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