You Can Enjoy Hard Things

I began my research by asking my son, “What inspires you to keep working, even when the work is difficult?” His quick reply was, “I keep working by choosing the most challenging thing I’ve had a lesson on. Then it’s interesting to figure out.” I pressed, “But what if you encounter a problem you cannot solve or have trouble finding a solution even with a lot of effort?” He answered, “Then I find a friend and ask them for advice or see if they have a good idea.”

When we believe we can do hard things and have faith in our abilities and the support around us, when we know we can handle failure, then fear and insecurity are kept in check. An amazing thing happens: We relish taking on new challenges.  

Why does this feel so good? The answer lies in the components of intrinsic motivation:  choice, challenge, curiosity, and collaboration. Choice is key, so that the goal is personally meaningful and we feel a sense of autonomy in pursuing the task. We are motivated by challenge when attaining the goal is possible but not necessarily certain—which presents the challenge—and we are able to register feedback about our progress. Curiosity breeds motivation when something grabs the individual’s attention and stimulates the person to want to learn more. Collaboration motivates us with its inherent satisfaction of helping others or contributing to a team.  When these elements are in play, we feel a sense of motivation to take on the challenge, and the work becomes an interesting journey rather than a chore.  

We can all relate to the joy we feel when we master a new task.  The joy is often directly related to the amount of effort required to gain the new skill. Children are uniquely driven to seek out challenge.  Whether it’s a one-year-old who wants to repeatedly climb a staircase or an older child interested in creatively exploring the largest math problem they can imagine, human curiosity leads toward challenge.  In the classrooms, the Guide and the environment are geared toward presenting and managing new challenges.  It may be that a child needs help breaking down the large math problem into a series of manageable steps.  At home, a parent may help a child understand how to approach a general task such as cleaning one’s room, which really involves many small steps, by similarly dividing the larger job into smaller steps, “Let’s start by picking up all the books.”  It takes time, but at the end of each challenge there is the reward of “I did this. I made this happen.”  

Unnecessary rewards undermine our attraction to challenging tasks and carry hidden costs. They do work, in the short term. However, unless we are prepared to follow our children through life offering incentives, then we are really working against supporting the development of the adult we hope they will become. It also sends the message that the child, on his or her own, is not able or willing to take on the challenge. In place of rewards, we can embrace collaboration with our children. Instead of “When you memorize your math facts, we will get pizza,” we can be more direct and more respectful, “The math facts need to be memorized, how shall we work together to make this happen over the next two weeks?” and stay firm in setting the goal while offering some choice about how to get there. At the end of the work, there can be space for reflection and celebration of a job well done. That proud moment when we know ‘I did this hard thing’ feeds the appetite and confidence for the next moment of challenge.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

You Can Do Hard Things

Do you think your child believes she can do hard things?

In a recent interview for Sun Magazine, author Barbara Kingsolver responds about nurturing perseverance in her children.

Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks. It’s as simple as that. The Montessori teachers told me to put my two-year-old on a stool and give her the bread, give her the peanut butter, give her the knife — a blunt knife — and let her make that sandwich and get peanut butter all over the place, because when she’s done, she’ll feel like a million bucks. I thought that was brilliant. Raising children became mostly a matter of enabling them and standing back and watching. When a task was difficult, that’s when I would tell them, “You can do hard things.” Both of them have told me they still say to themselves, “I can do hard things.” It helps them feel good about who they are, not just after they’ve finished, but while they’re engaged in the process.

Do you think your child wants to do hard things?

The perseverance practiced early with concrete life tasks, later takes the form of tackling the complicated math equation, mastering that difficult list of spelling words, and getting the research project done by the due date. But hand-in-glove with the feeling that you can do hard things is the desire to do hard things. Dr. Montessori and other human development experts after her have observed that it is a natural human tendency to want to reach greater heights of independence and capability. It is a drive we see in infants as they work to grasp, stand, eat and in adolescents as they debate their opinion, refine a sport or art, earn money. When we see a child who is disinterested in becoming more independent and capable, who doesn’t try, it’s an aberration. It’s a disorder that could be biological, psychological, or developed from an inadequate environment —but it is not innate to a healthy person.

To get in closer touch with the roots of perseverance, set your child aside for a moment and ask yourself, Do I believe I can do hard things? Do I want to do hard things?

We know that talent or IQ is not a good predictor of school and work success. The current buzz word for what makes a person successful is “grit.” Grit is the tendency to sustain interest and effort toward very long-term goals. If you are intrigued, I suggest you watch Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on the topic. Though contemporary scientists don’t yet have a description of how to nurture grit, they do say that having a growth mindset is a key part of grit. “In a growth mindset,” says Carol Dweck, author of Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

Dr. Montessori would have us begin by preparing the environment to have the tools we need and any physical barriers removed. We’d be able to go at our own pace, and have some good role models of the skills we want to master. We’d have some freedom to choose what we get to do, but there would be limits that would help us to not get overwhelmed. The things that distract us from our more important goals would be taken away, to help us focus and concentrate. There would be others around to work with if we like, to meet our social needs. We would not be afraid of mistakes, and everyone we work with would be at ease with trial and error along the way to mastery. Montessori observed that when children spent their time in this type of environment, particularly beginning in those formative preschool years, they were strong on perseverance.

I won’t be surprised when the next few years of research draw scientists to conclusions that are similar to Dr. Montessori’s. “You can do hard things” is a strong impression that children absorb in Montessori education.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

“There Are No Mistakes, Just Happy Accidents”

I recently was with a friend, wandering in a gift shop perusing a wall with “inspirational” art and one jumped off the wall at me—

“There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” -Bob Ross

So much of what we try to do at Childpeace is premised in that thinking. We have created a physical space that encourages connection from child to child and class to class and allows for the unexpected to happen every day. One of our elementary student teachers commented to me yesterday that in our environment the children are “seen and heard” and definitely not hidden. He commented on the freedom they have to cook in the kitchen, volley a ping pong ball, or play some tunes on the piano.

He suggested that many Montessori schools have children tucked away in classrooms along corridors and they never mingle. He marveled at our Children’s House area, where over one hundred children “feel” connected because of open space. We are very “orderly” and we have procedures in place in each class that are known and passed to new children each year, to be safe from institutional chaos. But in the spirit of Montessori practice, we hope for the unexpected because it means something creative is happening. Whether it is with academic work, social relations or parent communications your children and the Childpeace staff and administration are all working together each day in harmony and collaboration. We are all doing our best to enjoy our days, expand our skills, and celebrate our triumphs. We see you, as parents, taking groups on “going-out excursions” or supervising auction crafts or meeting with Cloie on a community event. We are each, in all of our imperfections, living “in community” and making each other’s lives complete.

Stefon Harris, a jazz musician, discussed the elements of jazz in a recent TedTalk. He said that in jazz there are no mistakes—there are no wrong notes or missed beats. You react to what others are doing with a response and that response breeds another. If you start to push your ideas or try to be the leader in jazz and “bully” the experience, it will be chaotic. In proper form, jazz is a purifying experience because you always work in relation to the other musicians and you are always in the moment.

And that is how we all are as parents too. We try to be in the moment, relating to our spouses and children, not pushing too much or too little and always looking for the harmony. We sometimes try to “bully” the process and the result is chaos. We very often ascribe to ourselves mistakes in parenting and expect of ourselves the impossible. We do that as teachers and your children (our students) do it to themselves also. So for a moment I notice how wonderful it is to have a community of families and staff who always aim for the jazz cohesion. Montessori called it the joy of meaningful work and she envisioned environments that were complete and prepared so the people in them were free to explore and interact and evolve. It is truly a special gift. Your children have a place away from home where they can experiment and find a friend in error. And I hope that you, too, will remind yourself that mistakes are just happy accidents and in this moment you are indeed the best parent you could possibly be.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School

What to Do When Your Child Has Been Mistreated by a Peer

It is painful and alarming to see or picture our children being mistreated by peers, at any age — even though it is a normal part of children learning to socialize. “Mistreatment” can be physical; verbal; non-verbal (e.g. gestures, turning one’s back); relational/emotional (e.g. gossip, exclusion); cyberbullying (e.g. text threats and rumors); or sexual (e.g. inappropriate touching, using sexual terms to denigrate). Last week Sue shared about our in-service day workshop with Dr. Kathy Masarie on the topic of mistreatment. Here are some suggestions we’ve gathered about what you can do when your child tells you of an incident:

  • Listen. While listening, remember that the person sharing the information may not have the whole story, and other perspectives might help enlighten the situation.
  • Acknowledge and allow your child’s feelings. They may range from distraught, to fearful, to calm to laughing it off, to shame. A child’s #1 need is to share his experience with someone and feel emotionally supported, even if there’s nothing else the listener can do beyond offering empathy.
  • Focus on whether the behavior was mildly or wildly unacceptable. Even if it didn’t bother your child, seriously unacceptable behaviors need to be reported to the school staff and to the child’s parents. This is a critical part of helping reduce further incidents. If your child does not want you to share (which can be typical for adolescents), you can at least let the staff know, without naming names, to keep an eye on something.
  • Assess the extent to which this has impacted your child emotionally, in the same way you would assess a physical ailment. Does this need a band-aid, or a specialist? Perhaps this bothered your child a lot, but was not actually a wild event. Watch your child and ask questions.
  • Ask questions that focus on the “what”, the concrete: Then what happened? What happened before that? How did you feel? How did you respond? Avoid the “why”s: Why did he do that? Why did the teacher do that? It’s more important to have consistent expectations and interventions than it is to understand the intention behind the action.
  • Remember there is no “bad” child, only children who have made a mistake with their behavior. We do well to not label children as “bully” or “bad”, nor to discourage our children to play with, talk to, work with the child that mistreated others.  Excluding a peer, from a child’s perspective, is the most painful form of relational aggression —so we’d best not model nor encourage exclusion.
  • You may come to understand that your child would have served himself better by taking a different action before or during the incident. Maybe you can see how he became the target too easily, or how his behavior was annoying to the other child. Tuck that in mind to deal with at a neutral time. Sharing it now might give your child the misperception that it’s his fault he was mistreated. There is never a justification for mistreatment.
  • Stay calm and avoid over-reacting. The long-term goal is to teach our children how to treat others with fairness and respect. Storming the school or the other parents to angrily vent only works against us in the long run.
  • Brainstorm ways to help your child connect with peers and adults, in and out of the environment where the mistreatment occurred. A child who feels secure and like they belong is more able to be unphased by mistreatment.

If you want to learn more about  what we all can do to support today’s children to be empathic, resilient, caring, connected, and healthy in their relationships with others, please attend Dr. Kathy Masarie’s presentation to parents next Thursday, January 23rd , 5:00 - 6:30 p.m. here at Childpeace.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Face to Face

As parents we expect and handle our toddlers hitting or throwing things and we cope with our 4-year-old experimenting with bad language. But when we see our maturing child start to be socially hurtful, our life changes. The feeling of failure that enshrouds us when our child tells another child they can’t be a part of a game or come to their birthday party brings about the most complicated of parenting challenges. Taking the words of Steven Pinker we remind ourselves that “personality and socialization aren’t the same thing”.

I often describe Montessori education as the development of the individual child/student within the social setting of the classroom. The Montessori child is nurtured and guided always within the social context. The environment at each level is based upon the specific age-appropriate needs, but the social environment is the backdrop. Our aim is to prepare the child for the world in which they will live, both outside of our classes and in their lives. For that reason, Montessori professionals think of the social development of the child as essential to the cognitive and emotional development of the child.  The child who is disconnected from their peers will struggle with collaborative projects and will find difficulty in getting their needs met at school. On the contrary, the child who has developed social skills through grace and courtesy lessons, group projects, class meetings, and intentional conflict resolution will be more likely to develop the skills of empathy, collaboration and self-knowledge. This is important work for us as professionals as we guide our students to be the best version of themselves as they grow up and tackle new challenges.

During our In-Service Day, our entire elementary and MMM staff took part in a workshop presented by Kathy Maserie. Kathy is a pediatrician who left her medical practice eight years ago to found a non-profit organization, Full Esteem Ahead, where she serves as Program Director and where she specializes in the social lives of kids. Kathy’s newest book collaboration is Face to Face, Cultivating Kid’s Social Lives in Today’s Digital World.

During our time with Kathy we focused on empathy and how it develops for a child, expression of emotions and how that may differ for boys and girls, peer mistreatment and how to recognize and respond to it and the ingredients of healthy relationships (self-esteem, mutual respect, trust, open communication, taking personal responsibility, and non-controlling behavior). Kathy emphasized the movement away from the use of “bullying” as a label for peer mistreatment and guided us to an understanding of the difference between accidental and intentional harm. We discussed the need to remove shame from our children’s lives and replace it with a healthy attitude about responsibility.  We spent time considering how the adult supports the child on their social journey—from the earliest years and in the simplest ways—both in the home and in the school. We are preparing them for successful social lives from the first months of life.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School

The Prepared Environment After School, Part 2

Following up on last week’s description of our aftercare programs we also wanted to offer a discussion of after school hours and the many offerings available to families and children outside of school.  At some point, many families will begin to explore extracurricular afterschool activities for their child.  Which activities, how many and how much becomes the central balancing act.  The desired outcome of extra activities is to introduce a child to options that may spark new interest and knowledge or to develop current interests or perhaps to connect with a new social group.  

Childpeace does offer a limited number of extra options for our students each year.  This is in keeping with our desire to support working families who cannot transport their child to an outside activity during the afternoon while also keeping with our philosophy of creating some unscheduled downtime and a more flexible programming approach in our afternoons.  

It is tempting to fill a child’s week with extra classes and sports but of course there is the potential outcome of an overtired child desperately in need of some unstructured time.  The work is to closely observe your own child and family dynamics for signs of over-scheduling.  One sign is that most of your free time involves packing a bag and running to or from an activity. Another sign is an unhealthy stress and argument between parent and child about the activities; yet another red flag is lack of time for individual connection.  I say this as someone who has strayed into these waters and had to find my way back to shore.  Extra activities are best when there is true interest on the child’s side because this interest will be central to the child’s meaningful participation.  Our observation skills can notice if a child is happy and excited before and after an activity or dragging her feet and ‘forgetting’ equipment.  Consider quality over quantity as well.  If a piano lesson 1x/week is enjoyable for the child this doesn’t necessarily mean that adding a musical theatre class is better.  In fact, it could backfire with the child’s response becoming that they no longer want to practice piano in addition to the second class.  With time, that same child may grow to love making music enough that they are ready to consider other avenues for this expression.

Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Pressured Child,” explains that “As a general principle, there is a line between a highly enriched, interesting, growth-promoting childhood and an overscheduled childhood,” he said. “And nobody knows where that line is.” The real problem, he said, lies with parents, especially highly successful ones who have a high degree of control over their own lives and who try to take similar control over their children’s lives. This leads them to make choices about after-school activities out of anxiety instead of interest in their child’s well-being.  Especially with elementary and middle-school children, he said, parents should be less fearful that their kids aren’t getting ahead and more worried about their overall quality of life.  “Is the child getting enough sleep?” and other essential questions need to be a part of the equation.  Our role as parents is to observe our children and present options, but then respect the child’s desire to participate or not.  While some encouragement is helpful and we do want children to understand the value of committing to a team or learning a skill set, if the resistance is long term then it needs to be respected.

We must also protect our family unstructured time so that we have those wonderful Saturdays of spontaneous cookie making, conversation, walks, game playing, house projects or just being alone.  I know I’ve found that I have to intentionally ‘schedule’ or protect blocks of weekend time for this type of relaxed space or else some other enticing option will fill it.  Family life can become so busy that it can actually be disorienting to not to be on the way to or preparing to be somewhere for several hours. We actually have to work to move into a more present space as a family which means, when possible, also putting away the phones and persistent email/text checks that can undermine the sense of prioritizing the present moment.  However, the results are well worth it.  The well-researched benefits of spending time together without an agenda communicates that most basic and wonderful of all messages, a message that is the psychological backbone for future resilience:  I love just being with you exactly as you are. How great is that!

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

After School Hours: The Prepared Environment after 3:00 pm

Childpeace has always been an urban school serving a large number of working families.  For many of our students, their day does not end at 3:00 but extends into the afternoon.  Since the beginning, we have aimed to truly support these students and their families by constructing an aftercare program rooted in developmental principles.  

Dr. Montessori’s advice to follow the child holds as true in the afternoon hours as it does during the school day.  Children in our aftercare programs have the opportunity for self-direction and choice. Across the levels, we observe that children need time to decompress and process their school day as well as engage; how this happens takes different forms and changes day to day.  One child may wish to read quietly while another unwinds through physical activity or socializing.  To this end, we strive to offer an aftercare program that presents options from which the child can choose.  As modern life becomes busier, we find that it is important to hold some unstructured time for the child and not overly script their afternoons.  After all, they have been hard at work for the past six hours.  While I know and admire adults who finish their work day and move right into other evening activities, most of us can easily empathize with a desire to unwind a bit rather than launch into another demanding endeavor.

There are some differences among the levels.  In the Toddler Community and Children’s House, these younger students enjoy an aftercare space that closely resembles their classroom environment with a different array of activities.  The physical layout of these spaces allows children to choose work from the classrooms if they wish.  There is always a time for physical activity on the playground or playroom. We hire trained Montessori Guides to lead these groups so that there is synchronicity in our approach and work with the children.  The activities in the spaces often include cooking, music and artwork among the many activities from which they can choose.

The main desire of elementary-aged children is a wish to be together in a social way and so you will see these students engaging in an impromptu soccer game, playing board and card games, drawing and making art together, even silent reading often happens in pairs! Relaxing with their friends is the driving need.  We hire staff with a diverse range of talents to offer different options in the afternoon.  In addition to the options readily available on the shelves, we offer art activities and cooking projects and a wide range of different projects and efforts throughout the year. Again, we always offer time for physical activity for these bigger kids.  

The middle school students are at a developmental place where they benefit from quiet time at home, time devoted to building specialized skills in their interest areas (sports, arts, crafts), and time to group with peers around purposeful endeavor. For after school hours, MMM’s focus is to offer activities that support the skill-building and purposeful time with peers. As the middle school group size grows, we are getting to where there are enough students available the same day of the week who share the same interests to get the activities off the ground.  For example, there is a photography group that meets once a week at a photo lab, a forensics group will begin after winter break, as well as other offerings in the works.  

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School