Self-discipline: Montessori and the… ahem… aggressive child.

I am neither proud nor ashamed to admit that I have a child who sometimes tantrums at school, in the process sometimes biting, kicking, and shoving other children. It’s difficult, and we’re working on it. I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here, except that I led a school tour this morning and the prospective parents raised the question of discipline.

“How is discipline handled? Do they do time-outs or is there some other system in place?”

It’s an interesting question. My memories of school are that misbehaviour was punished. (At this point there are those of you who are saying, “well DUH!” stick with me. You might learn something.) I suppose the philosophy there was that the child could control her behaviour if only she wanted to control it. Really, that’s the only circumstance under which punitive discipline can possibly work.

Montessori teachers understand that, given the right environment, all children want to function well socially. Everyone wants to have friends and be happy. So when a child pushes or bites or tantrums, that’s an indication that the child lacks certain skills or abilities to cope in another way. The teachers don’t punish the child; they remove her from the situation, allow her to calm down, and then discuss what happened and what the child could do differently the next time. If a classmate was hurt in the scuffle, the aggressor might help that classmate to feel better, often by getting him an ice pack or a drink of water.

And then, the Montessori teachers do what Montessorians do so well… they watch.

The next time the teachers see this child’s social behaviour begin to deteriorate into aggression, they will quickly step in with a reminder: something simple like, “If you’re starting to feel upset, please take a walk around the classroom.” Over time the teachers will need to step in less frequently as the child become more self-aware and can remind herself of how to cope with rising frustration.

A wonderful benefit of this approach is that a child who is immature or for some other reason has difficulty regulating his own behaviour is never made to feel like a “bad child.” Every student is working on something – some children need more coaching to be able to carry a bowl of water without spilling; another is still learning how to set out his work so that it doesn’t encroach on someone else’s work mat… and one child is learning how to cope with frustration in a way that doesn’t involve pushing or hitting. There’s no particular shame in needing any of those lessons – each child relies on the teacher to help them improve their skills and form their identity.

The word “discipline” is from the same word as “disciple” and both come from a root word that means “to teach.” Yes, our teachers discipline our students… they teach the children to discipline themselves.

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Montessori parenting really is different

We have a toddler shabbat program at our school now. Like the dozens of other toddler shabbat programs in Toronto, this one gives very young children – accompanied by their parents – the opportunity to set the Shabbat table, say the blessings, enjoy some challah and grape juice, and sing with friends. The children also have about thirty minutes of time to work with some very basic Montessori materials.

It is during this work period that I’ve been fascinated by the contrast between how most of the parents interact with their children, and how the Montessori-trained staff do.

Constant narration

In the current parenting culture, we seem to believe that we have to talk at our children nonstop. This used to irritate me when people did it to my kids, although I couldn’t articulate why other than a vague comment that “it’s insulting to a kid’s intelligence when you make their every experience verbally explicit.” Honestly, many experiences in life are more potent when you just shut up and experience them. Right?

Montessori philosophy pretty much agrees with me on this one (and it’s about time I was right about something, because so far today I’ve been wrong about many, many things. Just ask my four-year-old.) The child is supposed to learn from working with the materials, not from listening to an adult describe said work. When the adult comments or exclaims on the child’s efforts, they shift the focus from the work to themselves, breaking the child’s concentration.

Praise

Oh, I could write a book about the evils of constant praise, but many people already have. May I just say that I hate it? In a single afternoon, many weekends ago, I heard the following:

  • “Good waiting, you guys.” (I figured the fact that waiting patiently will get you a snack was reinforcement enough, but some parents apparently disagreed.)
  • “Good using your words!” (again, isn’t the reward of using your words that people understand and respond to you?)
  • “Wow, great jumping!” (It’s a bouncy castle. Kids love to jump in those. Just what was this parent hoping to achieve by praising something that the kid does – and enjoys – naturally?)
  • “Good eating snack, everybody!” (Has it come to this? We’re praising our kids foreating? You have got to be kidding me.)

Why exactly do we praise kids for every single thing they do? And what do you think happens to kids when they grow up and discover that nobody is going to praise them for taking out the garbage, showering, or fulfilling their job description?

The Montessori attitude seems to be that self-esteem comes from achieving mastery. Of course, praise that flows naturally from a place of delight with a child’s efforts is always okay. But when giving positive feedback, Montessorians generally stick to the facts, as in, “Wow. You poured water into all six glasses and didn’t spill a drop!” or, “You read that whole book without stumbling over the hard words.”

Can I just say, on a personal note, that I feel really validated by this approach? I want my kids to have self-esteem because they know that they are competent, capable, and talented – not because their mom thinks they’re cool.

Respect

Sure, we pay lip service to respecting our kids, but do we really? I know that I fail on this count multiple times a day, rushing them along when they actually need to finish what they’re doing, etc. But do we even respect the importance of what we believe our kids should be doing?

That sounded convoluted. Sorry. Maybe I’ll just skip to the anecdote.

When the mothers (and they are all mothers, although fathers are certainly invited and welcomed) arrive with their toddlers, the children immediately gravitate to the Montessori materials and begin working. What do the mothers do?

Oh, come on. Guess.

Yep. They talk. Loudly. About everything from their kids to their clothes to what’s for dinner. And this feels okay, because the kids are doing what they’re supposed to do, and the moms are doing what moms are supposed to do.

It would be okay in any other drop-in setting, in the sense that nobody would think to ask the moms to stop talking while their children played. But imagine that people kept coming into your workplace while you were trying to concentrate on an important project. And imagine those people, while not demanding your attention, were conversing loudly about things that had absolutely nothing to do with you and your work. Wouldn’t you stick your head up and say, “Excuse me, but I’m trying to work here!”? Wouldn’t you expect them to respect your right to a quiet workplace?

Montessorians respect children’s work, including their need for an appropriate workspace, materials, and yes, silence. We can talk loudly while the children play because they’re “just playing.” But if we take into account all the skills that our children are developing when they work so intently with the Montessori materials, it very quickly becomes very clear that we need to respect and support their work. And that means keeping the environment conducive to focus and attention.

Expectations

I often (about five times a day) say that the key to happiness is lower expectations. It’s true inasmuch as expecting my house to be a mess and at least one of my kids to be unhappy at any given moment helps me to face the chaos that is parenting with my sense of humour intact. And yet, my time observing the toddler program has reminded me that we (as a society) place very low expectations on young children.

Over the six-week program I’ve heard mothers exclaim “I had no idea s/he’d be able to do that!” over the following:

  • a fifteen-month-old using ice tongs to transfer pom-poms from one bowl to another… for upwards of fifteen minutes
  • five toddlers, all under the age of two, resisting the urge to drink their grape juice until after the blessing was said
  • a child (again, under the age of two) carrying a ceramic bowl containing water, without spilling or dropping it

And those are just the things the mothers exclaimed about. Other things, like the fact that all the toddlers drank from glass cups without any being broken, were taken for granted within the classroom but might surprise non-Montessorians.

In short, very young children are capable of a lot more than we think they are. My kids surprise me with this every day: yesterday K insisted on carrying a cafeteria-style tray laden with food – and real china plates – to our table at Aroma. I said “no” again and again until she wore me down with her insistence that she could do it. She did it. No tipping, no spilling. I was amazed. I also apologized for doubting her.

All of this makes me wonder, what else are our children capable of?

Imagine how the landscape of parenting in North America would be different if every parent allowed their child the time and space to focus on their interests, respected the child’s “work” (be it play, reading, or practicing new skills,) and had high expectations of their child’s ability to function competently in the world. How would our children be different? And how different would our schools look?

I can only imagine. Well, except for that last question. The answer to that is staring me in the face every morning at 9  a.m.

What abilities have your children surprised you with? Do you tend to praise? Over-praise? Or under-praise (like me)? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

Parachute clip dressing frame (tutorial)

N has a new obsession these days: parachute clips. They’re on every highchair, carseat, and stroller; they’re even on K’s backpack, which N has adopted as his own for the purpose of practicing. He’ll crouch down, intently focused on inserting one side of the clip into the other. As soon as both clips are done he’ll come barreling towards me, thrust the backpack into my hands, and order, “puhn-ih,” which as far as I can tell means “open it.”

This would all be very entertaining except for the fact that K’s backpack is now MIA because N drags it around everywhere. Yesterday I decided that it was time to make N a dressing frame.

A what?

Dressing frames are found in every primary Montessori classroom. The children use them to practice opening and closing all kinds of buttons, snaps, clips, velcro, and zippers so that they will have the skills to dress and undress themselves. Typically, dressing frames look something like this:

I made my dressing frame out of an old IKEA picture frame, some ribbons from my sewing stash, and three parachute clips that I bought at Fabricland. It’s extremely simple.

Step one: remove the backing, picture, mat, and glass from the picture frame. Push the little metal tabs back so that they don’t stick out.

Step two: cut six lengths of ribbon, each about 3/4 as wide as the frame. Singe the ends of the ribbon by passing them close to a candle flame (this will stop the ribbons from fraying.) Note that I made the ribbons extra long because N doesn’t yet have the strength and coordination to pull on the ribbons while connecting the clips – if the ribbons are too short for him to clip them comfortably, he’ll just give up. Feel free to experiment with the best ribbon length for your child.

Step three: separate the parts of the three parachute clips. attach each piece to the end of one ribbon by looping the ribbon through the slot in the clip and then gluing down the end. I used fabric glue, but you can use whatever works for you.

Step four: Connect the clips to each other (so that you don’t accidentally glue the ribbons to the wrong sides) and glue the loose ends of the ribbons to the inside of the picture frame.

At this point, you may want to further secure the ribbon ends. I used a piece of wood trim for each side of the frame. Using wood glue, I glued the trim down over the ends of the ribbon and clamped it. After an hour, there was no way the wood trim – or the ribbon – was coming off.

And that’s it. Trim the ribbon ends, double check that all the glue has dried and is holding well, and your dressing frame is ready for action:

Any questions?

Repetition, rote, and religious fulfillment

I once had a conversation with a cousin of mine who asked me why I love the Passover seder so much. She was asking, she said, because she doesn’t enjoy seders at all (aside from the food and the family being together.) She finds prayers boring and unenjoyable and doesn’t understand how I could find fulfillment that way.

Here’s how I responded:

Imagine you have a friend who really loves line dancing. She drags you to a bar one night and tells you that you’re about to have an amazingly fun experience. You go out to the dance floor with her. The music starts and everyone is moving. You’re trying to watch people’s feet, and you succeed at copying their steps, but you’re lagging behind everyone and you keep bumping into people when you turn the wrong way. You’re trying to get with the beat of the music, but you don’t know this song and hearing the beat seems to take more effort and concentration than it should. You shuffle along as best you can, feeling stupid and uncoordinated. You can’t wait to get off the dance floor. When the song ends you’re out of there, with no intention of coming back. Your friend, on the other hand, really enjoyed herself and can’t understand why you didn’t have fun, too.

Prayer and ritual are the same as any other activity. If you don’t have the basics down pat, you’ll never be able to enjoy it fully. People seem to accept that you need to practice for years if you’re going to really enjoy playing an instrument in a group, and that you have to learn the steps and then practice them before ballroom dancing becomes an enjoyable pastime for you… and yet somehow people expect to step into a synagogue and have a transcendental spiritual experience. What’s more, when spiritual fulfillment fails to materialize, they blame the religion, the synagogue, and the language rather than their own lack of study and practice.

Yes, I get a kick out of the Passover seder. I love it. I love the words, the melodies, the symbols. I love them because they’re familiar to me, and I love them because of what they express. The Hallel section (aka the long part after the meal that most people just skip) puts words in my mouth so that I can use them to express my personal thanks and praise to God. I’ve been hearing those words since birth. In grades 1 and 2 we practiced excerpts from the haggadah for weeks so that we could put on a model seder in our class. I’m 32 years old, and we do two seders a year, and that means I’ve heard the entire seder at least 64 times, not counting all that practice in school and my attempts to learn my Grandpa’s melodies by tape recording him and listening to it repeatedly.

When people criticize their Jewish education they often cite rote memorization as a major reason why they hated it. Sure, being made to memorize words in a foreign language without any explanation of their meaning feels useless. But why is the instinct to eliminate memorization rather than to increase understanding? Both are important, but you have to know that all the understanding in the world won’t help you line dance if you don’t learn the steps.

Montessori education understands this principle. K’s classroom is full of activities that one could call “pointless,” like the one where you have to cut a strip of paper into squares by cutting precisely on the printed lines. Wouldn’t everyone love to go straight to sewing and collage-making? Probably, but they’d be disappointed by their results. I can tell you as a crafter and a quilter that being able to cut precisely on the lines is essential to making a good-looking product. Basic skill development is essential, and we jump to the end activity at our own peril.

Will my children have the comfort and facility with Jewish prayer that I do? I don’t know. Our school is less “religious” than the one I attended, which means that instead of reciting prayers every day they do it twice a week. I do know that at the age of 4 K already knows the entire (long) blessing over the Sabbath wine. She’s heard it every week since her birth which puts her at… well, upwards of 200 repetitions. One day, I hope, she’ll be able to stand and recite the blessing fluently while feeling the awe and sanctity of the words.

Our job, as parents and educators, is to give our children the skills to function in the world and to find fulfillment. When it comes to religious education, we’d do doubly well to remember that.

What makes our Montessori school Jewish?

This post is in response to a reader question from long ago. I promise I’ll get to the other reader questions soon!

The answer to this is quite simple, although a bit hard to express. Basically it goes like this:

Our Montessori school is Jewish in the same way our home is Jewish.

The rhythms of the calendar are those of the Jewish calendar. Friday is Shabbat – everyone wears white shirts (to make it special, not because there’s anything significant about white shirts); they bless the candles, the challah, and the wine; lunchtime is a special treat – pizza.

As holidays approach, the entire school prepares. For Passover all of the students were involved in cleaning the classrooms, checking for chametz (leaven), and collecting kosher-for-passover foods for the Pesach food drive. On Purim the regular school day was disrupted for a giant party, everyone dressed in costume (our principal dressed as the Montessori movable alphabet), and they made mishloach manot bags to give to one another.

The classrooms themselves are full of Jewish objects and symbols. Among the practical life exercises you’ll find materials for putting candles into candlesticks (or into a menorah at Hannukah) – great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The metal-polishing activity, a staple of any Montessori classroom, often involves polishing a kiddush cup or candlesticks that the class uses to celebrate Shabbat. Around the holidays there is a display of relevant objects (for Rosh Hashana there was a shofar, a pomegranate, a jar of honey, and a machzor) for the children to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Hebrew books mingle with the English, and the usual Montessori language arts materials have their direct counterparts in Hebrew materials.

Both English and Hebrew are spoken in the classroom all day – English by the Montessori teacher and Hebrew by the Jewish studies teacher. Children move easily between general studies and Jewish studies, guided by their mood that day. There is no artificial division where half the day is Jewish and the other half is secular. The whole day is Jewish, the whole day is Montessori.

Judaism works its way into every discipline. The upper elementary students were studying Renaissance art, and they were very interested in the Sistine chapel and how it was painted. They researched the logistics of painting a ceiling and then set out to try it by painting the undersides of the tables in their classroom. Each child had to choose a scene from the Torah, sketch it, explain to the teacher why it was significant and what details would be emphasized in the drawing. Then they all lay down on the floor under their tables and painted their favourite Torah scenes.

Sometimes I wish there was a bit more rote learning (I can explain in another post if you like, about how I think rote learning contributes to religious experience), or a bit more emphasis on religious – rather than just cultural – Judaism. But all in all, I’m happy that our school reflects our life. Judaism is a part of it, infusing everything, and not something that is separate from our everyday life.

Demystifying Montessori – part 3

The preamble:

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Mr. December always says, “trust but verify”.

So, how does the actual teaching and learning take place in a Montessori classroom?

When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see something like this:

There are child-sized tables and chairs which seat various numbers of children, the classroom is broken up into several smaller areas by low shelving, and the shelving is home to numerous trays and boxes filled with objects and tools. These trays and boxes contain the basis of the curriculum, the Montessori materials.

(Quick sidenote: the materials are grouped into different areas that correspond to curriculum areas, but this is just to provide a sense of order and facilitate locating the materials. The kids are free to take the materials to any place in the classroom while they are using them.)

There are a few different curriculum areas, and the materials are grouped accordingly. The curriculum areas are:

  • Sensorial – in which the children learn to differentiate shape, size, weight, length, pitch, tone, colour, etc.
  • Math – in the youngest classroom this begins with number recognition, proceeds through the introduction of zero, and ends somewhere around the division of four-digit numbers (with no remainders).
  • Language – letters, phonics, writing, grammar
  • Sciences – a lot of zoology, biology, nomenclature, nature study
  • Social Studies – map puzzles, types of water and land formations, international flags, etc.
  • Practical life – skills such as pouring, spooning, washing (clothes, dishes, hands), cleaning, polishing, etc.

There is also a curriculum area called “grace and courtesy”, but I’m not going there right now.

Anyhow, each tray or box contains all of the materials needed to complete one activity from the Montessori curriculum. If it’s something that involves liquid, it will not only contain all of the requisite pitchers/bowls/cups but also a small sponge for cleaning up spills. When a child chooses a material, she also takes either a placemat or a floor mat. All of the work is contained in the area of the mat, which helps the kids to delineate their workspace. Everyone knows not to walk across a mat.

When it is time for a child to learn a new lesson, the teacher will invite the child to work with her. The teacher then demonstrates the proper use of the materials, step by step, from taking the work off the shelf all the way through the task to cleaning up and putting it away. Then the child tries the activity.

The teacher watches, but doesn’t correct – she doesn’t need to, because the materials are self-correcting (a very basic example – in one pouring activity, the child must fill a small jug to a black line, then pour from that jug into two glasses up to the red line on each. If the water isn’t at the line, or if some water has spilled, then the child knows that he has to try again). If the child asks for help, the teacher will model some strategies or demonstrate the task again, but otherwise she is a silent observer for the child’s first use of the material.

After the initial lesson, the child is free to choose the same material as often as he wants, as repetition cements the learning.

What are the other kids doing while the teacher is working with one child? Why, they’re working on their own tasks. The group-friendly tasks (division, for example, or some of the language and geography materials) might be presented to a few kids at once. Also, older children sometimes work together with the younger students to help them cement a recently presented skill.

So… yes, the children learn from experiencing a task, and from touching, seeing, lifting, carrying, hearing, and sometimes smelling the materials. But it’s not a “trial and error” kind of experiential learning. Rather, the youngest kids (ages 2.5 – 5) are using what Montessori termed their “absorbent mind” to learn a structured sequence of actions that gives them the skills and knowledge they need.

Demystifying Montessori – part 2

If you haven’t already read my first post in this series, you may want to.

In order to address the issue of choice in the Montessori classroom, you first have to understand the structure of the day.

Dr. Montessori believed that, given long stretches of time in which to work, children will gradually lengthen their attention spans. In her opinion, shepherding the children along to a different activity or a different subject every 30 minutes made it impossible for the kids to become engrossed in any one task. It makes sense to me – if I’m in the middle of a really good book, or sewing a project, I loathe being disturbed.

This observation resulted in the establishment of the three-hour work period in Montessori schools. That means that for three (sometimes two and a half) hours, the children work with the materials of their choice. Snacks or short breaks are taken on an individual basis, when each child is ready.

So here we are, at the question of choice. Many (uninformed) critics of Montessori complain that the children have too much choice and too much freedom. I see how it can appear that way, what with the children entering the classroom and gravitating to the work they want. On closer inspection, though, it’s pretty obvious that what we have here is choice within a rigid structure.

When the child has their choice of materials, they are not really free to choose any material. Each child is restricted to the materials appropriate to his or her level – that is, the activities that have already been presented by the teacher. Sometimes the child will choose materials that she has not yet learned. If those materials are the next in a progression of skills, the teacher may present it to the child. If not, the child is redirected to other materials.

And out of the materials on his or her level, the child must choose from among the ones on the shelf. If another child is already using a material, it is (obviously) unavailable. Some materials are for work in small groups, but most are not. Children can (and do) watch each other work and offer encouragement, but they can’t step in and do the work for a classmate.

So imagine that a kid is doing his work, and then he wants to do something else. While that’s certainly his choice to make, he doesn’t get to abandon the task at hand – if he does, he’ll find the teacher gently guiding him back to the materials and encouraging him to put everything back the way he found it before moving on.

When they get hungry, the kids can go to the kitchen area (every classroom has one) and sit down at the snack table… if there’s a seat available. Otherwise they must wait until someone else has finished before they can sit down. When they do sit to eat, they have to first spread out a napkin on the table, and then they can take as much as they want – up to the amount written and drawn on the small board. And of course, when they’re finished eating the kids must clean up after themselves and leave the snack table usable for the next child.

There is a “peace corner” in every classroom. It’s usually a small space with comfy chairs and a small selection of books. The children are free to sit in the peace corner, read, or even doze off.

The argument goes that by being given an opportunity to govern their own time (within a structure), the children learn self-regulation (apparently this has been proven by studies, but I haven’t read them yet). They are also able to delve deeply into their work when they are so inclined, and able to rest and refresh themselves when they need to.

Maybe the strangest effect of this approach is the one we discovered when we took our first tour of the school. As we watched the children quietly working, replacing materials and choosing others, negotiating with other students, and taking breaks without disturbing the other kids, the principal whispered, “You probably haven’t noticed it – I just realized it myself – but both teachers are out of the room and the kids are still doing their own work.” And they were.

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Do you have any thoughts or questions about this? Need clarification? Leave a comment and I’ll respond to it in a future post!