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.

Mother Knows Best: The Power of Positive Thinking

Growing up, there was little more frustrating to me than my mother’s insistence on proposing solutions or a silver lining to problems immediately after I presented them. More than one fight stemmed from my inability to accept her attempts to help and put a positive spin on things before I had satiated my need to whine. It took me a very long time to recognize this, much less to communicate it with her, but the knowledge has eased our communication ten-fold in these situations.

Naturally, none of these revelations happened before I had unknowingly internalized these skills myself.

Last week, my partner and I took a vacation and I realized that there was more to my mom’s approach than a simple tendency toward optimism, and that something is more valuable than I realized growing up. More than anything, I think it boils down to self-efficacy, positive thinking, and a tolerance for problems outside of your locus of control. Let me illustrate.

Our vacation consisted of a 2-night cruise to the Bahamas with an island stay wedged in between. Being our first cruise, we had little to compare it to, but we found ourselves in a fair number of long lines. Some to get off or on the boat, check in to various rooms, pass immigration and customs, etc. In these lines, and just about everywhere we went that involved other cruise passengers, we heard a lot of complaining.

This line is ridiculous.
They never told me I would have to pay for alcohol.
The food is disgusting.
I will never book with these people again.
Why isn’t there air conditioning?
Don’t these people know how to run a business?

In all fairness, the systems the cruise line used could have been better; no doubt, several of the whining passengers could have made improvements themselves, if given the opportunity. It’s also possible that these complainers were truly miserable and felt their vacation had been ruined beyond repair. But, in reality, their complaints did absolutely nothing to solve any of their problems. In fact, if anything, I would wager more than a penny slot that it negatively impacted their trip.

What they definitely did do was annoy the living daylights out of me and my partner. What we saw while we stood in line were people working hard to manage challenging situations and make good experiences for us. We saw a developing nation doing all they could to accommodate American lifestyles. We recognized which pieces of the experience we could control (namely our attitude) and which we couldn’t (the length of lines, the people around us, food, etc.). And ultimately, we had a really lovely trip that we will look back on with good feelings for years.

Now, we did acknowledge an interesting phenomena – it was much easier for us to see the positives of a situation because everyone around us was so profoundly negative. They served as counter examples for us, helping us work even harder to keep a good attitude and enjoy our trip so that we would be nothing like them. So perhaps we should really be thanking them; though more than anything I feel bad that they had such a miserable time.

We want our kids to have self-efficacy, to feel like they have control over their own lives and the ability to solve their problems. But we also want them to be able to cope effectively when their self-efficacy isn’t involved, understanding that some situations are beyond their control. If we can’t model that even at our most relaxed (i.e. on vacation), how can we ever expect them to do the same throughout their lives?

And really, if you can’t find the good when faced with a view like this, when will you?