Helping to Create “Mean Girls”

Several conversations recently came together for me, into a shocking insight.  Now that I have had time to think about it, it is not shocking at all, of course; like so many things.

I was part of several conversations about children (boys) and gun play.  This subject never goes away, and may be a topic for another stream of thought.  Gun violence in this country is a real thing, and effects children and families, but, in this case,  this thread led to something else.

The other thing that never goes away, even in preschool (!!!!) is that of “mean girls”; that is, “social aggression” (as it is called in the literature).  How it appears: boys get mad and punch each other, girls are mean, and the “meanness” just flows in and out, and around, and remains a continual sore in the hearts of these girls.  Not all girls “do” social aggression, some just stay out of it, but, for the ones who do, what fuels it?

For those of us who do preschool, and parents of girls, we know that “talking it out” or asking them to “just walk away” rarely (never?) helps.

What Lynn * said, in one of many follow-up conversations: “Isn’t it strange that physical aggression is (generally) not modeled to these boys, but social aggression is modeled for these girls?” (This seems to be true in the community in which I work; other communities model different things.)  Lynn also said: “Can’t you remember every mean thing that was ever said to you?  I can.”  I can, too.

So, boys play gun play, and punch each other, but there seems to be little lasting damage, and they go back to playing; “getting it out”, or expressing their frontal lobe limits and going on; their dads are not shooting anyone, or punching anyone.

Girls, however, can often hear grown women criticizing each other.  Often.  In my family, it was sarcastically called: “helpful criticism”: “She really shouldn’t wear that color.”; “She should know better than to put on a bathing suit.”; “Does she call that decorating for Christmas?”  So many of us have made comments like this in private, in front of our children.

There is a story I read years ago, on the Internet, in which a mother made such a comment about another mother (something like: “Oh, let’s not have the meeting at her house, it’s always filthy!”) and her child, in the car, started to cry.  “I am sad that you hate yourself, Mom!” The mother is flabbergasted, and asks the child for clarification.  “You said that people who say mean things always feel badly about themselves!”  Um, yea.

So, how much of a stretch is it to go from saying those things in private, to saying them to someone’s face: “I hate you, and you can never come to my birthday party.”  Ow!!!  How could that EVER be okay to say?  And yet, somehow, it is.  And the hurt lingers, and poisons our children and their friends.

So, as in everything else, we have to look at, watch, and listen to ourselves first.

Ow.  And then cut it out.

*Lynn Miller, as very wise person.1-girls-fighting



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


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. 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:

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.





We have recently had a most challenging child at school: very, very bright, and struggling very hard to self-soothe during adjustments or transitions.  Any transitions at all, including things that the child wanted to do, like get out his lunch and eat a cookie, caused crying.

What I have learned from this child: patience, empathy, respect for hard work, and also, when the child can be calm, it is his brain which does the most to help him.  Not that a lap, or a hug, or a empathetic look or remark does not help him calm down, a lot.  But, ultimately, it is when his mind is engaged, when he is intrigued or fascinated or curious or observant or amused, and his brain is working, that he is the most calm, during turbulent times.

This does not mean that we try to distract him with flashing lights and funny clowns, but calmly demonstrate something intriguing, and sit back.  We model our own enjoyment, and invite.

There has been a lot for me to learn in watching this process unfold.

Maria Montessori

2nd November 1946: The founder of the Montessori Schools, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) in a classroom in Acton, London with a group of children. Original Publication: Picture Post – 4244 – The Woman Who Made School Fun – pub. 1946 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)

“Whoever touches the life of the child touches the most sensitive point of a whole, which has roots in the distant past and climbs towards the infinite future.” Maria Montessori

Image and quote put together by Dirigo Montessori School

I had someone report a comment made about me by a former parent at school; something like “Mary X, but yet my children just love her.” 🙂  Yes, I have thousands of faults (another chapter!), and I have learned a lot about how to be with children, by watching wonderful people be with children. *

What I have learned: be honest, be real, think about how they see things and how they see you, answer the question you think they don’t know how to ask, have clear boundaries, give attention, or do not (don’t try to be “always on”), get down low, sit down, look in their faces and listen.  Ask for help.  Apologize.  Thank them for their help. Take them seriously.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.  Be prepared to be wrong, and to correct yourself.  Assume that a child who is “misbehaving” doesn’t have a needed skill, then teach that skill.  Correct a child’s negative self talk : “I forgot to….”; “It looks like you remembered about it.”  Be respectful of emotions, if not opinions. Decide  what is negotiable, and what is not, and don’t coach what is not as a question.  Allow natural consequences, when appropriate.  Be empathetic, without rescuing.  Set up routines, and let them be the boss.  Be prepared to keep learning.  Don’t take things personally.

This is comforting to me, that I don’t need to be the most beautiful, charming, witty, funny, entertaining or fun person, although it would be nice to be all of those things.  I can learn to be myself and be with children.

* Barbara Carter, Jerome Berryman, Martha MacDermott, Cheryl Smith, Jon Durham, Terri Reddick, Virginia MacLeod, Vivian Lawson, Jennie Millsapps, Mary Williams, Cinda McGuinn, Carolina Elliott, Mary Boyer, Carole Towers, Erin Kirby, Joy Flint.



Spring is the time for new things!


See this little waif?  She is my youngest, and, 25 years after this picture was taken,  she is expecting a baby in November.  I feel like I have been invited to Narnia, or some other wonderful place which I thought before was not real. 🙂

So, I haven’t been blogging much :).  Or at all.

That, and meeting lots and lots of new families for the school year, which is also a blessing.  Everyone loves talking about their most loved little people, and I love hearing about them.

They all want “something more” for their children, and I would love to give it to them.  This year, as every year, I cannot offer it to everyone who comes.  For some, what they want is really not what we do.  For others, there are barriers in the way of learning that need to be addressed, and they are not ready to start this information-gathering process….for lots of reasons.  For some, it is bad luck or timing!  And, can you imagine saying “no” to the grandson or daughter of a dear friend, or the child of one of your children’s dear friends?  And, in the US, it is expensive.  There is no outside funding (other than fundraising ourselves) which supports what we do.  And I don’t want to organize fundraisers; I want to teach children and talk to parents.

This is what it is like in the Spring of each year: getting ready to say goodbye to the amazing 5 year olds, whom you love, who are so self-possessed and bright and self-aware and meta-cognitive that you cannot manage being without them; looking at new two year olds and wondering how you can handle that process another year; trying to listen to the hearts of new families to find the best fit; and remembering to have faith, in myself, the staff, the parents, and, most of all, in the children, who are made to learn.

And, this year, thinking about Baby Coffey Bean.

Simplicity of Education

This is such a post about what Montessori wrote and thought about teaching….

Kissable Zebra Lips and Other Things


“What is a realization?” was the topic of an animated discussion in the Elementary class.

Adding to the many interesting and unexpected responses, 9-year old ‘A’ said, “It’s what comes in a fraction of a second,” he snapped his finger, “and sometimes slips away in the next. But it always makes us different people.”

I woke up with a realization after a good night’s sleep, letting the network of neurons organize themselves, connecting, consolidating. This probably is no new learning, and I must have had the same awareness a few times in the past, yet many thoughts from the last few days fell into place.

I realized that the principle of Montessori Education, in fact all education, is very simple –

  • Knowledge and faith in the natural path of development of human beings from birth to maturity.
  • Preparation of a protected environment with the means of development.
  • Serve, assist, guide.

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Parent Resource: Building Resilience in our Children

Healthy Beginnings Montessori

It’s difficult as a parents to let our children make their own mistakes, to see them struggle through a difficult situation, all the while knowing that we can help them by simply tying their shoes for them, or pick up the chair that they’re trying to lift on their own…but are we really helping?

Letting your children struggle through hard times (considering that their safety is not compromised) gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and to develop coping mechanisms that will make them resilient towards even harder situations in the future. Children need to know that there are good and bad consequences to any situation, and that it’s OK to experience both. If we always intervene and prevent the “bad consequences” from happening, then we are only making it harder for them in the long-run. For example, when they grow into adulthood, they may not be adaptable to…

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Reading, Executive Function — and Montessori


The Montessori Observer

An interesting piece by New Yorker science and psychology blogger Maria Konnikova How Children Learn to Read, doesn’t mention Montessori, but it should!

Here’s the gist: UC San Francisco researchers published a three-year longitudinal study (paywall) of the neuroscience of reading development. They followed 5 and 6 year olds from kindergarten through third grade, measuring phonological and reading skills, cognitive and expressive ability, direction-following, family behavior patterns including reading at home and screen time, and brain growth. Konnikova talks to researcher Fumiko Hoeft about the findings, which aren’t what you might expect (emphasis added):

When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in…

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Happy Valentine’s Eve!

Number 10 was copied wrong in OP blurb: in the post it actually says: “treat children as people, not objects” of course. Thanks, Reddy, for pointing that out!!!

Healthy Beginnings Montessori

“Of all things, love is the most potent.” – Dr. Maria Montessori

There are so many ways that we can display our love and affection for our children, not just on Valentine’s Day, but year-round! In my experience, non-material gifts, such as simple hugs and saying “I love you” go much further than a store-bought gift.

Here are 10 ways that you can show your children you love them:


  1. Spend time with them
  2. Commit to family rituals
  3. Don’t hold grudges
  4. Share yourself with your children
  5. Encourage them often
  6. Tell them “I love you”, give them hugs & kisses every day
  7. Don’t multitask – listen
  8. Say “YES”
  9. Be at the crossroads – be their cheerleader
  10. See your children as objects, not people

Happiest of Valentine’s Days! ♥

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