the start of the school year.  A few weeks ago, however, things changed.  John began acting up: he got into physical fights, stopped following the rules, and had a strange nervous energy.  I talked to the director of the school about it, and she let me know that John’s dad and step-mom were expecting a baby.  Because John hadn’t mentioned anything, I let it be for the moment, and returned to the tough love, positive discipline, and Montessori materials that had worked so well in the past.

This time, however, they seemed to have the opposite effect.  John would settle down for a few moments, but soon he was hurting someone, mistreating a material, or being loud and abrasive in the classroom when everyone else was trying to work.  If he was working with a metal inset, he would get up from his chair at least 20 times to go interrupt others, and would react violently if I tried to guide him back to his work.

I called the dad to try to get some insight and asked him if there were any changes at home I should know about.  As is customary with him, he blamed the mom for putting negative ideas about school in John’s mind, and told me that every time John comes home after visiting his mom he is irritable and difficult to handle.  Not once did he mention that they were expecting, so I didn’t bring this up.

A week after the fruitless phone call, we celebrated another child’s birthday, and John mentioned that he would be getting a new brother and sister.  He didn’t seem upset and stated the fact very nonchalantly.  However, a few days later we were having a particularly bad day.  The children were acting up and John was leading the way.  Fed up with his behavior, I did something I have never done before to any child: I told John he was acting like a baby.

What happened next surprised me.  He grinned.  It was the biggest grin I’ve seen on a child in a long time!  He looked pleased as punch with my statement!  That’s when it hit me: he’s regressing.  He knows that his twin half-brothers got all the attention when they were born, and now he’s going to be losing his dad’s attention once again!

I really don’t know how to proceed at this point… I have a conference with John’s dad a week from now, but I don’t know how to bring up his child’s reaction to my statement, let alone the fact that the boy’s behavior is a direct result of the dad’s actions and decisions.  He can’t turn back the pregnancy, but he needs to realize how it is affecting his child.

As for John’s behavior in the classroom, I’m not quite sure what to do.  The more I treat him like a “big boy”, the more he rebels and regresses, because he wants to be the baby.  But treating him like a baby is not going to help him understand the realities of his role in life.  Maria Montessori would say that we are not psychologists, and that the only way we can lead a child to normalization is through helping him find purposeful work that he can repeat with concentration.  But how do I go about that if the child’s energy and focus are so scattered that he can’t even sit on a chair or next to a rug long enough to take a material out of its box?

Next week, it’s going to be all Practical Life, all day long for little John.  He needs a sense of purpose in his life, an anchor of stability and success in the crazy mixed-up world his adults have created for him.  I pray that he’ll find his way through scrubbing walls and washing windows.  Maybe Maria Montessori was right after all… It wouldn’t surprise me.


August 28, 2009

Nurture Shock

Filed under: classroom,culture,parenting,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 6:30 am
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Here’s an insightful interview with the author of “Nurture Shock”, a new book that examines the effects of current mainstream parenting styles on our children’s behaviors.  You can read the transcript or listen online:

August 25, 2009

Up To the Challenge?

A Montessori teacher recently wrote in her blog that, in her experience, children who are given a choice between Montessori materials and materials thought up by the teacher (such as sorting little balls with tongs and counting different colored rocks) would choose the latter over the Montessori materials.

While this is very sad, the phenomenon does not surprise me one bit in this day and age of over-praising.  From the moment children are born into our society, they are praised and rewarded for everything they do.  I have seen three-year old children praised for getting into their car seats, drinking from a child-sized water fountain, and pushing in their chairs. While all this praise is given to supposedly bolster the little ones’ self-esteem and help them figure out right from wrong, it has quite the opposite impact.

Children who are praised become dependent on external rewards, and quickly become hesitant to try something challenging that will not immediately garner them a rather generic “good job” or a gold star from an adult.  Therefore, it’s logical to assume that they wouldn’t be attracted to any activity that might require them to try, fail, and try again.   Additionally, because some Montessori materials require the child to use his own judgment to evaluate whether he has been successful, they will not be attractive to children who depend on adults to evaluate what is “good” and what isn’t.

As if praise weren’t harmful enough to  young children, they are also living in a society built around instant gratification.  From the time they can sit up, children are placed in front of battery-operated toys that light up and make noise following each interaction.  These children rarely get to experience the internal satisfaction that comes from setting a goal, overcoming challenges, reaching the objective, and actually recognizing that the objective has been reached.

So yeah… Transferring cotton balls with tongs from one bowl to another is a heck of a lot less risky than building the trinomial cube.  But which one is more rewarding, in the TRUE sense of the word?

If you think that a three-year old child is too young to have been “broken” by rewards, think again.  I once saw a three-year old outside an IKEA who was refusing to enter the enormous store with her parents.  The mother insisted, and the child replied, “I’ll go into the store if you give me an Oreo.”  The mother turned purple as she tried to swallow an overflowing spoonful of her own bitter medicine.

Parents think they are responsible for doling out rewards, and yet human beings are not born with a need for them… Babies are risk-takers, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals of learning about the world.  I’ve never seen anyone strike their head against the floor so many times as a baby who is learning how to stand.  They hit that floor HARD!  And yet, they try over and over again until they are successful.   Do they stand up any faster if we give them a gold star?  No.  Will they take longer to stand up if we ignore them?  Again, no.  They stand up when they are good and ready, after they have tried many alternatives and have learned what works best.  Where does this internal drive go?  Once it’s lost, can we ever get it back?

If everyone could choose between doing busywork in their office (which, while boring, is a safe bet and gets you a secure paycheck) or undertaking the challenges of starting a business (which, while being very challenging and risky, is also immensely rewarding and educational), which one would most people choose?  Why do you think that is?

Which kind of person do you want your child to be?  It’s all in your hands.

August 8, 2009

Pushing Kids Too Hard Can be Childish

Filed under: from the child's perspective,parenting — The Full Montessori @ 9:43 am
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Here’s an interesting story from NPR.  You can listen to it or read the transcript… While I don’t agree with praise AT ALL, I do think that at the very least parents should be aware of what they choose to emphasize in their child’s life.

Good Job Epidemic

Filed under: montessori education,parenting — The Full Montessori @ 6:57 am
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Every week we give a tour of the school to prospective students and their parents.  It’s interesting to see how parents interact with their children; I’ve gotten so good at observing parents that I can tell within five minutes of meeting them whether they are permissive pushovers, strict authoritarians, or savvy negotiators.  

However, regardless of their parenting style, all parents have one thing in common: their need to bolster their child’s self-esteem.  For some reason, they got it into their heads that it is their responsibility to remind children of how wonderful and special they are, and that by so doing, they will create children who are self-assured and immune to criticism.  The way that parents go about performing this “critical” task is what I have termed the “good job epidemic”, and it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what its goal is.

On one particular occasion, a Chinese mother and her cute three-year old daughter were following me into the playground.  As I gave my spiel on our outdoor activities, little Shirley ran to a child-sized drinking fountain set up precisely so children can have easy access to water.  As Shirley drank contentedly, the mother looked at me anxiously and asked, “Is that water safe to drink??”  

I felt like replying, “Well, the fountain is connected to our sewage pipes but the children seem to love the taste of the water.”  I resisted the urge and nodded with a smile.  The mom looked back at her daughter and called out, “Good job, Shirley!”

Now, seriously… Good job?  What great, challenging feat did the child do that merited recognition from an adult?  The next time Shirley drinks from a fountain, and her mother is not there to tell her she’s doing a good job, will she feel like a failure?  How will she develop an internal compass if her mother is always present, passing judgement on what she considers “good”?  And should Shirley really care what her mother thinks?

I could go on and on, but I think Alfie Kohn puts it best in this article:

Not only does he describe the problem clearly, but he also offers easy and sensible alternatives that will achieve the results parents are looking for.

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