Following the Montessori method is something that can be time consuming and require parents, extended family and carers to think differently about how they treat the child in their care.
Here are some points we think are important to consider when you decide to have a Montessori child.
Routine helps children to learn new skills, feel secure and develop confidence. Our brains require repetition in order to strengthen the connections between neurons in a process known as Long Term Potentiation. At the neuronal level, it is widely accepted that neurons that fire together, wire together. Dr. Montessori saw children as scientists. They make predictions about what will happen in the world around them and often perform experiments based on their predictions, for example, if I drop my spoon on the floor, mummy will pick it up. At some point, their prediction will not meet with the reality in front of them. This creates a mismatch signal in the brain. This is normal and important for children in order for them to understand the world around them and develop limits, but it can cause distress for the child.
When children face many situations in which their prediction does not meet reality, they can begin to lose confidence, both in themselves (and their ability to predict) and adults around them.
For this reason routine is important, particularly for young, non-verbal children. As children get older they are better able to understand changes and communicate their anxieties.
For this reason we feel it is important that children who attend our center, do so every day and enter and leave during the assigned times. We keep mealtimes, nap times and playtimes regular. We do not have high numbers of interns so that children form close relationships with the adults that look after them.
As children grow up we expect them to become more autonomous and through this, more responsible for themselves, their belongings, their time and eventually their results at school or in the workplace. However, as parents, it is often difficult to imagine that this cute little baby will eventually study in a school, take final exams and get a job in the workplace.
Scientists have shown that babies and young children have features which erouse feelings of care, warmth and protection in adults. We see young babies and children and we want to look after them and protect them. This is vital for their survival, because they are not physically capable of doing so themselves. However, eventually this little baby will need to be autonomous and this is not a process that happens over night. We are only just beginning to understand the importance of the preschool years in terms of shaping the child’s personality later in life.
Dr. Montessori taught us that “children are as independent as you expect them to be”. Therefore, we need to take care to ensure that we have the right expectations for our child in terms of autonomy and responsibility. If our expectations are too high, we risk leaving our child feeling incompetent because they are expected to do something they are not developmentally able to, or at worse they feel abandoned. At the same time, if we set our expectations too low, we risk our child interpreting this as a message of incompetence, “you can’t do it, so I will do it for you”. The latter creates a child who feels that they need a special service.
Having expectations for your child are important, but we need to ensure these are balanced and also change as the child grows. As Jane Nelson said, “Children feel better when they do better”, and it is important to notice in this sentence that they must “do”. This does not relate to praise from an adult, but a feeling of accomplishment.
In our center, we encourage children to be as autonomous as possible given their stage of development, and we ask that parents support this at home. This may be that your 13 month toddler helps to put the velcro across his shoe, or that your 4 year old selects their clothes and dresses themselves. Parents need to be aware that this may take longer and that they need to adjust their schedule accordingly, in order to have the necessary patience to support their child in his or her development.
3) Freedom within Limits
A common misconception of the Montessori method is that children get to do whatever they want in a Montessori environment. This is simply not the case. There are a series of strict rules that children must learn when they enter the environment and these are enforced by the Guides and Assistants.
Firstly, children can only use materials if they have received a presentation beforehand from a Guide, and they can only use them as presented. This ensures that the child knows how to use the material correctly and that the Guide has a good idea of the child’s progress in the environment. Outside of this, it also helps children to develop impulse control, as they cannot pick up any of the “toys” or materials they see around them and simply play, and understand that materials have a purpose and must be cared for and respected.
Dr. Montessori believed that a child’s concentration is precious. This is a fundamental point within a Montessori environment and children are taught from the start that they cannot interrupt another child nor a Guide who is working with a child or group of children. At the same time, children are naturally interested and learn from each other, and therefore observation is encouraged. In order to observe, children must do so quietly, at the side with their hands behind their backs.
If children stick to these limits then they can be allowed freedoms that we might not otherwise be able to give them. In traditional classrooms, children’s time is very directed. They generally spend long periods working as a class on the same subject area. In a Montessori environment, a child is free to choose their subject area, but this can only work when the limits in the environment are strictly adhered to.
For some children, adhering to these limits is easier than for others. As mentioned earlier, children do not like the error signal that their brain generates when their expectation does not match up to reality. In many circumstances this can make them very upset and cross. Therefore, it is very important that these limits are placed with respect. Positive Discipline uses the phrase kind AND firm. Too kind and we risk being passive, too firm and we risk crushing the spirit of the child.
Positive Discipline offers a very useful toolkit for parents and carers in order to help support limit setting in the home environment.
4) The preparation of the adult
We have already seen the importance of routine, autonomy, freedom and limits. As the parent of a Montessori child it often takes some personal preparation in order to be able to adjust our own schedule, beliefs and ideas in order to better support our children.
The AMI courses for Guides and Assistants not only focus on the correct use of materials, but also involve a section on the preparation of the adult. An important point in this is the observation of the child. Adults need to be able to observe the children in their care in order to determine their developmental stage and their current needs. As parents we spend a lot of time doing things, helping children get dressed or undress, preparing dinner, taking children to different activities, tidying up etc. It can be difficult to find the time to sit down and simply observe what our children are doing and how they are doing it. What do they find easy? What frustrates them? Do they really enjoy what they are doing or are they going through the motions? Who are they playing with in the park and in what way?
Aside from this, parents are encouraged to attend meetings and informational afternoons and evenings with Guides in order to better understand how their children are learning and how to support them.
For parents interested in Positive Discipline, we offer evening and weekend courses which help parents to feel more prepared to deal with life’s ups and downs.