Thursday, June 3, 2021


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Exploring the “Why” Behind Behavior

In Montessori Education, we do not advise using Reward and Punishment systems to mold behavior. While these may work short term to bring about the desired behavior, they do nothing to address the reasons behind that behavior. This is why, whenever I encounter challenging behavior with young children, especially if it is recurring, I like to examine if their basic needs are being met as outlined in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

(Please note: This article does not address extreme situations of physical/emotional abuse or neglect;  parents/caregivers who are addicts or suffer from severe mental illness;  families that suffer severe or sudden financial hardship or homelessness.  It is meant to address common issues that could affect almost any family.)

Physiological Needs

  • Sleep: Is this child sleepy? Is sleep a chronic issue? It is very hard to act one’s best if suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. So many adults and children are not getting enough sleep. And effects spill over into home and school life making children cranky, moody, overly sensitive, unable to focus etc.
  • Rest/Down Time: When children are habitually rushed from one activity to the next without enough unstructured down time, they don’t get to fully access the areas of the brain for reflection and creativity. This may also affect mood, contributing to tantrums and outbursts.
  • Exercise: Children need to move their bodies on a regular basis. They need opportunities to play and be boisterous. They may become overly active or agitated if they are not given enough outlets for their energy. They may act out or have trouble concentrating at school.
  • Nutrition: Is this child hungry? Are basic nutritional needs being met? Eating too much junk food affects mood and energy. Children who skip breakfast may have trouble concentrating.

Safety Needs:

  • Predictable Routines and Schedules: Children have a hard time relaxing and “going with the flow” if there is too much chaos. Children thrive on routine and schedules. They may become anxious if there isn’t enough structure in their lives.  And conversely, they may suffer if there are too many rigid routines.
  • Age-Appropriate Boundaries on Behavior: If boundaries on behavior are too loose or too tight regarding expectations, rules and consequences then children may rebel, becoming demanding or withdrawn.  If there are too many freedoms, children may try to fill the role of the adult themselves. Ironically, some parents offer too many freedoms in an attempt to bolster a child’s self-esteem, but this often backfires into creating anxiety and poor behavior.

Love and Belonging:

  • Affection: When children don’t get enough basic attention and affection, they may act out in many ways to get that. This can include when a new baby arrives, one parent must be away for work, or a divorce.
  • Positive Interactions: Children need to know that their fears and emotions will be taken seriously by the adult and responded to in compassionate and empathic ways. They also need coaching and encouragement, especially when they try something new or scary to them.
  • Belonging: Children need to know they can turn to adults when they have problems they can’t solve on their own. They need to know they have a safe “home base” in their lives.

The 4th tier of self-esteem often blossoms naturally when the first three tiers have been sufficiently met. This easily leads to a balanced curiosity and desire to learn and explore the world around them, part of the 5th tier of self-actualization.  Learning progresses so much more easily when the first 4 tiers have been met. Children want to grow and learn. If they are not sufficiently challenged, they can also become destructive or mischievous when bored.

Sometimes it may take a bit of exploring to see if there are underlying unmet needs. Young children want to please the adult and rarely act out or misbehave just to cause trouble.  So, the next time you find yourself faced with a recurring issue, take some time to reflect if there might be an unmet need that is driving it. It may take time but will reward you with a happier and healthier child!


Marla Nargundkar, AMI
Tree of Life Montessori School of Atlanta


Friday, April 10, 2020

Helping our Children Cope

During this time of COVID-19 with widespread sheltering in place, we are all experiencing a great amount of stress. Uncertainty about when we will return to “normal” routines, fears about loss of income, fears about loss of friends or family to this illness are all in play. So many stressors are pushing on all of us from so many directions. It can be hard to manage our time wisely, especially if we must juggle working online and caring for our children. Here are a few tips that may help you through this time.
  1. Set up a daily routine – it doesn’t matter what – just create a predictable structure for your child. Figure out what works for you. Predictable routines help ease anxiety.
  2. Focus on keeping the household running – cleaning up, picking up, assigning tasks, etc. We are all together in our households and cannot really escape for long. We’ve got to keep our living spaces sane. Enlist your child’s help in as many areas as possible.
  3. Don’t stress academics at this time. Focus on doing the minimum needed to keep their skills fresh. This isn’t the time to introduce a lot of new concepts or put pressure on any new skills. Everyone in the nation is experiencing this together, so you don’t need to worry your child will “fall behind.”  Academics are not what matters most at this moment. Use this time for enrichment activities but only if your child is really enjoying them.
  4. Try not to use electronic media too much. Hands on experiences are the most beneficial activities at this time. Use electronic media wisely and in limited amounts each day. The growing child’s brain needs all the neural connections that are formed from actual real world hands-on experiences.
  5. Get exercise daily. If it is safe to go for a neighborhood walk, then take a daily family walk. Have exercise time at home, too with dancing, obstacle courses, calisthenics like jumping jacks, hopscotch and more.  Be sure to include some calming breathing exercises as well.
  6. Focus on connection and emotional support with your child. Create fun and memorable activities for all of you to do as a family. This is a scary and confusing time for your child, even if they don’t show it! Help your child have virtual “playdates” with other children. You can video conference with others for an hour while children do similar activities in their own homes. Call grandparents and other relatives frequently with your child. Help your child talk about his/her feelings and acknowledge them as valid. Don’t diminish/dismiss your child’s fears. Let them know that you are there for them and willing to help them get through this. 
These are just a few ideas but I hope they help us all find a liveable  and happy medium during this time. 

Marla Nargundkar, AMI
Tree of Life Montessori School of Atlanta

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Verbal Activities to Prepare Your Child to Read

Parents often ask me what they should do at home to support their child’s learning at school. They often want to jump into teaching their children letters and numbers. But one very important aspect of preparing children to learn to read is the verbal side of language.

First and foremost, a strong vocabulary is essential to laying a strong foundation for reading. Don’t shy away from using “big” words with children. Use many descriptive terms in your speech and don’t water down language into “baby talk.”
Reading to Children

Read a variety of books to enrich your child’s language. Be sure to stop and discuss the meaning of words in the text. Discuss the story and ask questions to test your child’s comprehension – not only the facts of the narrative but also any underlying themes and messages. Invite children to think about the story from the character’s point of view. Ask them to imagine they were one of the characters and talk about how they might think or feel. You can even invent alternate endings or variations of the story for fun. The goal is to keep children engaged and developing not only vocabulary but critical thinking skills as well.

While it’s tempting to teach the alphabet to children, it’s better to focus on pre-reading skills such a games for phonemic awareness. This helps children hear and isolate the sounds (phonemes) that are in words, preparing them for sound and letter recognition later. One game to play at home is a very simple verbal game that can be played anywhere. The adult thinks of a 3-letter phonetic word with the CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant pattern). Examples include hat, dog, wet, big, fun, zip, vet, log, etc.   The adult says the word out loud and asks the child “what is the first sound you hear in cat”? The adult should keep repeating the word out loud, even emphasizing the first sound. Once the child can say /k/ is the first sound in cat, then move on to another word.

Once the child has mastered identifying the first sound in words, then ask the child to identify the last sound in the word. Work with that until the child is comfortable. This could take days or weeks. Just keep practicing.  Once the child is comfortable identifying the first and last sound, then ask the child to identify the middle sound. Like the others, this may need to be repeated for days or even weeks. If the child cannot guess/isolate the sound, then simply say it out loud for them.  The final goal of this is for the child to do all three parts with a single word. Once a child has mastered naming all three parts of a CVC phonetic word you can even introduce advanced variations that are still 3-sounds but are not phonetic, for example words such as home, line, foot, dune, shine, that, etc  as long as you can isolate to just 3 sounds/phonemes.

In further blogs I will give more ideas to support pre-reading skills. 

Use rich language, read and discuss books with your child, play some phonemic awareness games and your child will have a strong foundation to prepare them for learning the skills needed for reading!

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA  

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Does Montessori Teach Social Skills?

An older child helping a younger one learn letters
I've heard some parents criticize Montessori environments as not teaching social skills because of the emphasis on individual work. Sometimes parents will visit and when they see children quietly working independently, they mistakenly assume that social skills are not taught in the classroom. What they don’t necessarily see during their visit is all the work that made what they are seeing possible.

Montessori teaches children to be individuals, but responsible within a social framework. So yes, children are expected to learn how to pursue independent work, but it is within an entire social structure that helps them get along with others. 

Here are common principles and practices within Montessori classrooms that promote social development:

1. Children are expected to learn how to conduct themselves, to be responsible for themselves, including knowing basic self-care skills and how to clean up.  In general, even though they can work in small groups, they should be able to pursue independent work for quite a while each day.

2. Children are expected to respect the work of others by not disturbing or touching their work. They learn how to watch quietly if interested. They must respect that some children may not want to be watched.

3. In the classroom there is generally only one copy of a given material. This teaches patience to wait for a turn with the desired work by choosing other work to do (if someone else using it). It also forces children to choose a variety of work and not monopolize one material.

4. Skills are taught in an ongoing fashion about conflict resolution. Lessons on recognizing emotions, expressing feelings appropriately, and coming up with solutions are all taught to the group and reaffirmed on a regular basis. It is expected that after lots of guidance, that children will begin to attempt to resolve conflict on their own before rushing to the adult. 

5. Language enrichment is an important part of the Montessori classroom. Children are coached on how to speak politely with others and to express themselves. There is no “baby talk” in the Montessori classroom and children are encouraged to extend their vocabulary in many areas including using the Vocabulary Cards to learn the breeds of dogs, local bird, names of flowers, names of instruments of the orchestra, etc. There also daily singing, movement and group lessons at circle time. 

6. Politeness is emphasized in Montessori classrooms. Children learn such basics as how to get the teacher's attention and how to wait if given a signal to wait.   In group lessons, children learn how to wait while another has a turn speaking.  Children learn many social graces such as basic table manners, how to stand or walk in a line. They also learn through various responsibilities in the classroom how to be a leader as well as a follower, taking turns leading and letting others lead when it is their turn.

7. Children learn many social skills by being in a classroom of mixed ages. There is no uniform expectation that all children of a certain age will all have the same level of skills. With mixed ages, the older children often mentor the younger children and learn to accept differences. This reduces competition and conflict.

8. In Montessori classrooms there is an acceptance of diversity because no one is made to conform for the sake of conforming. All rules are in the context of respecting other people and enabling a smoothly functioning classroom. Gender norms are expanded to include flexibility in skills such as not reinforcing ideas that sewing or cleaning is for girls, and that working with tools is for boys. Cultural study throughout the year emphasizes acceptance and inclusion. Various abilities are accepted because there is no standard expectation of skill or ability.

9. Montessori classrooms promote self-evaluation and self-esteem because children learn how to judge their own progress. Many works have a goal where children are able to self-check and thus don't need to rely on another person's assessment of them. There are no daily stars or stickers or grades to motivate them.

In my own experience Montessori children are very good at communicating with both children and adults. They usually make appropriate eye contact, know how and when to ask for help. They tend to exhibit good listening skills and can engage well in conversations. They tend to have good self-confidence because of their mastery of basic tasks at school.  All in all, Montessori children learn many great social skills that serve them well in life beyond school with their friends and family as well as their community.

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

To Follow or Lead?

One of the most misunderstood principles of Montessori is the caveat by Maria Montessori to “follow the child.” This is not a directive to make the child the leader with the parents following behind. This kind of permissiveness would abandon children to their own whims and desires. Children do not know what is in their best interest and are not ready to take on the responsibilities of the adult world.  Parents must lovingly guide and set firm boundaries - and an attitude of confidence is needed to get the full message across. When a child senses too often that the parent is timid, questioning or unsure, then that can create anxiety and even fear.

Parents make the main decisions in life and confidently express their choices for the child. It is the parent who decides what’s for dinner on a daily basis. It’s the parent’s decision what time to go to bed, what time to get up in the morning etc. The child cannot possibly know what is in his best interest in these types of matters. The child gets to make choices within limits set by the parents. So, it could be appropriate for a child to choose which book to read before bed, to choose between cooking carrots or green beans with dinner, to eat breakfast before getting dressed or after. But all of these options are presented by the parent to the child. The parent has made the decision of which options are acceptable.

So, what does it mean to “follow the child”? In the Montessori realm, it means to pay attention to the child’s interests and signs of readiness because these guide the adult in what and how to teach the child. It does not mean that we allow the child to totally steer their learning – but that we observe for ideas on how to potentially approach teaching them. For example, if a child is really interested in animals, when we teach the sounds with the Sandpaper Letters, we can utilize this interest and give lots of examples of animal names for each letter sound we introduce. The interests of the child can flavor our approach to the subject. Then, we observe the child for readiness before teaching any other new letters. We teach the child something when we observe that the child is ready.

Sometimes, it’s ok to let our observations guide us to step back and let the child pursue his current interests. In Montessori we pay attention to the Sensitive Periods for learning because children’s interests often closely follow the Sensitive Period they are in. For example, the Sensitive Period for Order often becomes very strong around age 2. It may be typical to see a child insist that everything must be lined up and put a certain way or they will not be satisfied. So, in “following the child” we understand that this a developmental phase, one that doesn’t last forever and we are not worried or upset by it. This is a case where we “indulge” the child’s desire because it is in alignment with proper and healthy developmental stages. We know it is best to step back and allow the child to line up all the toys or hang up the coat “just so.”

Another example includes when the child begins to insist on doing things by him/herself. This is also a developmental stage and we follow the signs of readiness by helping him/her learn how to do things by him/herself and then stepping back to allow that to happen. We stop doing for the child what he or she can successfully do for him/herself. If we interfere too much and put our own will/desire before the child’s in this area, then development does not proceed as smoothly as it can. Tantrums and power struggles can erupt.
So to “follow the child” means to learn how to be a good leader - to set limits and to let “signs of readiness” guide our approach.  This allows kids to relax and just be kids, confident that Mom or Dad will handle the big stuff.

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Montessori and Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is a form of reconciliation that relies on restoration rather than punishment. It has been practiced in many forms throughout history all around the world. At its core, it involves a facilitator to help both parties to present their experience and arrive at an acceptable solution. The person who has committed the harm, is held accountable and the person who has been harmed is given a voice about how the event affected them as well, influencing possible restitution or future actions. Restorative Justice not only helps the person who has been harmed feel heard and valued, but helps the person who committed the harm to see the full impact of their actions. This in turn, often helps motivate them to change their behavior because people who are simply punished for their actions often feel like they are the victims of a punitive system.
Montessori schools follow a system of conflict resolution that is very similar to Restorative Justice. We regularly teach skills to help children deal with conflict. For example, we teach children how to give an “I-message”, where the child who has been bothered or hurt in some way by another, communicates their feelings following the template of “I feel ____ when you do ____” All parties are expected to treat the other person with respect and value their feelings. The response to the “I-message” can include an apology but usually focuses on what will set the situation right.  For example, if one child tells another that he is bothered by another child bumping into his table every time he walks by, the other child can respond “I hear you and will make sure to walk carefully around your table next time.” Facilitators will often ask both parties if they are satisfied by this outcome and if they are, then the discussion is complete. If an issue becomes repeated, then a longer conference may involve exploring why the child continues to do the behavior and what can be done to help prevent it or any alternatives that can be found.
Most Montessori classrooms also have a Peace area where children can have a space to begin the process themselves. The Peace area is usually a table or tray where there are a few objects to help facilitate the process. It usually contains a “talking stick” or a fabric rose, and a small book that has been read in class about restoring peace. This area might also contain items to help children calm down such as a gel timer with colorful drops slowly falling down, or a finger labyrinth that a child can slowly trace a path with the finger. The child who feels wronged in some way can invite the other child to talk with them in the Peace area. They use the talking stick/rose to take turns telling their side of the event and what they can do to restore peace between them. If they are not able to find an acceptable solution, then they can invite the teacher or even another child to help facilitate.
This kind of conflict resolution cannot be simply a “band-aid” but must be a part of the fabric of everyday activities. Children must first learn how to identify their feelings and develop a language to express that. Everyone must be held accountable to listen to others. It’s not OK to dismiss someone’s concern and walk away without making some kind of amends or future action plan. The goal is to give children the tools to begin to resolve their own disputes, but it requires a facilitator for quite a while in order to become a developed skill. The teacher or adult must facilitate this process until it becomes natural for the children to do on their own.
Maria Montessori viewed education as a means for creating future generations. Her vision was that when Montessori children become adults, they will carry this model of interaction with them into the world, changing the societies they live in, making our future a better place!

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, Georgia USA 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

How to Be a Friend - Taking Care of Feelings

Many children struggle with the skills needed to learn how to be a good friend. Learning how to balance one’s own desires with that of others can be tricky. One way that helps is to explore two skills that promote friendship. The first skill involves learning how to take care of your own feelings, and the second skill involves learning how to show others that you value their thoughts and feelings. Parents and other adults can support these skills in their children through modeling, discussions, and encouragement. 

Take Care of Your Own Feelings

Before we can really be a friend to others, we need to learn how to take care of ourselves and that includes learning how to take care of one’s own feelings. This includes several areas, namely:

1. How to express one’s feelings appropriately
2. How to find appropriate outlets for “big” emotions
3. How to self-soothe

Each of these takes a bit of practice and experimentation with various methods to find what gives the best success.    

1. How to express one’s feelings appropriately: Learning how to express one’s feelings appropriately starts with first learning how to identify and name some basic emotions. Parents can help children identify emotions by introducing some of the vocabulary of emotions. For example, a parent could say “You look very frustrated when you can’t find your missing shoe.” Parents can also read books about emotions such as “The Way I Feel.” These types of books link situations to a particular emotion and expand vocabulary. 

Once children have a basic vocabulary about emotions then they need help learning how to express those emotions appropriately. In the Montessori classroom, we use a format called an “I-message” that is expressed as “I feel ___ when you do ___.” For example, “I feel angry when you grab the pencil from me. Please give it back.”  The I-message expresses a feeling and can also include a request in it as well. This is a polite way to let others know the impact of their actions on you.  One idea behind the I-message is that no matter what one wants to say to another, there is a kind/polite way to say it. Learning to inhibit the desire to yell or hit in anger at another is part of learning how to express feelings appropriately for children, and is a part of basic self-mastery.  It’s also important with the I-message format to set some realistic expectations. The I-message format isn’t meant to be a way to gripe about every possible perceived transgression. So children should also be encouraged to use it wisely. 

2. How to find appropriate outlets: Along with the ability to express emotions to others, it is important for children to learn appropriate outlets when they can’t deal with a strong emotion. This includes rehearsing strategies about what to do if one is angry, for example, can be very helpful. Some options could include hitting a pillow, doing vigorous exercises such as jumping jacks or pushups, taking slow, deep breaths, pushing on a wall/tree, or even walking away to take a break are all possibilities.  It can be helpful for parents to rehearse with a child what to do in various situations, so that once a child is in that situation; they have some possible tools to draw upon to help them. 

3. How to self-soothe: While it’s always good for children to turn to adults for help in dealing with strong emotions, it’s also good for them to begin to learn some small steps in how to manage their own emotions by themselves, including self-soothing. Children can learn to turn to art, music, dance or play to soothe themselves. They could pet or play with a dog (or friends) to uplift their mood.  There are many possibilities and parents can help children find what helps them shift their mood. 

Show Others You Value Their Feelings 

The second very important part of learning how to be a good friend involves showing others you value their feelings (and thoughts).  For example, children can learn to show others that they care if they get hurt, both physically or emotionally. If they see a friend fall down and begin to cry, they can show their friend that they care by asking them if they are ok or how they feel. The second part of the I-message is for the child receiving the message. It’s important for that child to acknowledge that they value the other child’s feelings.  It’s not appropriate to walk away or scoff when receiving an I-message. Children aren’t required to apologize, but it is suggested as an option as a way to show they care.  Children are encouraged to see if they can help their friend feel better. Minimally, they are expected to at least acknowledge they heard their friend’s message. Children can learn to be a friend by offering to listen and support, asking them what they need. These skills do not always come naturally and so parents and adults should support their development by coaching and encouraging behaviors that show care towards another person’s feelings. 

Another part of showing others that you value their feelings involves a 2-way flow of power of give and take.  Learning to take turns or share in who leads or decides a game is a way to allow a natural balance between friends. 

This isn’t about making anyone responsible for other’s feelings. Often, another person may feel angry or upset over something we cannot change or wouldn’t want to change. We can respect differences and show that we value the other person by demonstrating we value their feelings. We don’t even have to “fix” the problem. Being a friend is a mindset where we take responsibility for our own emotions and show other’s that we care about theirs. 

Childhood is the starting point in life of hopefully many friendships. When we help our children navigate through some of these basic skills, it enriches their lives, now and for many years to come. It’s not an easy task, but one with many rewards. 

Marla Nargundkar,  AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta