Let There Be Wiggles: Sensitive Periods and the Importance Of Purposeful Movement

“Stop fidgeting.” “Be still.” “Be quiet.” How often as a teacher do you find yourself berating students with these statements? Imagine a child: bouncing around, babbling, nearly falling out of his seat. Is he listening? This type of behavior can distract us as teachers. Traditional education and our own educational experiences have us teach to most children, while we intuitively know, and research increasingly purports, that every child learns at her own pace, and each child (and adult) learns best in different ways. Some are visual learners; others learn best with kinetic input, and others still by listening. Children calm their bodies and focus in a variety of ways as well. It’s time to let go of what we think a focused child should look like. Let’s help them determine what they need to do to be balanced - whether it’s humming, moving, or laying down - and encourage them to do it, so they are better able to direct their full attention on learning.

wiggles1.png

Dr. Stuart Shanker, a research Professor Emeritus at York University, Science Director of the Self-Regulation Institute, and former President of the Council of Early Child Development and the Council of Human Development, in his book Self-Reg, describes the “hidden stressors” that children struggle with that can make it appear they have emotional, behavioral, or learning issues, when in actuality they need tactics to help them self-regulate or adjustments in their environment. Some children are overstimulated by certain environmental triggers - a loud classroom, open spaces, etc. - and some are hypo-aroused, needing more physical input in order to return to a calm stasis. The environment is a key component in a Montessori classroom. Teachers are able and encouraged to observe each child and adjust the classroom to meet their needs. A Peace shelf is often a staple in a Montessori classroom, tucked away in a quiet corner complete with sand timers the child may sit mesmerized watching or a sensory bin with materials the child can pull, twist, or otherwise manipulate for kinetic stimulation.

Maria Montessori recognized that children go through “sensitive periods” - windows of time during which the child’s brain and development learns certain concepts easily. From birth to about age four the child is in a sensitive period for movement. In other words, you may notice a child fidgeting in his seat during a lesson because his body literally needs to move in order to better focus. Montessori materials were developed with this tenet in mind. The Sensorial lessons such as the Broad Stair and Pink Tower require the child to not only manipulate blocks with his hand in order to build a structure, they are also presented carefully by the teacher requiring the child to travel back and forth to the shelf many times to complete them. Every Montessori lesson also has countless extensions that allow for purposeful movement and engage the child’s working memory. For example you may observe a child in a Primary classroom removing Geometric shapes from the cabinet on one rug before bringing his tray to a separate rug across the room to match the shapes. The Montessori curriculum, lessons, and teachers honor each child’s development and need for movement in order to learn and focus.

Most Montessori schools look a little different than traditional preschool environments. You may see children sitting in a circle for a classroom meeting, but you will also see several children quietly continuing to work at other tables if they have other work they are attending to. When I teach a lesson, if a child is fidgeting, or laying down instead of sitting, I evaluate whether this is interfering with their participation in the work, and if not, I allow it. This is not because I’m extremely laid back or don’t believe in enforcing rules, rather, it’s clear from observing that some children focus better when they are engaging their body. Rather than distracting them, movement can promote better comprehension. Instead of insisting on sitting “criss-cross applesauce” and asking a three year old body buzzing with energy to be completely still, let there be wiggles.

Hold the Applause: How to Avoid Raising Praise Seekers and Tame the Fear of Failure

download.png

In an age of everyone gets a “participation trophy”, encouragement and praise can be a touchy subject, with a wide variety of opinions. The difference between “Great job! You’re so good at math!” and “It looks like you really worked hard on that, you must be so proud of yourself!” might not seem drastically different, but the subtle difference in celebrating a child’s skill versus celebrating their effort can have monumental effects on motivation, self-confidence, a child’s ability to navigate through challenges, and their overall enthusiasm for learning.

I have recently become interested in listening to podcasts. In my current fervor I listen to anything that comes my way, but of course I have a tendency to relate everything to Montessori. An episode of the Tim Ferris show in particular caught my attention: #187 Josh Waitzkin: The Prodigy Returns. Josh Waitzkin is an eight-time National Chess Champion, the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, as well as a martial arts champion with twenty-one National Championship titles and several World Championship titles. Most recently he is the president of the JW Foundation, “a nonprofit committed to maximizing each student’s unique potential through an enriched educational process.” (The Art of Learning) After identifying with so much of what he discusses in the podcast, I ordered his book The Art of Learning. In it he discusses how developmental psychologists have recently done research on how a student’s approach to learning can ultimately affect his ability to master a concept or material.

Entity vs. Incremental Theories of Intelligence

Waitzkin discusses a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck, who explains the difference between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. If you speak to a child as if their intelligence is a fixed entity, saying things like “What a great reader you are!” they tend to think they are “good” at certain subjects and internalize that success or failure is based on innate, immoveable ability. If you congratulate children on their effort, (“look at how hard you worked sounding out those words!”) they learn that difficult lessons or materials can be mastered incrementally with hard work and persistence. Waitzkin elaborates that Dweck’s research has also shown children who associate hard work with success “tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situation. In other words these children believe if they work hard at something and practice consistently, they will incrementally get better at it until they conquer the challenge. Children who see themselves as just plain “smart” or “dumb,” or “good” or “bad” at something, have a “learned helplessness orientation” (The Art of Learning, 30). Children who receive effort-based feedback from parents and teachers are more likely to be excited by challenging work, rather than children who have been praised on their ability, who tend be “dispirited by the inability to solve the hard problems…” (The Art of Learning, 31). When presented with difficulties or challenges, these children tend to shut down and have their self confidence destroyed.  

Positive Discipline and Encouragement vs. Praise

Dr. Jane Nelson, a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and Child Counselor in San Diego, is the author of Positive Discipline - The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills. At Suzuki we use many of the strategies she suggests. Positive Discipline boasts of no rewards, no punishments, and no praise. Instead teachers have been taught to use careful, well thought-out encouragement, and skill building. For example when a little girl brings a painting over half-done, tilting her head up, clearly looking for approval and praise - of course my natural instinct is to tell her how beautiful her painting of air balloons is. Instead, I take a second and ask her to tell me about the picture, which colors she used, the paint, etc. to engage her in conversation. This way the focus is more about bonding and sharing rather than seeking approval and we avoid connecting it to her self esteem. I talk about how focused I can tell she is and encourage her to continue working. Dr. Jane Nelson warns of creating “approval junkies” that need constant validation from outside sources. When we encourage a child, rather than judge their work based on our ideals - we give them the power to assess their own effort and decide whether or not they are proud of what they’ve done.  

It is imperative that children learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable and approach learning as a long-term process that requires they leave the safety net of what comes easy to them. In order to feel safe enough to do this children need to learn from their parents and teachers, based on their careful effort-focused encouragement, that if they face a challenge and make a mistake, it’s an opportunity for growth. They have the tools and tenacity within them to acknowledge their mistake, continue learning, and perhaps seek an alternate route. Small changes in the way we speak to our children can have a huge impact on their sense of self and future success. What we say to our children matters - so choose your words carefully.

Got Temper Tantrums? How to Tame Tantrums Without Breaking the Spirit

tantrum1.png

If you’re a parent, you’ve been there. You’re in the grocery store and your child is screaming crying at the top of his lungs, maybe even throwing in an occasional “you’re mean” or “you’re the worst Mommy,” for good measure because he cannot fathom that you won’t let him buy those M&Ms and start devouring them right then and there. If you’re an early childhood teacher you’ve likely dealt with this sort of epic meltdown daily for years. Every classroom has at least one, although typically more than one, extremely strong-willed child. In my five years as a Montessori Primary teacher for children 2 ½-6 years old, I have had many. These are the children that tested my patience, but they are also the ones I learned the most from, grew closest to, and the ones I will always remember. In the throes of a tantrum, it is difficult to celebrate a child’s spirit and independence, but it’s amazing to observe the breakthroughs that happen when you acknowledge the child is not purposely misbehaving, but rather seeking help or tools for how to effectively give voice to and manage their feelings. As difficult as it is, it is imperative that we resist the urge to tame their spirit, and instead model peaceful resolutions and conflict management, while helping to guide and focus their enthusiasm and individuality so that one day, they change the world (as many strong-willed people do!)

There are several key aspects to working successfully with determined, head-strong children. The first is recognizing and celebrating the gumption they have that will one day allow them to be a leader. It is essential not to suppress these characteristics. Part of this means not trying to talk them out of their feelings. Instead of coaching them to “stop crying,” or “calm down,” acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing. In a calm, steady voice say “it seems like you are very frustrated. It’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to kick the chair.” By validating the child’s feelings, he feels heard, and there is an automatic physiological response that allows him to begin to cool off. In reflecting his emotions you also give him a powerful tool - the language to be able to express himself more freely next time emotions run high. Children that can explain how they are feeling and name their emotions are more quickly able to move on, instead of learning to ignore them which we know creates larger problems later on. The second half of the “seems like” strategy is asserting boundaries. Let the child know it’s ok to feel a certain way, but it’s not ok to act out violently, or disrupt the classroom. Boundaries and limits allow children to feel safe and know they are cared for.

Another way to set boundaries in a classroom or at home is to partner with the child in creating agreements, rather than rules, about what are acceptable behaviors and why. When you collaboratively set expectations you foster a healthy, trusting, relationship. Including the child in the process helps him to internalize and understand the limits in a deeper way. One way to do this in the classroom is to hold classroom meetings.  At the beginning of each year, we have a meeting where the children brainstorm essential rules for the classroom to ensure everyone is safe and able to learn and focus. The children come up with ideas like “use walking feet,” “no pushing or hitting,” and “use a soft voice.” It is usually the most strong-willed children who are anxious to be heard and have the most to contribute at these meetings! Being a part of the conversation allows them to process the limits better.

One of the often overlooked or undervalued strategies that is essential in the classroom when working with spirited, strong-willed children is the importance of establishing a “connection before correction”*, a term originally coined by Dr. Jane Nelson, the founder of the Positive Discipline approach. I have a little girl, Charlotte, in class who is extremely imaginative. She has an amazing ability to focus on lessons she prefers, like handwriting.  She carries out these lessons with remarkable precision, despite her often simultaneous habit of creating and speaking stories out loud to herself. Charlotte is extremely intelligent and understands what the limits are, but has a very difficult time with unexpected transitions. Knowing Charlotte has a difficult time with this we try to prep her for changes before they occur; “Charlotte, you have about 10 minutes before it will be time to clean up for violin!” However, when this is not possible, these sorts of unexpected changes in schedule, throw her off completely. She will sometimes ignore the teacher trying to help her transition, and other times meltdown screaming and crying. Having a strong connection with children struggling with social-emotional behaviors helps because you begin to anticipate their triggers and rather than punish them for their behavior, you recognize their distress and help guide them through tricky moments by prepping them beforehand. This way it doesn’t get to the point where they are so upset they can no longer hear you. When Charlotte does have a “meltdown”, which is sometimes inevitable, as most of these techniques are not an overnight, immediate success, I approach her gently, on her level, with compassion. I know she wants to do the right thing and cooperate, but is momentarily overwhelmed by her emotions. I speak to her softly to begin to calm her, and let her know when she is ready to talk I will be there. Then, rather than try and talk her out of what she is feeling, I listen to what she has to say. Because I have built a relationship with her over time, through playing outside or quiet moments reading together, she feels supported and knows there is nothing “wrong” with her, rather we can work through tough emotions together so she is better able to meet them appropriately in the future.

In the heat of the moment when a child is screaming, hitting, or kicking our first inclination may be to do what we internalized from our own childhood: rely on rewards and punishments. This tactic is often very effective. “Charlotte, if you calm down we can go get an ice cream.” Long term, however, we want to raise children who regulate their emotions and do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not so they can get an ice cream or other reward. Likewise, taking things away can also be effective short-term, until you run out of things to take away. The strategies above will likely not be miraculous overnight solutions, but if we can hang in there long enough and apply them consistently and with patience, our most stubborn, strong-willed children emerge from these phases and become confident adults who flourish and have so much to contribute to the world.

*“Connection before Correction” was first introduced by Dr. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline Book - The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills.

Magic of Montessori Demystified: No Rewards, Punishments, or Praise, Oh My!

download.png

A lot of what sets a Montessori education apart from traditional methods are the aspects of the environment you can’t see upon first glance - the intangibles. There are no punishments, no rewards, and only carefully thought-out respectful interactions, encouragement, and redirection. That’s right. No “time-outs,” no sticker charts, not even grades.

The absence of rewards and punishments is usually what baffles parents and new teachers most. Most children are not initially miraculously self-motivated and independent, choosing their own work, completing it, and concentrating for hours at a time. Their concentration takes time to develop and they typically need help to focus or choose a lesson. Sometimes their “cry for attention” exhibits itself by them running around the room, chasing a friend, or constantly touching and interrupting an older friend’s lesson. Montessori teachers don’t implement traditional behavioral techniques like “time outs.” The child is not acting out because they are “bad;” rather, they would like to be focused and interested in something, but need some assistance to get there. Maria Montessori said “to let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”

In a Montessori environment, the teacher acts as a guide and, in these cases, takes the child by the hand and helps them find something they will be captivated by. For some this looks like Polishing a Bracelet - a Practical Life lesson with upwards of 50 steps. For other children, it’s painting a picture for a friend on the easel. What propels, excites, and stimulates a child’s creativity, enthusiasm, and attention is just as individual as it is for adults. Rather than punish the child, teachers connect them to the prepared environment and teach them a new skill they will be interested in, which will in turn also boost their confidence, rather than bring them down. It is human nature to respond better to a positive direction, rather than a negative one. Instead of saying “don’t do that,” say “come try this instead.”

magicq.png

Praise can also be a fickle friend. When a child brings a work over they are proud of, rather than responding “good job,” teachers encourage introspection, saying things like “you must be really proud of that hard work you did.” With more specific effort-focused acknowledgement, the child finds intrinsic motivation rather than constantly searching for outside approval.

Montessori classrooms also help promote self confidence, autonomy, and leadership skills in their structure. Primary classrooms are multi-age, usually spanning 3 years. The classroom is a community where the children learn from each other. The older children who have mastered lessons demonstrate and guide younger children, developing leadership skills and compassion. (See first article in March 2017 for more on this phenomenon!) The teacher and assistants get to know each individual child closely through careful observations. As the children gain independence, the teacher is able to step back and assess who needs more attention or assistance, meet them where they are, and adapt the environment or lessons as necessary to best fit each student’s interests and learning style.

The Montessori environment and philosophy have been around for a long time and span the globe, but if you didn’t grow up with it, you may feel lost trying to understand the magic or explain it to others. The most notable difference is the respect given to each child’s individuality and what they have to offer the world. With the absence of mandated tests, or arbitrary curriculum pressures, teachers are free to truly honor each child. Marianne Williamson said “there is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children.” What better time than now to unravel a mysterious, yet time-tested method of education? Tune in next week for more on the history of the Montessori Method!

Montessori Magic Demystified: The Environment

Children have an innate desire to learn. They soak in their environment, positive or negative, like sponges. Rather than interfere and try to mold little people into what society deems as desirable, Montessorians create the perfect conditions where the child can concentrate and explore freely, revealing himself as an individual based on his interests and unique strengths. The classroom has freedom within limits; boundaries not barriers.

A Montessori classroom has no posters decorating the walls or alphabet loudly displayed along the edges of the ceiling where the child can barely see it. The rooms are decorated with framed Van Gogh or Da Vinci paintings, children’s artwork, family pictures, and plants displayed at their eye level so they can revel in beauty without being bombarded with distractions. Teachers minimize interruptions and protect a 3-hour work cycle creating an environment ideal for the child to concentrate. When a child concentrates on interesting, attractive work that is meaningful to him, he can become his best self.

Lessons are arranged on the shelf in order from least difficult to most challenging and every lesson has countless extensions so the teacher can adjust to meet each child’s needs. The teacher presents a lesson to a child one-on-one or in small groups first, but each material has a control of error. When Mark works independently on the Spindle Game in Math he has to count the correct amount of spindles for each numeral 1-10. There are only enough spindles to fit correctly in each space. If he gets to 10 and counts out only 9 spindles, he will realize he made a mistake somewhere earlier. He may not realize or correct his mistake right away, and that’s okay. Children often need weeks or months of practice with the same material before they master it. Good Montessori teachers allow them the time and space to do so. Montessori teachers don’t step in and correct. It is more powerful for the child to correct himself, than be told he has made a mistake or given the answer.

Traditional settings often require children to sit at a table or desk for extended periods of time listening to a teacher at the front of the room. Montessori materials are hands-on and require movement. The Red Rods and Pink Tower, for example, develop the child’s senses. Children arrange the pieces from largest to smallest or longest to shortest, developing their sense of order, refining their movements, and honing concentration. The child uses their brain and body in harmony, directing their energy in a purposeful way to fully absorb the concept The materials also force the child to cross the midline, engaging both sides of their brain.