Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fashionably Late?

While it may be acceptable to be late to parties or social engagements, is this something appropriate for school? Some parents bring their children consistently late to school, 30 minutes or even an hour or more. Since Montessori focuses on individual learning, what impact can this chronic tardiness have on the child and on the class as a whole? Parents of preschool children often don’t see their child’s time at school as academic and so they see no harm in dropping their child off at whatever time they wish in the morning. It’s just playtime, right? In my experience, these are the impacts I consistently see among children who arrive 30 or more minutes late almost every day.

  1. Children who enter late disrupt the focus of the children who have already settled in to work.
  2. The child who is chronically late keeps the other children waiting to start their day because some children cannot settle in to work until they know everyone is at school and will wait until everyone arrives.
  3. Children who enter late disrupt their interactions with peers – they miss the morning greeting time before children settle in to work. Thus they often seek attention when they enter rather than quietly beginning work.
  4. Children who enter late do not participate in morning classroom set up responsibilities. They do not act as full members of the group, sharing in preparing the classroom for the day.
  5. Chronic tardiness can translate into a large number of missed hours of learning. Children who enter late risk falling behind their peers and missing out on their own potential learning.
  6. Children who enter late disrupt the plans of the teacher and the schedule of the classroom. They may miss morning greeting time and special projects planned by the teacher.
  7. Children who enter late disrupt the 3-hour work cycle. They don’t experience a full 3-hour  uninterrupted work cycle and thus don’t have the full time needed to develop important skills such as focus, concentration, self-direction and more. They do not acquire the full set of skills like the children who arrive on time each day. Their path toward Normalization takes longer.
  8. Being chronically tardy to school is a poor preparation for future school, social and work life.

These reasons should hopefully be enough to motivate parents to bring their children on time each morning. Plan ahead the night before to make sure the morning goes smoothly. Lay out clothes; have breakfast items ready; have lunch made or the items easy to assemble. Have a place near the door to keep all items needed for school ready and easy to find.  Get to bed on time (or early) to ensure everyone is well rested and ready to face the day. Turn off all electronic screens such as the TV, video games and iPad, cell phone or Kindles for at least an hour before bed. Develop a consistent routine and everything will fall into place. Life happens and so it is unavoidable to sometimes be late. As the adult, the child depends on you to organize and keep things running smoothly. If chronic lateness has been a problem for you, resolve to take small but real steps to reduce tardiness to help your child reach his/her full potential in school and life.

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Importance of the 3-Hour Work Cycle

Traditional education compartmentalizes learning into 50 minute segments of time for separate subjects. Montessori education is based on a 3-hour uninterrupted morning work cycle. This structure allows children to learn in an uninterrupted flow of time in alignment with their natural rhythms of interest. They stop and start at their own individual pace. They have the time to develop longer and longer moments of deep focus and concentration when the individual is most ready and receptive. This protected work schedule also gives children time for reflection and absorption of concepts without the need to rush into the next activity.

So how does this work? Children can pick which subject interests them at a given moment and decide the sequence for their work based on their own interest. For example, a child could choose to work on arithmetic with the Golden Bead material, followed by handwriting practice or reading. They can sit and listen to music or do art or geography. They also can attend to their own physical needs whenever they need to such as using the restroom, getting a drink of water or eating a snack. It isn’t necessary to cover all subject areas every day. There is an organic flow which evens out over time. The Montessori Guide (teacher) observes and makes notes of each child’s work and progress.  If an area of the classroom (a subject area) is consistently ignored by a child, then she works to renew interest in it by giving new lessons or new variations. She may suggest working with another child who has a high interest in that area.  Her own enthusiasm may spark a renewed interest for the children.

Morning is the peak learning time for most people and that’s why the 3-hour uninterrupted work cycle happens early in the day. Children who chronically arrive at school late in the morning disrupt not only their own opportunity to learn, but also disrupt the work of others. Many children cannot settle in to work until they know everyone is present (or accounted for). They want to greet their friends first and then begin focused work. A child who enters late disrupts the focus of the children who are already working.  Also, for children who are chronically tardy, this creates an accumulation of lost learning time which impacts the entire community. Also in the Montessori community there are many shared responsibilities between the adult and children to set up the classroom for the day and to clean up at the end. Children who arrive late do not participate in these group activities and do no uphold their responsibilities to the group. They are not acting as full members of the community.  

Parents can support all the children in the classroom and their own child’s optimal learning at school by making sure to follow a few basic suggestions. These include making  sure  their child is well rested, has eaten a healthy breakfast and arrives on time at school in a calm state, ready to take full advantage of  all the opportunities and benefits of the 3-hour work cycle. In Montessori education, it is truly the child who “builds himself” but this can only happen when optimal conditions are met which include a relatively long uninterrupted time to develop focus and concentration. It’s truly amazing what children can accomplish when they are allowed to follow a natural flow of focus!

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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Peace Begins with You - Montessori and World Peace

Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do is keep us out of war.” 
              Maria Montessori

The path to world peace begins with education for the young child. The classroom is a microcosm of society at large. When children learn to be at peace with one another in this first environment, they can later be at peace as adults. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we are to create peace in our world, we must begin with our children.“

Children develop naturally and easily if they are allowed to follow their inner guide. Maria Montessori observed that if children are given an optimal environment where they can follow their own innate drive to learn, they then achieve a state of Normalization. This state is characterized by concentration, self-discipline and social grace as well as inner peace.

In a Montessori classroom, children as young as 3 years old are shown how to respect each other’s space and work. For example, a teacher will demonstrate how to observe another child working without touching or interrupting them. Children learn how to move in the environment without disturbing other's work.  Children are given frequent lessons and practice on how to resolve conflict with others. They are coached on how to express their feelings and needs to others without violence. This gives the children the tools they need to resolve their differences and thrive peacefully.

Montessori education also emphasizes multicultural study. Children begin to see that people around the world have similar needs and wants – for family, shelter, friendship, education and security, though they pursue these in different ways. This study helps to diffuse fear and misunderstanding of other cultures. It also promotes that there is healthy variety in the world, that they do not need to conform to rigid ideals - children are supported to be individuals within a group. 

These factors and experiences within the Montessori classroom begin to influence the children's interactions with people outside of the school and promote peace not only on the individual level but on the level of the community and beyond. 

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teaching Children About Emotions

Teaching children to appropriately express their feelings is tied not only to developing beneficial lifelong social skills but to mental and physical health. The foundation for learning how to express one’s feelings starts with a strong foundation of a loving environment in early childhood. 

Learning how to appropriately express feelings begins with parental acknowledgement of feelings as valid. When parents are approachable and take their children’s emotional pain seriously, this creates an environment where children are not afraid to express themselves and have no need to shut down or “stuff” their emotions which can cause a variety of problems later on.

The first step is to encourage children to talk is to listen. Avoid trying to fix or explain away the pain rather than just listening. Rushing to fix a situation can gloss over the core issue. Remember to show empathy before explanation. Empathy is seeing the situation from the child's point of view. For example, if your child came to you crying and saying he had a bad dream, don't rush to fix the problem. Acknowledge your child's fear first, let him express it and talk about what scared him in the dream. Only after some time, then you can explain that it was only a dream. Skipping the first step of empathy devalues the child's emotions and experience. 

Be present in the moment, not distracted if your child is trying to tell you about his feelings. Working with feelings can be uncomfortable. Do your best to listen with empathy even if you can’t relate to the intensity of the emotion. That dead butterfly can be earth shattering to your child. Give him some space to express that pain and know that you will lovingly support him.

Parents should help children learn to identify and name their feelings. This can be accomplished by simply helping the child name the feeling by saying something like “You look frustrated because you’re having trouble putting on your shoe.” Help your child develop a vocabulary for feelings: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, shy, bored, lonely, etc.. There are many books for children about feelings such as The Way I Feel by Janan Cain, The Blue Day Book by Bradley Trevor Greive, The Feelings Book by Todd Parr, Hands are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi, Cool Down and Work Through Anger by Cheri J. Meiners.

Appropriate Outlets
It is vital for children to learn appropriate ways to not only talk about their feelings but to have an outlet for the energy of them as well. It’s not OK for children to scream or say mean or inappropriate things to people because they are upset or angry. If your child screams at you, then you should let him/her know by saying “I’ll be happy to hear what you have to say after you calm down.”  Teach appropriate outlets to “blow off steam” in order to give physical expression to the energy of the emotion. Work with your child to find what works for him/her (and is acceptable to you) such as hit a pillow, scream into a pillow, run around the yard or push hands on the wall or tree. Many of the books listed above have some great ideas for dealing with anger or frustration. Help your child transition to positive mood changers, but not too quickly. Trying to rush the process of venting can leave unresolved tension. Mood lifters can include listening and singing to music, dancing, drawing or reading. Any kind of fun activity can change the mood into something more positive.

Teach children how to communicate their feelings with other children and their siblings. Many Montessori classrooms teach a method of conflict resolution often referred to as an “I-message” and follows a basic formula of stating “I feel ____ when you do _____”. There are many variations of this but the basic idea is to help children to express feelings and help others connect their actions and the impact it has on others. An example could include “I feel angry when you keep bumping into my table while I am working. Please stop.” The child who received the message cannot walk away or ignore the message. They must at least state that they heard the message. This is important because children must feel confident that they will be heard when they talk about their feelings with others.  Adults must coach this type of interaction in the beginning until children naturally begin to utilize it with others.

All of this may seem like a lot of work but it is so important. An emotionally healthy child is confident that his/her feelings matter and will be taken seriously by his/her parents and other people. The child has the tools to identify feelings and knows how to appropriately work with them and talk about them with others. These skills lay a lifelong foundation for healthy social interaction.   Learning early on in life about how to work with emotions in a healthy way can benefit not only social skills but overall health as well. Mysterious stomach aches, headaches and other types of pain often have an emotional component to them.  Much of this can be avoided by learning to accept all emotions as valid and finding acceptable ways to work with them in a community of supportive people.

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Value of Chores

Rinsing dishes and loading into dishwasher
Chores, chores, chores, what a bore! Or are they? As adults we often view chores as drudgery. We often miss out on the many benefits that doing these daily tasks can have not only for ourselves but for our children. It may seem old fashioned to expect children to do daily chores but in this age of computer time, hands-on work and experience is more important than ever. We may be tempted to put academics and schoolwork above having home responsibilities, but this ignores the benefits of physical work.

So what are the values of doing regular chores?  First and foremost, chores show the child that he/she is part of a larger community and thus has responsibilities not only to him/herself but to the group at large. This community is interdependent and each member’s effort is important to keep everything running smoothly. Doing chores requires learning hands-on physical skills. Moving the body in a coordinated and purposeful way not only benefits the health of the body but the development of the brain. When children learn how to perform certain tasks such as doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, or putting out the trash, this lays down a foundation of life skills that promotes independence.

So where do we begin? Start small and teach each skill needed to perform the task. You will be surprised at how each skill will build upon the previous and your child will be able to take on increasing levels of difficulty and responsibility. Start early. Even toddlers can help pick up and sort laundry and other tasks. Your attitude and modeling is very important. Don’t be in a hurry and rush to do things. Allow adequate time for the task. Washing dishes can be made into a “moving meditation.” (Focusing and moving slowly with mindfulness rather than hurrying with distractedness). Make the job fun. Teach community work as well as independent work. Some jobs can be done in cooperation with others and some jobs can be expected to be done alone.

Don’t give rewards or bribes to do this work. Part of being in a community is “pulling one’s own weight” and so children should do these tasks as their contribution to the family. Allowance or “earning charts” can be tasks which are above and beyond the daily expected tasks. If your child balks, then do tasks together so that they don’t feel like they are being punished. Talk about the value of the work and how it benefits everyone. And for some inspiration watch  Whistle While You Work!)  from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Because working with others in community can indeed be fun.

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Preparing the Hand for Writing


I recently was asked by a friend how to help her child develop good handwriting. She felt frustrated that her daughter didn't much practice at school and found that her daughter avoided any handwriting practice because she thought it was too hard. This is a common problem that many children experience. Handwriting is a skill that takes a long time to develop and children need exercises that strengthen the hand and fingers so that when the child tries to write, the muscles will be able to properly respond. In Montessori, we have many exercises that help prepare the hand for writing.  Here are some ideas I have adapted which can be used by parents at home:

First of all the fingers of the hand need to be strengthened by playing with playdough, dough, firm clay, theraputty, silly putty or by squeezing therapeutic balls. Playing with any kind of manipulative toy that uses fine control or strength are always beneficial. Puzzles with knobs help develop a pincer grip. Picking up small objects and pushing them into a hole is another activity parents can develop at home such as putting coins in a piggy bank.
To develop proper pencil grasp and strength, some prewriting exercises should be practiced. Use high quality three sided pencils (plain and colored) that support a proper grip. Don’t allow your child to hold writing instruments in a fist. The pencil should be held with three fingers. Montessori has a set of exercises that utilize the following three concepts that any parent can develop at home.
  1.  Stencils: Buy stencils and have your child practice tracing them staying right up against the edge of the shape.
  2. Trace outside of shapes: Use puzzles pieces with knobs or cookie cutters with knobs and have your child practice tracing around the outer edge of the shape, making sure to stay right up against the edge.
  3. Tracing/writing a serpentine shape: Whether you child will be writing in print or cursive, this exercise strengthens the control of the fingers immensely. At first the child will trace over your drawing, but later should work to fill a rectangle with his/her own curving lines. Draw a serpentine shape on paper by first drawing two horizontal guidelines about 2 inches apart (See photo). Starting on the left side of the lower line, draw a line going upward, near the top curve and then draw downward. Near the bottom curve upward and continue until you fill the area between the lines from left to right. Have the child start at the lower left hand corner and trace over your shape with either a colored pencil or marker. Don’t expect perfection. Simply point out the places where your child did stay on top of your line and encourage him/her to work toward staying on your line more often. Don’t try to do too much in one sitting. Two to four tracings should be sufficient within one sitting each day. With time you should begin to form the lines closer together. You can also decrease the distance of your initial guidelines to one inch or less apart. If your child does not have sufficient strength to make a dark enough mark with a colored pencil, then colored markers, colored chalk or even crayons can be used.

Once your child is able to trace your lines easily, then have him/her begin to create his own serpentine lines inside a horizontal rectangle that you draw about 1.5 inches high and 4 or 5 inches wide. Always have him/her start at the lower left hand corner and gradually move left to right with the up and down lines that curve at the stop and bottom. With time your child can begin to make these serpentine lines closer together.

I hope that some of these ideas will help. Like any muscle building activity, it must be practiced regularly with only gradual increments of difficulty each day. While these are not direct handwriting exercises, they help prepare the muscles of the hand and familiarity with using a writing instrument. With daily short practice sessions, your child should see a great improvement in his/her control of the hand.

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