The Power of Positive Thinking (Work Edition)

Montessorians approach children in a unique way. We believe in positive discipline, encouragement instead of praise, and utilizing power collaboratively instead of imposing our will upon the children we work with. Though it may sound normal, it is actually one of the most counter-intuitive pieces of learning Montessori – for most people, it requires unlearning a lifetime of socialization about how we should deal with children.

The basics of the approach look something like this:

  • Provide limits, structure, and routines
  • Give love unconditionally and avoid rewards and punishments
  • Model appropriate behavior (especially social etiquette)
  • Limit intermediate devices (like cell phones) when interacting with children*
  • Minimize time spent with poorly regulated influences (i.e. television)*
  • Offer encouragement instead of praise
  • Find ways to share power with a child instead of wielding power over the child
    (*Not applicable within the Montessori classroom)

Observing these guidelines goes a long way in creating a peaceful classroom and building student-teacher relationships and this approach is one of the things that draws me to Montessori. In short, we aim to treat children like people instead of children, a distinction that aims to respect their humanity and development and is often missed elsewhere.

In practice, this makes our classrooms incredibly positive places. There are any number of guidelines that children must follow, but any failure to do so is met with kind words and a gentle reminder. For example, if a child fails to push in their chair after leaving it, we simply say, “Oh, I think you forgot to push in your chair.” in a calm, kind voice. The most typical response is some sort of gasp and smile as the realization that they did indeed forget washes over them followed by quick replacement of the chair under the table. While we try to avoid praise (things like: good job, I am so proud of you, you are the best ________), encouragement abounds. We acknowledge hard work, focus, concentration, teamwork, and other positive behaviors with observation (i.e. our classroom looks neater now that you helped put things away).

These tactics teach children that it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail. Plus, they go a long way in showing them positive ways to deal with other people. Instead of assuming the worst of a friend who has done something wrong, the children have hours of examples of adults assuming the best to pull from. Perhaps most importantly, this approach helps children to develop internal motivation and a sense of responsibility to the community at large. By observing the impact of their action (positive or negative) instead of framing their work in relation to ourselves (i.e. “I like…”) they learn to work for their own fulfillment rather than merely to please someone else.

I have known this approach to be wonderful for children for a couple of decades, but I never considered what a difference it would make in my  day. Instead of coming home feeling drained and negative about all the little things that had gone wrong (even on generally good days), last week, I had a hard time coming up with anything negative to say at all. For the first time in a long time, I left work feeling good about myself, my work, and the students in my care multiple days in a row. I know the novelty of this work will likely wear off, but it seems almost impossible to leave feeling miserable when you’ve spent the entire day looking for the good in and assuming the best of others.

**Views expressed in this post are my own and not necessarily shared by Millhopper Montessori School.

Room for (Mis)Behavior

My year as a traditional teacher was extremely challenging. Yes, we had a particularly challenging mix of students, but more than that, I was often derailed by the need to give up so much of what I believed to be right or wrong when it came to interacting with their challenging behavior in that environment.

On my wild days of being the substitute and the only adult in the classroom, I would often try many of the behavior redirection techniques that felt more congruent with my beliefs. Nine times out of ten, I met failure. I could see my students were not prepared to handle the freedom I offered them; did not know how to make the choices I presented them with; and certainly were not ready to abandon their regular behaviors simply because I tried to approach them in a different way. But beyond the explanation of a strong reaction to unexpected freedom, it was hard for me to nail down why my attempts were not working.

The last week of my Montessori teacher training course was a class called Cultivating Cooperative Classrooms. The class explored many of the behaviors my third-graders spent all year practicing and taught us many ways to deal with them. As you might be able to guess, several were entirely contrary to what I saw day-to-day in the traditional environment. But I also saw that many of the things that I tried with my kids were along the lines of what Montessori classrooms do. So the question burned even brighter: why didn’t they work for me?

My conclusion, after 225 hours of instruction on how to be a Montessori teacher, is that it must be the environment. Montessori teachers are able to meet their students needs and challenges in humanistic ways because the environment they operate in allows them to. When a power struggle ensues, a teacher can simply walk away. When children are begging for attention, they interrupt only the teacher and one or two other students, not the whole class. When a child is lashing out or feeling inadequate, there is space for both the child and the teacher to adjust, collect themselves, and try again. The traditional classroom, dictated by a teacher’s need to churn through curriculum and a schedule chock full of places to be allows for none of these things.

Setting up the classroom in such a way eliminates a huge amount of misbehavior before it even happens, and, when it does happen, teachers are able to interact with each child and treat them like the small human that they are. They can problem solve with patience, compassion, and humanity, all of which are often  unavailable to teachers bound by a traditional environment.

Sitting Still

Try this:

Sit still for two full minutes. No phone in your hand, TV on, or other entertainment. No talking, limited fidgeting; just sitting.

How did that go?

Now, imagine doing the same thing while you have to go to the bathroom, sitting next to your best friend, after spending 30 minutes running around with them. Then add another 8 minutes on to the clock.

For many people (myself included), the two minutes alone was probably difficult. We are products of a highly connected, constantly stimulating environment, doing nothing is barely in our vocabulary. And yet, we expect our children to do this multiple times a day. Not only do they have to patiently wait their turn to go to the bathroom, but they have to follow almost all of those rules to simply exist as a “good” student in the classroom.

In fairness, I wouldn’t say that participating in a class lesson is the same as doing nothing, but the principle still applies. This morning, I watched nearly all of the 17 students in my class struggle to stay focused and engaged in a math lesson. Even our super consistent rule follower was making paper chains. Naturally, you might assume that it was a terribly boring lesson, and though it wasn’t the most exciting, the real issue was something much more common – things were moving slowly so everyone could keep up. Trouble is, not everyone who didn’t understand was engaged either.

My observations spurred by breakfast reading of Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education, I watched a class full of students completely disengage with a lesson. Worse, this did not become a problem that was addressed, because each of them had checked out quietly, meaning they weren’t capturing the attention of myself or the teacher in a way that we deemed needed addressing. We had a paper chain maker, a hair twirler, a pencil twister, a doodler, and a host of others, but, for once, they were all relatively quiet. They weren’t learning, but they were quiet, so all was well. That may be unjust, but there’s certainly a measure of reality as well. We constantly ask our students to ‘behave’ even if it’s completely impossible for them to learn while doing so.

As Trevor Eissler explains in his book:

An authoritarian system is needed in a school because without it children would naturally progress at their own pace, not at the pace indicated on the teacher’s lesson plan. In traditional schools, having children work on different things, or at different speeds, is considered chaos. Classes are designed around one teacher giving one lesson to thirty students. Everyone doing the same thing on the same page at the same time is necessary for simultaneous progress through the syllabus. This system recognizes that children may have different interests at different times than their peers….It takes these realities into account, but only to design…a method to bestow upon teachers the authority to override individual student’s preferences for learning, in order to keep pace with the mandated syllabus.

It saddens me that this is normal; that as educators, grateful for a short respite, we have let it become more important that students be quiet and “making progress” than that they actually learn something. My school is better than the one described above, with significantly greater flexibility, and support for individual children, and yet it still falls so far short of actually meeting kids where they are.

One of the things that I think is particularly valuable about Montessori in meeting this challenge is utilizing multi-age classrooms. By having students from different levels in the same classroom, a teacher immediately eliminates the very real struggle involved in a student realizing they aren’t “as good” as their peers, as well as the pressure to have every student on the same page. Instead, students are taught that everyone works at their own pace and that that’s okay. A fifth grader and a third grader could be working on something together, and that would be okay too. This approach eradicates much of the social pressure associated with school, while laying a solid foundation for a teacher to present any work he or she deems appropriate for a given student’s development.