Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Praise is a Double-Edged Sword - The Role of Praise and Self Esteem

Writing all the numbers from 1 to 100 all by herself!
We live in a time where parents are encouraged to praise, praise, and praise their children, and to give all kinds of rewards for activities. This is often seen as a way to build children’s self-esteem. Praise, however, can be a double-edged sword. It can have the unintended effect of discouragement and negatively affect self-esteem. How can this be so?

When we praise a child using broad generalizations about them, what we are really doing is judging them. For example, if one uses phrases that start with "you are _________" such as "you are so smart", "you are so artistic", "you are so pretty" then it is human nature to think of exceptions to this. The child may think, "Well I made a mistake yesterday" or "I don't like the picture I just drew" or "I have a wart on my finger", thus experiencing an inner conflict.  The child is often left feeling like he/she cannot live up to that label, and that the person complimenting them is either being insincere or does not really know their true inner nature. This has the effect of decreasing self-esteem. 

However, when we praise a specific action, effort, or the outcome of the effort, then the child (without hearing the label) will often on his/her own come to the conclusion that he/she is "smart" or "artistic" or "pretty" because he/she has the details that back up that statement. For example, one might say "I see how long you worked on that puzzle and you kept at it even though you got frustrated for a while. You completed it all on you own. I'm proud of your work", or "I really like how you chose the warm colors of yellow, orange and red to express how happy you feel in that painting", or "I noticed the pretty combination of clothes that you chose to wear today and how nicely your hair is braided." These types of praise give the child a reservoir upon which to draw from to judge themselves. Their value comes from within and not from other people. This reinforces that one’s self judgment and self-esteem come from within and not from external sources.
If we work each day to give our children the tools to evaluate themselves positively then they will have a lifelong skill that will carry them into adulthood. This will help strengthen children to weather the natural ups and downs of life and the challenges that we all face.

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is Cursive Vanishing Forever?

Cursive writing is fast becoming a lost art. It is no longer taught, or given very little time in the public school system. In fact, all forms of handwriting are receiving less and less instruction in favor of teaching keyboarding skills. Historically, the written form of English and many other languages originated with cursive script. Print arose as a simplified, abbreviated form of writing after the printing press was invented to allow for easy, mass produced text to be manufactured and distributed. With the advent of word processing on computers, both print and cursive forms are available. However, print is the dominant form for writing, whether by hand or electronically, today.

In the Montessori community, cursive writing is still a valued skill. Most Montessori teachers teach cursive writing from the very beginning for both reading and writing. Cursive writing is easier on the muscles of the hand, with continuous and flowing movement, and a consistent way to form the letters. Each lower case letter starts in the lower left hand corner and ends in the lower right hand corner, flowing left to right in the same direction as reading. Print letters lack this consistency. Further, each letter in cursive is unique with no mirror images, making it easier for dyslexic people to distinguish between “b” and “d”, for example.

Current developments in neuroscience support the development of all handwriting skills. The finger movements required for handwriting activate large areas of the brain involved in thinking, memory and language. Handwriting is closely tied to not only learning fine motor skills but in learning the shapes of letters. This is why in Montessori classrooms young children learn a new letter by tracing it with their index finger, mimicking the motion of writing long before they are ready to put pencil to paper. Typing letters on a keyboard, on the other hand, does not provide the same stimulus to learning letters the way writing does.

Besides improving the recognition and recall of letters, handwriting also contributes to the development of ideas while writing compositions.  Brain scans have shown that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information. One recent study by Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington demonstrated that elementary school children wrote more words, wrote them faster, and expressed more diverse ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.
Handwriting is not a skill which can be developed overnight. It requires practice. Small daily handwriting practice sessions could dramatically improve your child’s comfort and ability to write. Children in Montessori classrooms often enjoy copying poems, jokes or small stories. Practicing with your child could not only improve both of your handwriting but provide a calming, meditative practice that you can share together. Interestingly, technology has now come to the aid of handwriting improvement with apps on devices like the iPad and smartphones. So just write it!

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Traditions and Holidays

Girl posing with a large pumpkin for Halloween
Young children learn about the passage of time in its earliest form from the daily cycles of morning, afternoon and night. As they grow, they begin to become aware of the yearly seasonal rhythms and cycles. As we now enter Autumn, we enter a time of year where there are many holidays and religious and cultural practices which often have a deep and intense feel about them. Perhaps this ties into ancient practices around the harvest and preparing for the harsh winter. The hours of daylight wind down and cold approaches. Seasonal rituals are important as ways to celebrate the seasons but also as a marker for the passage of time. These rituals give us comfort and create bonds within families and communities.  As adults, we often reflect on the past but as children become aware, they often begin to look forward and to anticipate favorite holidays.
We sometimes forget that we don’t have to automatically follow traditions in quite the same way as our family, friends or neighbors. We can create or revive traditions for ourselves that enrich us or bring more depth and meaning to our experience. Now is a good time to reflect and ask ourselves a few questions: What is my favorite part of this holiday? What do I look forward to? What do I dread? What gives me meaning? What interferes with my enjoyment? What do I want to get rid of?

Each leaf lists something that the child is thankful for. Look for new and creative ways to alter, add or pare down, and especially look for ways that children can participate such as helping to make simple homemade gifts of cookies or bath salts. Establish rituals such as eating with lit candles on the table once or twice a week or saying thanks for food before each meal (or singing a song at the end of each meal or before bedtime). In the Autumn, you can create an area where you cut out simple leaf shapes on construction paper and each family member writes what they are thankful for on a leaf and display the leaves. As the weather turns toward winter, my family enjoys cutting snowflakes. We have a stack of prepared white paper cut into 5 x 5 inch squares where each family member cuts out a few snowflakes at a time and we tape them on the dining room windows to display them.  As December progresses, our snowflakes multiply in wonderful and elaborate shapes. As we do this we often reflect upon the snowflakes we created in previous years.  This triggers emotions of times past and helps us to feel a connection to those times and to each other.

So take this opportunity to reflect and choose what matters the most to you and your family and create a holiday season that gives you joy.                     Happy Holidays!

Marla Nargundkar is a Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, GA. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Focus and Concentration

So many children today are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or variations of this theme. This disorder is tied with a difficulty in the child to focus and concentrate.  Drugs and a change of diet are usually prescribed. Perhaps what is being missed is that focus and concentration are actually skills which must be developed.  According to Montessori philosophy, the best way to do so is to set up the correct environment (and experiences) which provide the child with the opportunity to develop concentration him/herself.
The first step toward building concentration is to find what attracts and interests the child and introduce him/her to some kind of activity that contains a goal in it. For parents, this isn’t difficult since children are naturally drawn to what they most need to learn. The adult should model any steps (and use of tools) and present the goal that is desired. Then the adult must STEP BACK and allow the child the space and time to deeply engage with the activity. It is critical at this stage for the adult to not interrupt, even with praise and encouragement, because this disturbs the child’s inner development.  (Acknowledgment of a child’s accomplishments can be saved until after the child has completed the task.)  Of course, if a task is too difficult, then the adult can give hints or suggestions, but the goal is to let the child work on his/her own. In our hurried, scheduled world, it can be difficult to give children the full amount of time they need to develop this essential skill. As parents and teachers, we must observe for budding signs of focus and then work to protect those delicate (and fleeting) moments.   

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

Consumerism and Children

We live in an age of consumerism. Advertising messages bombard us to buy, buy, buy! Surrounded by so many messages that tell us our value is tied to a particular product, how can we as parents and teachers help our children be resilient under such onslaught? I was recently asked this question and it made me stop and think about how I help my own child (and students) to not be caught up in rampant consumerism. One activity that I realized is really helpful in this area is to completely step out of the consumer role and instead become the producer for a least a little while. When we experience making something by hand we begin to see the amount of work and skill that went into creating that object. It frees us from having to fit some pre-ordained model of what we should be – we create according to our own whims and desires of what we ourselves value. The process of making something ourselves often leads us to question where the components and raw materials come from. We become aware of natural resources and may strive to reduce waste or recycle materials.  When we make something ourselves, especially as a gift for someone else, we forge personal connections and tend to cherish and keep those kinds of gifts that we receive.   Handmade objects no longer are disposable because we have seen how much work or creativity went into making them.  Items of quality take on more importance and we strive to make them last longer, rather than buying something cheap and treating it as disposable.

So where can we begin? Make something, anything! Be creative! Start small and make items with your children that you can “consume” yourself such as food or objects that you or your immediate family can use. Cook, make bread from scratch, sew, knit, crochet, hammer and repair objects. Decorate something that already exists such as bedazzling jeans or painting old canvas tennis shoes with acrylic paints.  Experiment with gardening - grow flowers, herbs or vegetables. Find something that resonates with you and your family that you would like to make.  If you lack the skills, then slowly teach yourself or take a class. It doesn't have to be perfect or professional. The goal is to participate and create, to open up creativity and connections.  For example, I like to make yoghurt at home. It is easy and reminds me of how past generations made everything themselves. While some of us might remember the awkward sweater or clothes made for us by relatives as children, we can now as adults value how much time and work went into making those items.  Past generations often had no choice, if you didn't have the skill to make it, you often went without. Now we have choices, but let us make wise choices – those colored by our own values and not those of the marketing and advertising industry.

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Marshmallows, Patience and Trust

Recently, I was reminded of the famous Stanford experiment in the 1970s that tested children’s patience. A child was offered a single marshmallow (or cookie) to eat right away, but, if they could wait, they would get two marshmallows. The results of this experiment linked the ability to delay gratification with higher SAT scores many years later. Ability to delay gratification may be beneficial in the long run, but why are some children willing to delay gratification to get more of something at a later time, while others are not?

Patience and the ability to delay gratification is a learned skill and not an innate ability we’re born with. The foundation for patience is built through trust. If the child can trust the adult to follow through with the promised result, then it is much easier for him or her to wait. If the adult is somehow untrustworthy or the situation itself is untrustworthy, then it is much harder for the child to believe the promised result will be forthcoming. While it is normal for children to be impulsive, most begin to control their actions around age 4 or 5, and some even earlier. So, if we observe children who cannot wait, or who are impatient and unable to “delay gratification,” we should look to the environment around them. Have these children been given the chance to learn the value of delayed gratification? As parents and teachers, are we setting the foundation for the development of this skill?

Imagine a child who almost never has fried foods or desserts in her house. On a rare occasion, her family had homemade French fries. These were portioned up to everyone and they began to eat. The girl set hers aside on her plate to savor at the end of the meal. Her father finished all of his own and then looked at her plate and said, “Well, it looks like you’re not going to eat those.” And before she knew it, he grabbed a large portion of her fries and ate them. Do you think in the future that this girl would delay eating desired foods? Would she pass the marshmallow test? Probably not, because even though she has a great amount of self-control, she will believe that it does not pay off.

So how as adults can we help children learn how to delay gratification? First and foremost, it is our responsibility to create trust — and that starts with how we behave. Adults must be consistent and believable. We must treat our children with respect. If we truly forget or make a mistake, then we should make amends. Fairness is a part of respect. Listening to our children and taking their ideas, emotions and expressions seriously also builds an atmosphere of trust and respect. It sends a message that they matter and are valued. Trust is also conveyed about our attitude on their ability to handle tough situations. Parents who give their children space to learn from their mistakes show they have confidence their child will be able to handle the situation.

Children will imitate the behavior of the adults around them. Do we exhibit impatience in front of our children or do they see us wait? Do we work hard for a better tomorrow? These are all questions to exam-ine to decide for ourselves what we value.

I am not saying we must be perfect parents or teachers — simply strive to build trust and respect. This is not meant to create a rigid or harsh atmosphere. Yes, sometimes we can eat dessert before dinner — yes, sometimes we can seize the day. But waiting for the good stuff is fun, too. Eating and savoring that long-anticipated ice cream has rewards in and of itself.

Marla Nargundkar is an AMI Montessori guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.

Nature as a Classroom

With Spring upon us, the natural world is bursting with activity and growth. Children are beginning to play more outside and so the importance of the outdoors to the child’s development becomes more prominent. Playing outdoors provides opportunities for physical development in the form of exercise, fresh air and exposure to sunlight with many benefits. The changing seasons also provide us with many opportunities for intellectual growth through the study of nature. We can observe the patterns and cycles of the plants and animals around us. For example, in the Spring, children can observe birds nesting, flowers blooming and leaves emerging. Insects and other animals become more active after the dormant time of winter. This gives us many opportunities to expand their vocabulary related to the world around us. Children can learn the names of flowers, birds, trees and insects. Gardening activities naturally lead to discussions about nutrition, composting, and preparing the soil. Direct experiences feed a curious mind and stimulate a thirst for more knowledge and lay a foundation on which we can draw upon later.

Not only do experiences in nature enrich the physical body and mind, it nourishes the emotions and spirit as well. Greenery and plants directly affect calmness and a sense of peace. The cycles of nature and study of the Earth foster a sense of connection among all living organisms. Being in nature connects us to ourselves and can bring us into a state of harmony. These first hand experiences foster a “Sense of Wonder,” as Rachael Carson so eloquently expressed:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

So as parents, how do we incorporate the outdoors and nature into our daily life? Visiting parks and natural spaces as a family is one great way to do this. Feeding birds or caring for a garden is a way to incorporate nature into our daily life. Taking time to note the change in seasons and the weather each day connects to the yearly cycles of the Earth. Sitting quietly for a time each day to observe the natural world, even in our own neighborhood is a wonderful calming activity. There is no right or wrong way. It is more about an attitude of openness to nature - to see what we can learn and observe, than it is about specific activities. One can be in the forest and be too preoccupied with daily life to even see the snail on a leaf in front of us. Taking the time to watch that tiny snail slowly crawl up a leaf can be a meditative practice and connect us deeply to the wonder of life.

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

The Virtues of Boredom

We live in a society in hyperdrive. We constantly move from one scheduled activity to another – work, school, music lessons, sports practice, meetings, etc.  Many children never get the chance to experience much free time. But this free time is essential for well-being and growth. Children need unstructured time to play, daydream, wander (in a safe environment, of course!), ponder or reflect. And if this can occur outside in nature, all the better! And yes, children need to experience BOREDOM. Boredom leads one to turn inward for direction and to seek out one’s own interests.  Even if your children come to you for entertainment, firmly resist the urge to always rescue them. As a parent you can give them some ideas or hints but they must be the ones to instigate their own activity. This leads to opportunities to develop creativity and problem solving. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is the guiding force.

Boredom can be an important part of the cycle of rest and growth that everyone needs. Growth is not linear. It happens in spurts and phases. During the “inactive” time it is tempting to think that nothing is happening. But this is far from the truth. Energies and forces are accumulating within, paving the way for renewal and growth. This is true for both the body and the mind. And just as we need sleep and rest, we need downtime to maintain our levels of stress at a healthy level. Boredom helps us to develop skills we need through life. Boredom, and thus the urge to relieve it, leads us to become more self-reliant and independent. It pushes us to try out new things, to create, to explore. 

So work to value the free time that it takes to potentially experience boredom. Avoid overscheduling each day. Purposefully leave time slots blank. Resist criticizing children (or adults) when they appear to be doing nothing. Turn off the TV and computer and be open to the gifts of boredom. 

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Ellen Parr

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