The Varied Beauty of Being Human

By Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program DirectorChildpeace Montessori School

Body image is a loaded topic, isn’t it? As adults, most of us carry some baggage of inferiority and discomfort from our life experiences, messages we’ve received about what’s right, beautiful and normal that are different from what we see in the mirror. We aim to raise our children to be free of this. Like so many social things, eventually it’s not something that parents and educators can control for their children. The larger society forces its culture on children for better and for worse. You have probably chosen Childpeace, in small or large part, because there’s some assurance that your child will be nurtured to feel positively about their unique body and unique abilities, and accepting of others different from them while at school. Influences from other hours in the day are also a factor: media on screens and out the car window and in stores, characters in books, even the news hour all weave their impressions of body image into the developing brains of our children.
Last week’s screening of Miss Representation was a powerful look at the negative effects of advertising and narrow media coverage of women. It shared a convincing message that girls’ body images invariably end up victims of media. There is a huge lack of varied role models, and so the stereotypes (and attendant negative self-images of females) continue into the next generation. (This Friday we’ll be screening The Mask We Live In, addressing similar issues for males). There is the driving profit-motive of media that has lead to a hyper-manipulation of what we (and our children) are exposed to -- an “anything that gets attention” attitude. The film called for actions such as calling out offensive media, challenging stereotypes, educating society about misrepresentation and supporting more reasonable portrayals of females. This is not enough when you are raising the next generation.
We can talk directly with our children about how the media equates thinness with everything positive. Currently in our society, if your child carries average to heavier weight she’ll have more challenges with body image. This link offers some good suggestions to nurture a healthy attitude for that body type. (A few tips in the article are to focus on fitness; be a good role model; reject deprivation; and rethink your views). We can educate them about how photoshop techniques are used to manipulate images. Having a conscious awareness that so many aspects of “photos” we see are fabrications, not reality, is a helpful tool for interpreting those images.
We can refrain from making comments about other people’s bodies; persistently hearing such comments teaches kids that it’s important to judge people’s looks. Children who have a slimmer build (in line with the “perfect” image) also suffer from comments, because they are put in positions of having to defend themselves from being objectified. Wouldn’t we rather have them internalize that being attractive to others is a combination of kindness, helpfulness, good humor and stimulating conversation? 
Most importantly, we can model acceptance of and gratitude for our own bodies; our own body image is something that our children encounter every day in subtle ways. Beauty is a good thing in the world, and it is as varied as the number of humans on the planet.  It’s surprising how hard it can be to actually live out this truth, and yet how integral it is for our children.

Embracing Vulnerability

By Dawn Cowan, Elementary Program Director
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” – Brené Brown
I thought of Dr. Brené Brown and her work with vulnerability in human relationships, last month, as I read Sue’s Montessori Message about the connection between autonomy and finding one’s passion. When we feel able to show our most vulnerable selves to one another and still feel love and acceptance, it is more support for gathering the personal courage to reach out and give that extra effort. When autonomy comes from a place of self-love and belonging, it has deep roots. As parents, we witness this spiritual connection unfold, as our children become older and less physically needy of our attention and begin moving autonomously in the world and in their choices of how they relate to those around them. When the bond is built in “trust, respect, kindness and affection”, we get to enjoy these young adults immensely. As Montessori Guides, our first work with children when they are new in the environment is to build a relationship with our newest community members and help the children work toward these principles in their relationships with one another.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” - Brené Brown
Montessori wrote and spoke about the need for friendliness with error and advised adults to “follow the child.” The aim is to support each child’s unique gifts and educational journey and remove the obstacles of expectation and shame.
As Montessori Guides, we are trained, both in the lessons and curriculum, but also to give deep consideration to our interactions and methods. Some common reflections might be: When we speak with the children, do they feel seen and known, even if the way we are helping is by setting a boundary? Are we helping the children to speak with one another respectfully and work through their conflicts by communicating their authentic needs? Are we trying different approaches to help a child gain understanding of a concept? Are we creating that space for healthy striving by challenging the children in appropriate ways?
And then, most importantly, when error occurs, is it handled with grace, and do we model how to move through these moments? The error may be a child’s personal frustration when an art project didn’t turn out as planned, or a group discovering their math process didn’t lead to the correct answer. In the home, it may be when a child offers help and then over pours the beverage. In these moments, we endeavor to celebrate the experience, understand the error and offer encouragement to try again. Both parents and teachers support children by offering a real view of their own imperfections and vulnerabilities. True stories about our struggles, disappointments, and making our way through a difficulty are of intense interest to the children. Recently, my son shared with me that I often put away a cooking utensil in the wrong spot (you can infer who does most of the cooking in my household). His response, “It’s okay, Mom, I know you try, so I just move it over when I see it there.” I found this small moment of acceptance and support moving and hope he offers himself the same grace.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” –Brené Brown
Occasionally, we are asked if Montessori education is failing to prepare students for the “real world” by striving for unrealistic idealism. Most parents in our community, especially those who have spent some number of years in our programs, find that rather than shielding the children and young adults from the real world, we actually invite them directly into it. They are encouraged to make their own contributions and practice navigating their own time, work, interests, and problem solving, true real world skills. 
Recently, a parent of a MMM alumni shared that the principal had stopped by her house in the second week of his freshman year to tell her son he was “student of the week.” What led to this? The positivity, courtesy and spirit he brought to his large public high school was uniquely noticeable. When a child is unafraid to share they do not understand a math lesson and need help or shines with great joy after a moment of completed work or community connection, we see how the gift of mutual vulnerability actually leads to greater personal development. When we talk with our alumni, the overwhelmingly consistent feedback is our students take both academic readiness and an attitude of genuine enthusiasm and community mindedness into their high schools. They are still open to the world, buoyed by the confidence that comes from self-acceptance, self-love, and the willingness to extend those qualities to those around them.

Kindling the Fires of Passion

By Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Like all Montessori programs, following the child is the foundational method of our work.  We “offer the world”, present choice of activity and encourage exploration.  We set the groundwork to ignite a child’s interest and offer a prepared environment where they can pursue it.
But it is not a given that every child will find their “passion” at an early age because true passion develops on its own schedule and it just may happen long after childhood.  If there is any place in our lives as parents and educators that we just have to be patient, it is in the evolution of our children’s passions.  They are without a time clock or map and they cannot be rushed.
We live in a world where much is expected of our children.  We praise childhood exploits that break age boundaries—in sports, music, philanthropy and art.  Of course it is wonderful to hear of a 9 year old who has started a successful charity or of a 14 year old who has circumnavigated the globe by air, but we should not assume that younger is better. Not always.
What is passion? By definition it is when you put more energy (or uncontrolled emotion) into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement. Passion is ambition that is put into action without reserve.
Passion, in these terms, is not simply a fleeting interest or even a childhood talent.  "Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person," said Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. "You can't force that fit; it has to be found."  Mageau and colleagues completed a broad study on the development of passion in children.  The study focused on what psychologists call autonomy, the basic need to feel like you're acting based on your own values and desires, not those of others. For the individual it means: "I have a say in what happens and can voice my opinions regarding my activity."  To connect passion to autonomy, Mageau and colleagues performed three studies in which they surveyed hundreds of athletes and musicians ages 6 to 38 with different skill levels.
In one study, the researchers followed 196 middle-school students as they picked up a musical instrument for the first time. After five months, the psychologists found that one major variable that predicted whether children developed a passion for music was if their parents allowed them the freedom to practice on their own schedule.  The passionate kids on average scored 9 percent greater on the autonomy scale than the non-passionate kids, which is a big effect in a psychology study, Mageau said.
Passion is one area of our children’s lives that we probably cannot create or control.  But, adult role models can foster the development of passion:
  • Curiosity killed the cat, but makes the child.  The world is a mysterious place, full of puzzles and challenges to be figured out.  We can create the time and space for children to explore their world and to ask the questions that will help them figure it out.  A curious mind will find its passion.
  • Acknowledge what does not interest them.  This helps the child recognize that they are unique in their style and interests.  In this way the child begins to identify with the things that do “give them a buzz."
  • Recognize that real passions are aligned with a sense of autonomy and adolescence is a time when autonomy is a strong developmental need.
  • Don’t jump into every new activity that your child expresses interest in.  It may be fleeting.
  • Don’t pressure your child.  Kids think differently than we do and we can quickly squash their interest or enthusiasm. Use reflective listening to help them discuss their experiences.
  • Give encouragement—but gently.
  • Some passions evolve from an impactful experience.  This can be with another person, activity, or even story.  Observe your child and watch for those moments that create a sparkle in their eye.
The most important thing is to know your child and their personality. Some children do not express their emotions freely or show enthusiasm effusively.  That is probably the way they approach most things in their life.  If you have ever experienced having a litter of puppies, you understand that “every one comes out different”.  Be patient.  Parental effort is not the key to the explosion of a child’s passion, but when the moment comes that your child, young adult, or adult-child intersects with that thing they “want to put more energy into than is required”, you will look back on all you did to make that possible.

Inside the Hive

Sometimes activities happen around Childpeace without much notice, as we always attempt to offer our children experiences that will become lifelong tools. Our School Psychologist, Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, spends most of her time working with individual students, however conversations with our staff last year evolved into the idea of a group activity for the older children in Lower Elementary. What came from that are coping skills groups that have been meeting over the school year. Once you read Elizabeth's description of these groups, you will probably ask if your child (or YOU) can join! But the groups are organized by the LE Guides and Dr. Schwarz, and are not planned with the expectation or desire to have every child join a circle during Lower Elementary. The work of the groups, in fact, carries over into the classrooms as the participants share their new skills.

From Dr. Schwarz
Over the past year, we have begun to offer a coping skills group to many of the children in Lower Elementary. We have had three groups so far and have received positive feedback from parents and students about what the students have learned. The focus of the group is on increasing awareness of feelings and on building coping skills. Increasing awareness of feelings includes understanding why we have feelings, understanding the parts of the brain that are involved in feelings, and practicing identifying feelings. Some of the general areas of coping skills include relaxation techniques, different ways of expressing feelings, and also ways to counteract negative thinking. The ideas and skills taught come primarily from Cognitive-Behavioral therapy and from Interpersonal Neurobiology.

The group tends to be fun and lighthearted and includes games, art projects, and books. We start each week with a “feelings check in” when each child shares a few feelings that they are having that particular day. This normalizes the fact that we all have feelings, helps them name and express their feelings, and also normalizes the fact that we can have more than one feeling at the same time. Children also learn to rate the intensity of their feelings. Each week a new coping skill is taught, and at the final group, the children decorate a card to take home on which they write their favorite coping skills.

While naming feelings and breathing deeply may be second nature to some of us adults, other people don’t learn these skills until high school, college, or beyond. Having a good understanding of our feelings, how they work, and how we can affect them, sets the stage for healthy emotional functioning for a lifetime.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, School Psychologist
Childpeace Montessori School

Small Steps Toward Adulthood

"Success in life depends in every case on self confidence and the knowledge of one's own capacity and many-sided powers of adaptation." - Dr. Maria Montessori
Every spring at Childpeace, classrooms at different levels prepare for overnight trips away from the hive and into the world. Why do we do these trips? At all levels, these trips allow students to experience complete independence from family life for a couple of days. At the adolescent level, this five-day spring trip also allows us a time to revisit our community away from our everyday routines and work and to renew our goals and commitments to our community. It is a continuation of the work we began during our ten-day Odyssey trip and have sustained throughout the year, refining daily.

While our spring trips generally have a science focus, they tend to encompass so much more. Students have the opportunity to apply their learning from the year into an authentic field study where they must develop a line of inquiry, create an investigation, and come to conclusions on their work during the week. It’s a chance to leave our urban hive and apply our learning in a natural environment. This year one of our groups sailed and learned to navigate the San Juans while testing water quality and the other group worked in a coastal forest to apply systems-thinking around ecological studies in Canada’s Sunshine Coast. Students in each group were responsible for directing their learning.

In addition to our academic work during the spring trip, leaving home for the week creates a different and very personal kind of work for each student. Some are hesitant to leave home behind, while others are excited and look forward to the challenges ahead. It’s safe to say that there are some truly unexpected lessons that come for each as a result of the trip. Going away from home offers each adolescent the time to invent him or herself anew and try out caring for self and for others from a place of independence.

These small steps toward adulthood infuse each one with a measure of confidence that can only come from carrying real responsibility. Students must work collaboratively to feed the entire group, navigate to port safely and make sure that camp is properly set up should a rain storm arrive. There’s a shared sense of necessity for each team member to pull their own weight so that each day ends successfully. They are stretched and have to expand their capacity in many ways (socially, academically, personally) and they come away with a new confidence at having held up their end of the bargain to the best of their ability. All of these aspects of the trip fuel our community and help us to forge an even stronger bond and commitment to the kind of community Dr. Montessori envisioned for adolescents, one in which each member is valued for her/his personality, contributions and interests as they become adults.

“The consciousness of knowing how to make oneself useful, how to help mankind in many ways, fills the soul with noble confidence." - Dr. Maria Montessori
Nancy Coronado, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Work and Play and Purpose

I had the opportunity to visit a well-regarded preschool last month that is not of the Montessori variety. It was fascinating to sit on the floor amongst the moving children and settle in to observing. I had no particular expectations, and I began to run through my mental list of the characteristics of a positive environment for young children.

Was the environment aesthetically beautiful and rich with sensory explorations? Yes.

Were the group of children and staff generally peaceful and kind toward each other? Yes.

Were the adults attentive, seeming to enjoy themselves, and skilled in choosing when and how to engage with the children? Yes.

Did the children have lots of opportunity for free choice, self direction, independence? Yes.

Were children supported to use their words and problem solve to resolve conflict? Yes.

Did children put things away when they were done? Was there a place where each thing belonged, a sense of comfortable organization to the room? Yes.

Did the children seem engaged? Happy? Interested? Yes!

So what was different from Childpeace Montessori? Certainly there was a different sense of “curriculum,” of what was offered to the children to do and to think about. I couldn’t see choices available that emphasized skills and ideas about the practical needs of life, spoken and written language, math, geography, or music. Some concepts in these areas were referenced on wall posters, but not in the children’s hands or on the shelves. The activities available were all related to self expression, creativity, and movement. Nothing more.

Beyond the variety of activities offered, I slowly realized the more profound difference: a sense of purpose. At Childpeace, children are greeted with the pervasive sense that what they do matters. It’s most obvious in the variety of activities they can choose from that directly impact their community, from making food to washing dishes to polishing shoes. There are other activities that help a child clearly gain a skill, such as matching words with objects, or matching pitches. The child gets the lesson when (hopefully) the task is just a little bit too difficult to do. The child is encouraged to practice toward their sense of mastery, and the resulting sense is one of working to reach a clear goal, a clear purpose. This “work” of the children affords them dignity and competency and purpose. Even when our children choose activities of self expression, creativity, and movement, they are guided to be aware of others around them, to share their creations, and to finish up the activity by leaving the tools ready for others in their community. There is that thread of becoming aware that what you do has an impact. They internalize that what they work on makes a difference in the world -- for themselves, and for others.

The sense of purpose and love of work that we wish every teenager had, that we wish for every adult, has its roots in these early years of life. Dr. Steven Hughes, pediatric neuropsychologist, describes how “Montessori’s brain-based approach to education provides an unparalleled foundation for the development of academic, social, and executive functions critical for advanced problem solving and lifetime success.” In short form, Montessori kids are “good at doing things," he says. Childpeace is not only a positive environment for children, it offers them an unshakable sense of purpose.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Building a Foundation of Trust

“What do you think?”
“I’m sure you will do the right thing.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“How might that work?”

Building statements like the above into our repertoire is one small way that parents and teachers build partnership with children. Whether it’s rearranging the garage, working through an argument with a sibling, or figuring out when the best time of day to practice piano, the habit of soliciting children’s thoughts and ideas communicates our respect for their perspective and our trust that they are able to find creative solutions.

It can require patience, suspension of judgment, and a spirit of exploration. Often we have to stop ourselves from jumping in and offering solutions or direction. However, the doors that open can be remarkable and rewarding. Last weekend at a potluck, my daughter asked if she could have a cookie. My response was, “I think you know what my concerns might be and I trust you make a good decision.” To which she replied, “I should make sure to eat some real food first and then not have too many sweets, right?” Of course, this is a point of arrival after many family conversations about nutrition but now we can both move on; me from monitoring her choices at such gatherings and she from feeling the need to run these small decisions by me. Our trust in one another means we both have a little more freedom to enjoy the event. Had I just launched into a directive or negotiation, we would have lost this moment.

When two students argued about use of a certain material, one of my standard responses was to set it aside and send them off to create a plan with which they could both agree. During our Upper Elementary parent orientations, one piece of advice for parents of 9-12 year old children is when they bring a complaint or concern home, the parents best first question is “What did Greg/Stephanie say when you discussed it with them?” While we don’t leave the children adrift, the message comes through clearly: You have good ideas. You have the power to solve your problems. We trust you.

Trust, in this context, is the fundamental belief that we all desire to bring our best selves to each moment. This is not the same as the expectations of perfection which often lead to feelings of disappointment, mistrust and that great demoralizer, comparison. When trust is present, we see the great good in one another and all that is possible rather than looking for what is missing. The child’s idea of how to clean up spilled water may not be our idea of efficient, but they, invested in creating the solution, will likely give their best self to the effort and will likely be willing to offer help again. I’ve often seen children’s ideas about how to resolve social issues work better than the adult suggestions!

Trust allows the children to rise to their own potential and develop skills of self-management. Equipped with lessons and guidance, their confidence builds as they begin to believe in their own powers of judgment and autonomy. Creating space for collaboration and independence: this is the joyful challenge of parents and educators with the benefit that the result is that our work together is eased when all parties feel autonomous and respected, cutting out the need for willful opposition. There are plenty of educational programs and parenting approaches that script every part of the day, from morning circle to craft time to sing-along to reading hour. In this case, standardizing the experience solves many variables. Micromanagement offers an illusion of control and peacefulness, but ultimately undermines the opportunities for spontaneous, creative problem solving. Supporting independence and self-management is a messier proposition requiring friendliness with error and, sometimes more challenging, friendliness with one another’s error but leading us toward peaceful collaboration and interdependence in the work of living and learning together.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School