Montessori in the First Few Weeks: Teaching Independence at Home and at School

A helpful guide to some of the Montessori influence at CNS.
Let Them Help

"It is just as degrading to the young child as to an adult to 
have someone constantly doing everything for him."

—Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

If you want to have strong, confident, and independent children, let them help! Recently we've heard from a variety of sources about the importance of teaching children to be responsible and independent. Books include one by a senator who laments our society's disappearing adult,* and another by an admiral who urges college graduates to just make their beds.**
A basic premise of Montessori philosophy is that every child is eager for real work, even when it might seem like a chore to us. Caring for the home environment is a natural expression of children's desires to participate in the world around them. "Let me do it myself" is the frequent request. With the right-size tools and instructions, children as young as two can help. As they sweep, set the table, or brush their teeth, they are becoming skillful, building independence, and gaining self-esteem.

Activities of Daily Living
So often the work that adults are obligated to do becomes a "chore." It is helpful that these "activities of daily living" not be given a negative connotation. Adults can lose interest in a seemingly mundane and repetitive household job, but young children love to help around the house. If left to themselves, they will repeat the task joyously, without becoming tired or bored.

The daily repetition of these tasks is what gives us stability - we sleep, eat, wake up, and work as the sun comes and goes on a predictable schedule, over and over. The security of knowing what to expect and what is expected of us is part of what allows us to be creative and expand our horizons. Let children help!

Routines Free Us
Knowing what to expect gives our children a sense of security - our biology has wired us to be on the alert if we don't know what's happening. Knowing what we can count on frees us to be spontaneous and even to make mistakes without fear.
In the Montessori philosophy, a "control of error" is built into the activities and materials. In concrete terms, a child learns that a mistake/accident is not a cause for alarm, but rather an opportunity to practice another skill. For example, if the water spills, there is a mop or sponge available to clean it up.
Coming from a firm base allows us to go into the world to experience and learn new things. There will be bumps and struggles along the way, but having that firm foundation gives us the strength to regroup, find solutions, and continue no matter how difficult the way.

Be Patient and Observe Your Child
Don't "fix" the child's work or take over when the child is struggling. Children may not complete a task to your satisfaction, but that's okay. You may simply need to loosen your expectations. A little help, without criticism, might be right for the young child. And for now, overlook the mistakes. As one mother said, "Even if it isn't perfect, it makes for a happier mom and proud kids."
If your child has not perfected her skill in completing a task, make a note of it. Try working side-by-side next time. Does she have the physical and mental capacity to do the job? You may need to give maturity a chance. If she just needs to be shown the finer points of the task, do so at another time to avoid any direct correction. Or is it simply a matter of experience? Improvement will come naturally with practice. Notice the pleasure on your child's face when she completes the task or when you express pleasure.
When you do "express pleasure," describe what you see or how it might have helped. The child does not need effusive praise and in fact, it might dampen your child's enthusiasm. Similarly, do not bribe or reward your children for doing what helps them or the household function. The pleasure is intrinsic and effort is its own reward. 

Home and School
In many ways, home and school have the same goals for children, but home is not school and vice-versa. Each plays a role in teaching the child to become his own person, but the environments are different and should be regarded as such. Incorporating Montessori principles at home supports your child's growth and independence as well as your unique family community.
Consider for yourself how different you feel returning home after a busy day. Home is a place you can relax. Though tasks still need doing, the atmosphere is completely different. The jobs will always be there, and we know that the more we all contribute, the more time we will have to relax and enjoy our lives and one another. 

If you take the time to teach your child to do things for 
himself, the rewards will be great for both of you."

—Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

*Ben Sasse, The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance
**Admiral William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life ... and Maybe the World
—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

Independence in the Classroom

"If teaching is to be effective with young children, it must 
assist them to advance on the way to independence."

—Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

The first few weeks of school are crucial, and set the stage for the remainder of the year. Even if you have taught for years, it's a good time to rethink and refresh your lessons. By now, your orientation period may be over, but children can still benefit from a review of lessons to firmly establish classroom policies. Helping children learn school routines allows them to become more independent. By discovering what they can do to care for themselves and their school, they will become more secure and self-motivated. And, your classroom will normalize sooner, too.
Time and patience are required as children learn what's expected at school and how to do things they may not have done before. They may never have been expected to hang jackets on hangers and button or zip them, too. Encouraging older children to assist new students will also help them adapt to classroom routines.

Group Lessons
Starting the year with group lessons is effective in establishing classroom expectations. Montessori's lessons of Grace and Courtesy include:
  • Greetings at arrival and farewells at dismissal
  • Carrying a piece of work carefully 
  • Putting work away when completed
  • Walking around a rug
  • Pushing in the chair after getting up
  • Carrying a chair
  • Balancing things on a tray while walking
  • Unrolling and rolling up a rug
  • Learning the difference between inside and outside voices
  • Using manners - Please, Thank You, Excuse Me, etc.
  • Learning how to politely wait your turn without interrupting
  • Learning to walk in a line
  • Asking for help
Normalization Happens
The school schedule is magical in helping children become more self-reliant and confident. Knowing what to expect provides a sense of security that's especially important for the youngest child. While changes or disruptions in the classroom schedule happen every now and then, knowing what comes next is part of what allows children to concentrate on the task at hand. Once the order and predictability are established, children will work for longer periods and move about the classroom with assurance.
Continue to give lessons on the basic activities so children will have enough work to stay occupied. Keep circle time and lessons brief, knowing you will repeat them. Be patient - the time will come when you can give longer Montessori presentations to older students. It takes time to normalize a class.

Independence Develops
For new students, it helps to repeat lessons and routines until they are able to perform them independently. Teachers may need to assist some children with the bathroom routine or snack preparation for a while. Younger children might need direction to find an activity as well as occasional reminders to put work away or push the chair under the table.
Sometimes it is helpful for the teacher to have an understanding with her assistant about who to help when. Remember, at first children are more dependent so the teacher must be a strong presence. When the children are more independent, the teacher is not as needed for emotional security and can step back to observe or provide individual lessons.

"A child's desire to work represents a vital instinct since 
he cannot organize his personality without working."

—Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.