child-brain-development

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.

“Keep their feet moving”

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This may be an odd post for a Montessori teacher to make, but I love metaphors, so I hope this works for you.

I was sitting on the sofa, editing school photos on my laptop.  I was watching an infomercial by a horse trainer.  (Yes, I was.)  It was a kind of “Horse Whisperer” thing.  The question was : “How do I get my horse into a trailer?”  The words that jumped out at me were : “Keep their feet moving.”  Okay, you are not going to learn about how to get your horse onto a trailer in this post.  This is about young children, like the ones I work with.  And maybe about older children and adults, and me.

When children are struggling: sad, afraid, anxious, angry, defiant: “stuck”, there is often little we, at school, can do, but to “keep their feet moving.”

We often cannot solve whatever the child’s issue is.  We often do not know what it is.  They often do not know what it is.  We can offer some support (hug, lap, read a book, sing a song…), but, often, this is rejected.

When this is true, the kindest thing I know to do it to “keep their feet moving.”  That may mean that we gently take them by the hand and lead them away (from something) or toward (something or someone).  We often lead children toward a group of children who are calm and engaged.  This is something to observe and absorb.

Maybe this will show them that this is not such an awful place, or that there may be other ways to react, or other things to do, or try, or think about.  It may distract them long enough to shift their perspective.  It might interest, even fascinate them.

I don’t know what it may do, but I know that we all need to learn some strategies around what to do when we are “stuck”, and who and what might help.

I know that I want all children to know that they can move through hard things, and that there are many ways to do this.

I want children to know that they are not dependent on adults, or anyone to “make them feel better.”

I do not mean that we are not allowing children to feel what they feel, or that they should be distracted from their feelings.  But I do know that shifting gears can be hard, for all of us, and sometimes a change of scene (outside!!!!) or company, or perspective, may help.

A teacher at school was describing helping a child who was having a morning cry when her mother left.  After a bit, she offered her own support (hug, lap).  When that was not helpful, it was time to move: “I have not done all of my morning jobs, I need your help!”  Leading child to help with setting up dishes, getting ready for snack, doing some of the things that need to be done.  The child became calm, engaged, focused, interested, and felt useful and competent.  Perhaps, if you can cope with small things (dishes) you can cope with larger things (feelings)?

So, if all else fails, we can “keep their feet moving”, and do this for ourselves as well.

More on confidence

Building-the-Pink-Tower

Okay, how do I recognize confidence, or lack of it?

Confident children:

explore

try things

play independently

risk

ask for help

Children who lack confidence:

get stuck in activities/requests and repeat them without pleasure

don’t play

whine

try to keep adults involved with them

in a mixed group, prefer to talk to adults

talk about adult issues/concerns

get frustrated easily

tease others

do things for negative attention

(In very young children, some of these latter things can indicate boredom. Of course, don’t “entertain them” but help them switch gears :”I see you are bored with these blocks.  It is time to put them away and find something fun /go outside/feed the cat/ put your socks in your drawer.” Notes: I am not asking them, or listening when they protest.  If they are not engaged, they are bored.  if they are bored, it is my job to teach them how to get over being bored without having to pick a fight with me, the cat, the dog, or the blocks!)

To build confidence: if you have engaged adequately (they are not pining for a little adult one-on-one) change/create the environment (go outside and get so busy that they cannot get you engaged with them negatively, and have to find something to do), express confidence, don’t rescue or entertain, endure the learning curve (they don’t liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike it; it is uncomfortable), don’t get sucked into power struggles or the appearance of neediness, express more confidence, take care of yourself.

I believe, all children are hard wired for success, and all people must struggle a bit.  A healthy child will seek out appropriate struggles, and take them on when they are ready.

Confidence

Nailed-ItI have a wonderful quote on a cabinet at school that says something like: “Knowledge comes from experience, and experience comes with mistakes.”  I would add, that this is also true for confidence.

As a parent, we all want our children to be confident.  Not foolish or reckless, but willing to walk in, sit down and try.

As a teacher of preschoolers for a long time, this is something I expect from all preschoolers.  They may be afraid/angry (crying), but they are also curious and intrigued by new activities and people.

I remember one little girl, years ago, who came for a visit with her dad. She made it very clear that she wanted no eye contact or conversation with me, and sat behind her father.  He, of course, kept trying to coax her out.  This is not my first rodeo, so I knew to get something out, put it on a rug, and enjoy exploring it.  It almost doesn’t matter what I got, it is my interest that is intriguing.  Of course, she eventually crept out and joined in.  I knew not to try to “make friends” unless she initiated it.  That was not what we were doing.  We were exploring together. My job was to present the opportunity (“create the environment” is what Montessorians say) and then wait, but not passively.  In a Montessori classroom, the children are attracted by the materials, and the activity of the other people, particularly the other children.  That is why it is so important to have “experienced” children; i.e multi-aged grouping, but that is another essay. 🙂

We create an interesting environment, with busy people in it, and there is so much to watch and touch, we hope that the child will be drawn in, without any coersion from any of us.  It happens, with time, for almost everyone. (For those who are not interested in anything, there is not much I know to do.)

Back to confidence.  It takes confidence to enter in, and it takes entering in to build confidence.  This is a hard one.  It would be nice if we all learned confidence with every move we made, from birth, but that cannot always happen, for many reasons.

So, sometimes, we have to create the environment and wait.  Not everyone likes the stretching it takes to take that first step; it is uncomfortable.  This reminds me of a time in a new school.  I was about 12.  For many reasons (some to do with my lousy eyesight, and how long I went without glasses before anyone noticed how blind I am!), I felt terrible at “sports” or games.  In a new school, I had a new game (hockey), which I was sure I would hate as much as every other game (kickball, softball, dodgeball…..)  My stance was to stand as far away from the action as possible, and endure.  Fortunately, I had a wonderful coach.  She took the time to put me in a position and explain to me what my job was.  And to make sure it was very simple: “If you get the ball, pass it to this person.”  That’s it.  Then, she followed along a bit, and told me again, when the time came.  After one success, my confidence grew, of course, and the fun of being part of a team was evident, for the first time.  I never was a hockey star, but I loved every game I played from then on.

I will say, she didn’t give me the option of sitting out every game until I graduated.  She didn’t give me pity or too much help.  She didn’t say that, since I was skinny, nearsighted, and terrified looking, I should just give it up, even though everyone else had been playing since Kindergarten. She certainly didn’t offer to do it for me.  She gave me a simple task, and expressed confidence that I could do it.  Then she let me go.  She didn’t give me a trophy, either, but a smile. (Thanks, Mrs. Callahan!)

So, sometimes creating the environment includes expressing faith and then leaving them to it (How much instruction is needed?  It is often hard to know….”Every unnecessary help is a hindrance.”  Maria Montessori. That one is a moving target.  We do get better with practice, and, observing.  One answer might be: “Less than you think.”)

The goals: confidence, independence, new interests, joy.

Teaching about “practical life”

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Another amazing thing Montessori figured out is that children need/love to be taught self-care/real world skills.  She called this “Practical Life” and it is actually an area of the curriculum, like Language and Math.

And why not?  At each stage of life, don’t we like people to gently tell/show us how to do something new, instead of fussing at us when we screw it up?  This week at camp, we had to remember to teach the junior counselors how to make juice from frozen concentrate for popsicles and how to wash dishes.  Is it shocking that they don’t know, or is it normal that families now buy juice fresh and have dishwashers?  As I’m sure you can tell, it shocked me at first, growing up, as I did, in the Black and White Era, I forget these things.  And then Montessori invites me to remember what it is like not to know.

And, when it is presented as “look at this”, practical life is fun to practice. “Pouring works” are always popular (see picture above:)), and so are cooking skills, cleaning skills, folding and putting away things skills…if they are taught and not fussed about.  Later, there are more skills: how to check the oil in your car, how to save money in a painless way, how to buy life insurance, how to buy a house.  It would be nice if someone taught us these things.

Attachment, “attachment parenting”, CIO and Montessori

I want to write something about “attachment”. Not “attachment parenting” but attachment. Attachment parenting writers have done a lot to terrify parents around crying, or “making a child sad/anxious/cry”. This is why I love RIE for infant/toddlers. Not that Montessori doesn’t have a lot of good observations about this age (by “Montessori”, I don’t mean Maria, I mean amazing Montessori I/T teachers all over the world; Maria did not work with infants or toddlers), but RIE has written more concisely about it (Janet Lansbury’s blog/FB page).

All children cry. All people cry. All babies cry. How we respond teaches them about the world. If we never respond, that is neglect, if we always respond to try remove all distress, I would say that we are teaching our children that they are incapable. If we are there, listening and empathizing, but not always “fixing”, and then express trust in the child, that is a life lesson.

Back to attachment. Attachment is something that has been studied for decadeshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory. If you read about it, in depth, you see that attachment is developed through response and observation, starting at birth. That is responding to cues of wanting interaction (child looks at you, makes sounds) and responding to cues of wanting to be not in relationship (child looks away, turns away). A small amount of appropriate response in either direction solidifies attachment; the estimate that Boyles made was good responses 10% of the time. Yes, 10% of the time, caused good attachment. That does not mean that a child must be held, carried, slept with, pacified with pacifier or breast to be attached. In fact, attachment is very hard to mess up, with attentive (that is attentive to “come close” AND “go away” responses) parents. Abused children are most often still attached :(.

So, we do NOT have to be so afraid of our children’s cries. No one is advocating neglect, of course…..but we do not have to attempt to “fix” all struggles. Montessori would say that this is harmful to children. Now, when and how to start this is up to interpretation, but children are designed to learn to eat, sleep, eliminate, self-soothe and problem solve. We are there to support that learning.

Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term interpersonal relationships between humans. However, “attachment theory is not formulated as a general theory of relationships. It addresses only a specific facet” (Waters et al. 2005: 81): how human being…
EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG)

A child at work

dsc_0220_41(I often learn what I think when answering a question :). This is an answer to a prospective parent who asked: “Why do you call it “work?” (what the children do.) Such a great question!)
While I am wide awake, I will answer about “work”: Montessori was a medical doctor, not a “teacher” and worked at first, as a doctor, with children who were not expected to learn; this was around the turn of the century and we don’t know much about what diagnoses they had, but they were lumped together as “idiot children.” She noticed that, not only could they learn, they seemed to want very much to learn. “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment. We call this process the work of the child.” She noted that concentrated “work” (purposeful activity, self-chosen) seemed to allow deep contentment. As these children had a variety of disabilities, she found (from doctors in France who were working with the deaf) and made what we call “materials” which were self teaching and sensorial in nature. Much of what is in the classroom was designed by Montessori over the years as didactic materials for children to explore (the movable alphabet, the sandpaper letters and the math materials are some of the most wonderful of these, I think).

She found, after observing children with a variety of these “materials” (many of which she would try and discard) was that they seemed willing and eager to practice many skills with a suitable materials (tracing, buttoning, counting), and, again, seemed to get great satisfaction from perfecting skills, especially when the activities were self-chosen.

It is not a free for all, though, and we limit those who are what I call “messing about” because they are obviously bored. Our goal is for the children to find something engaging.

I also often note that adults think that children are not doing “anything important”, and so tend to interrupt them. I think this is another use of the word “work”, to imply that, if a child is sitting and watching a cricket, or drawing a line, or pouring water, to watch and see if it is “work”; i.e., something deserving respect and not interruption.

Of course, “play”, as in “play an instrument, or sport” is something that takes a lot of “work”, but, in our culture, “play” with children usually connotes “not much”: “just playing”!

If the room was “quiet” which I can’t imagine, it was because, at this time of year, everyone has generally learned how to come in, find something intriguing, and get to it, at least for a little bit at a time. I do think that there is a hum, a bit like a beehive! I think you asked about ages; we started with a brand new 2 up to a brand new 5, and our goal is about 6 2s, 6 3s, and rising Kinders. The classroom is multi-aged so that there are all abilities together (everyone is good at something, and learning something) and, mostly, so that the oldest children can be mentors to the youngest children. Over the three year cycle, everyone gets to go from being mostly a learner to being often a teacher. Oh, so, yes, the point is to commit, if you can, to three years, so that each child can end up as a triumphant teacher!

Anyway, I am off to bed, and I am quite sure that this is more than you ever wanted to know about anything, ever; I do love thinking about this stuff so!

Warmly,
Mary