“Sensory issues”

1-children-huggingI have been teaching a long time, but I first heard of “sensory integration” concerns in Montessori training, not from one of my teachers, but from a fellow intern and mom.  Her daughter was dealing with “tactile defensiveness” and was going to a pediatric occupational therapist.  Wow, what???  Tactile defensiveness is feeling unexpected touch as pain, and a pediatric occupational therapist can help children learn to tolerate/integrate some sensory input that is lacking/needed/unwanted/uncomfortable.  Who knew?

I am writing this in part because I have found that sensory integration issues are hard to see, there is no blood test for them, and yet they affect many children.  Also, if you Google “sensory integration” you will get “Autism”, which is terrifying.  Yes, most children with autism have SID, many/most children  with SID do NOT have Autism.  In my classroom, I currently see about 4 children a year who seem to be effected by sensory irritations. (OTs can also help with many other issues, such a problems with core-strength- children who have trouble holding themselves upright- hand strength and dexterity, and many other things.)

That next week, after that conversation with Isabelle about her daughter, I was pondering a child in my class who would regularly get called out for punching someone randomly.  When I asked him, he responded : “They hurt me!”, even though they were generally only standing behind him in line.  Bingo!  Tactile defensiveness!  He described it as needing people “this far” (a full arm’s length) away from him, or “it hurt.”  His parents never bought into such a notion, but it was helpful for the class and for him.  As soon as he could articulate what was bothering him, there was no more random punching.

This is a pretty simple story; much of sensory integration sensitivity is much harder to see or address.  For one thing, a child can be both sensory “seeking” (wanting more sensation in some areas) and “sensory avoiding”.  A child who is sensitive to sound can yell (?).  As one OT explained it, “at least they are in charge of the noise.”  And, remember, we are talking about children, who are trying to deal as best they can.  And, why would they think that we do not feel the same things that they do?

If you or someone you know is sensitive to clothing, wrinkles in sheets, smells, sounds, certain kinds of lights, needs to move alot before they can relax to sleep, is always on the go, avoids certain textures of food or things on their hands, paints glue on their fingers, likes to wedge themselves into tight places, hates crowds, seeks out certain textures, rocks or jiggles their leg, fiddles, covers ears a lot, gets really revved up in large open spaces, moves away from others in a group, avoids hugs, seeks out hugs, doesn’t like to get hugs but wants to hug others….see, it is very complex!

Why does it matter?  Because it can be annoying/disruptive/painful, and so can affect learning and/or relationships.  And they/we don’t know how to describe, or what to do, so they/we may need help.

My learning about this is long and slow, as I am NOT a pediatric occupational therapist, nor do I play one on TV.  My own son banged into people he loved and jumped down stairs, and around.  So I yelled at him.  He wore his boots on the wrong feet because they “felt better that way.”  My stepson broke all the pencils, unbent all the paperclips and took Ritalin.  I, of course, am completely normal when I jiggle my leg to keep myself on task, want to cry in florescent lights and sleep under a heavy blanket, even in the summer.  My husband’s ears “hurt” in crowded restaurants, and he, too, cannot bear to stand in a line.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have some help at some point for each of us, or at least someone who was willing to try to help us explain what we need/avoid?  Yes, I wish I had not fussed at my children so much, and had not been fussed at.

So, if someone mentions that your child be evaluated by an OT, you might be getting some interesting data.  This is not obscure, arcane gobbledey-gook, but real factors that affect real people, and can get “in the way”.  One of our jobs, as parents and teachers, is to remove obstacles.1-children-hugging1-children-hugging1-children-hugging

 

Consciously skilled

Julie Neal and I teach Positive Discipline (from Adler, Dreikurs and Jane Nelson).  In the parent educator training, we are given a fat book of experiential exercises to help participants feel the way children feel when we act certain ways.  There are also exercises to help adults examine why and how we do what we do, and feel what we feel.  All fascinating!

At the end, we often do an activity called : The Continuum of Change (Positive Discipline Association).  In this, we are invited to remember a hard learning that involved brain and body.  The point of the exercise is to help us forgive ourselves for not knowing everything, and for feeling uncomfortable during the learning.  It has been so long since we learned something completely new, of COURSE it feels awful, like stalling out in the middle of heavy traffic, or making a turn onto gravel and flying over the handlebars!  One can think of riding a bike, driving a car, using manual transmission, or learning to knit.  Remember that mind-blowing struggle at the beginning?

The continuum goes something like this: first, you are unconsciously unskilled.  You don’t even know what you don’t know (maybe how your preschooler sees you driving; just turning the wheel- la dah!)  Then, you are consciously unskilled: “oh, I will NEVER get this!  What do I do now???? Oh, %$^&.”

Next, you get to be consciously skilled: “I can do this, if I concentrate and stick out my tongue, and don’t breathe, and now my brain is fried.  I need a break!!”

After a long time, some say 10,000 hours, you get to be unconsciously skilled.  That is when you can drive the car, eat a sandwich, talk to your kids in the back, and decide what to have for dinner, all without missing a beat.

And, how do we get to Carnagie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.  For adults, this process is terribly uncomfortable, perhaps because we have perfected so many skills, that it feels AWFUL to go back to incompetence.  So hats off to those who take up a new instrument, or a new language, as adults!

On to children.  As you can imagine, they live a lot of the time between unconsciously unskilled and consciously unskilled.  They are not good at much, especially the first time.  And, if they live with mostly adults, then it is discouraging that everyone else is good at EVERYTHING!  Why bother?

Fortunately, children seem to be hard wired to learn hard stuff.  Like walking and speaking a language, with grammar and all.  So, that’s what they are good at.   Montessori saw, however, that, if we gave children a lot of opportunities to become consciously, then unconsciously skilled, from a very young age, they felt good, and learned skills and confidence that allowed them to consider learning more and more things.  The movement from consciously unskilled to consciously skilled did not feel so impossible.  In fact, it might even be fun, and definitely worth the risks.

So, she created a lot of self-corrected learning materials, that intrigued hands and minds.  She also placed importance on something she called: Practical Life (or Grace and Courtesy).  This is the process of actively teaching self-care and life skills, in a fun, accepting way, from blowing your nose and wiping your own bottom, to how to ask for help or tell someone to leave you alone.  It also can include dressing yourself, folding clothes, hanging up your coat so that you can find it again, cooking, cleaning…anything that is “practical” to “life” in your culture, would be useful.  And, of course, at home, things that your family and your child value: washing the car, gardening, taking care of pets, making art, playing music….

So, we take the time to break down many tasks into small parts, and give many, many stress free opportunities to practice, with as much help as needed, so that children will have many, many abilities at a young age, and feel competent in many things, before they interact with much that is “academic.”

Think of the intense satisfaction you feel as you have mastered something.  Don’t all people, including  children deserve the opportunity to feel that they are masters in many things?  They can do so, if they are given opportunity, time, instruction (if needed) and support.

 

“Real” Montessori

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I had a prospective parent ask me, very nicely, if it were true that my program is not a “real” Montessori program.  Just curious.

My first reaction: “Sigh.”  There is the Montessori version of the mommy wars, and this is how it is expressed.  “Oh, that program is not a real Montessori program.”  Is this an extension of “Mean Girls”, since so many of us Montessorians are women?

Well, I am a real as it gets, girls.

This is sometimes skirted around in online Montessori forums, trying not to “go there”: “Well, if you had that training, you aren’t really a Montessori teacher; just sayin’.  No offense.”

Short answer, I am a real, real Montessori teacher, and my school is a real Montessori school.  Training and internship through the American Montessori Society.  20 years in.  Those of us who go to the trouble to get Montessori training after getting our degree are pretty passionate, or kinda nuts, depending on how you look at it, so, I say, hat’s off to those of us who have done it, and let’s leave the “Montessori wars” on the playground, please.

If you want to read on, you can.

Montessori came to the US in 1918, and had a very successful exhibit at the World’s Fair that year, called the Glass Classroom (a classroom set up so that adults could walk around and look in, like a store display; very cool!)

Everyone thought she was wonderful, and, in our American, can-do way, people started setting up “Montessori schools” all over, based on hearing one lecture or so.

Montessori was appalled, and did not back any of these American schools.  All training was then in Europe.  A few folks went to Europe for training and came back.

In the 60s, a few intrepid American women got training in Europe, and came back, attempting to get an approved Montessori society in America from Montessori’s son.  After a lot of haggling, they just went ahead and made the American Montessori Society, which has over 4000 member schools, and has trained hundreds of thousands of teachers through AMS certification programs.  Teacher education programs are handled through colleges and universities, and in free-standing programs, which are usually tied to a Montessori school. AMS teacher training is 1 academic year and a 1 year internship with a Montessori school, beyond a bachelor’s degree.  I did my training with the Center for Montessori Teacher Education, North Carolina, in 1995. http://www.teachmontessori.org/ Before that, my teacher trainer was trained in Italy.  My internship was in 1994-5 at Mountain Pathways School, under Cheryl Smith, who trained at Xavier in Cincinnati.

Needless to say, there is still a disconnect between the Association Montessori International (AMI) and AMS, although most of us are trying to work together for the good of the children. (For more information on “what makes a Montessori school”, try this: http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori?gclid=CjwKEAiAy7SzBRD_lv7quOnr6XUSJAAOLkW6eUpH7h3ug64y9Q5s9HtwsyGQaidG0Ih-2So12QavwRoCD5Tw_wcB)

I am sure this is more than anyone wanted to know! 🙂 And this is some more.  The international training often, as I understand, is set up to have classes in the morning, and your internship in the afternoon, so that you can immediately apply what you have learned. That would have been lovely!  But I had 2 children and three jobs in my training year, so spending a year of weekends worked best for me. My teacher trainers were some of the most insightful and committed people I have ever met, as are all of the Montessorians I have met, as well, even the crazy ones.

P.S. The international training limits(for the most part) materials in the classroom to those that were designed in Montessori’s lifetime.  AMS allows the teachers to choose which materials may foster concentration and interest for the children, in addition to the traditional math, language and sensorial materials, and the practical life activities.  There are very few AMI training programs in the US, and several AMS programs, or at least one, in each state.  AMI schools require a very high student /teacher ratio, which are not allowed in most states, under licensing.  Until preschool teachers in the US make more than any other service workers, it will be hard to justify having a year of training after your undergrad degree, with no guarantee of more pay.  (Kind of like what is happening with teachers in North Carolina who get no additional pay for a Master’s.)

P.P.S.  If you wonder about a program, go and visit.  Go often (ask first).  Ask a lot of questions.  If they talk your ear off, they are passionate.  See if you like what they do and say.  See if you think your child would do well there.  Ask more questions. Follow your gut and your mind.

 

 

 

A different way of learning

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I love this picture for lots of reasons: because of who took it, the children in it and the fact that they are fascinated, not by me, but by what I am doing. (“What is she doing?, you ask.  This is our little preschool “graduation”, and I came up with a metaphorical activity to try to show that we will never forget them.  They add colored sand to a bowl of sand that we use every year.  They have added their “color” to our memories of Mary’s School.  What they love?  Putting their hands in the sand. :))

I have had parents ask, in the grocery store: “Is this lady someone you would like as your teacher?”  Oh, dear, what am I to say, or do, to deserve that?  Children love attractive young people, and I am past that! Otherwise, I look like any other lady.  What is there to love?

BUT, as when we go to Montessori training, they tell us that we are only 1/3 of the equation; it is: children, environment, teacher.  Our main job is to set up the environment. If the environment works, the children are happy.  It certainly has nothing to do with how I look!

So, the teacher sets up the environment (actually, Montessori called us “guides”, which is a cool term, but hasn’t caught on.), for safety, for interest, to stretch children, to entice them, to comfort them, to allow them to be together AND apart, to allow them to move, to have structure to give them support, to teach them how to interact, to allow them to take care of their own needs…lots of things to consider.  So, if it doesn’t work, we move things around, take things away, have more lessons on how things work.

So, all the children came to sit with me to see what I was doing. That is how it works in a Montessori classroom: they want to be part of what is happening.  They want it.  We invite them, and they come.  (And if they don’t want it, yet, they don’t have to do it. But that’s another story.)

And that is a different way of learning.