Mindset in Montessori

If you are a person who seeks out the occasional online article, book, or radio talk about cutting-edge aspects of education or psychology, you’ve likely stumbled across Carol Dweck’s research about motivation. Her book, Mindset, explores why people succeed and how to foster success (i.e. making the most of one’s potential). This topic gets at precisely why many of us have chosen Montessori education for our children: to help them access the best of their individuality and potential, to be a positive community member and, ultimately, to be another big drop in the bucket of future world peace. So Dweck’s research is of great interest to Montessori guides and parents as we create environments to nurture this success. Dweck’s application of her findings, her “what does this mean for me," fits perfectly with practices we’ve had in Montessori classrooms for a century:
  • We offer the children tasks that are just a little beyond their current ability level, then expect them to practice, practice, practice to reach mastery.
  • We view mistakes and failed experiments as opportunities for growth. Rather than criticize our children at those moments, we focus on what is learned from the fail and move toward another attempt.
  • We don’t praise the child (you are beautiful/smart/talented), we praise the effort (you worked hard, you took great care).
  • We talk specifics with children (when you cleaned up your lunch there wasn’t a single crumb left) rather than generalities (you were awesome at clean up) and sprinkle on gratitude when appropriate (I really appreciate this clean work space).
  • We encourage children to seek out help from peers in the community, to get friendly with finding ways to tackle their challenges instead of hiding them.
  • With our older students, we share directly about growth mindset vs. fixed mindset and discuss how to nurture one’s own growth mindset.
  • We help scaffold the child’s perseverance: offering tasks with ever-increasing steps from beginning to end, and supporting the child to finish a task she’s started even when the going gets tough.
  • When a child complains about a difficult task or difficult social situation, we empathize but we don’t fix it for them. We draw out their ideas for what they could try next as they problem-solve and develop their skills.
  • We allow the children to see us in moments of difficulty and imperfection, modeling a growth mindset. "I'm trying to repair this drying rack, but so far I'm unsuccessful. I feel frustrated and disappointed so I'll take a break and then try again with a new idea. Maybe I'll ask a friend for advice."
  • We nurture a voracious appetite for learning and doing what you love rather than an external stamp of approval.
With parent-teacher conferences beginning next week, one possible topic to discuss is how your children are doing with their growth mindset. Are they self-choosing activities that stretch their abilities? Are they comfortable asking for help? Are they comfortable persevering, without asking for help, through trial and error? Are they self-satisfied with their completed work without seeking praise? If any of these things are not in place, it’s the collaborative work of the adults and the child to shift the paradigm -- by practicing responses and activities that nurture a growth mindset. It’s worth it because, as Dweck writes, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” It makes success, in the best sense of the word, a possibility.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Parenting for Independence: Fostering Self Discipline and Confidence

Excerpted from the North American Montessori Center, with edits by Nancy Coronado, MMM Program Director
"Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence."
-Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Montessori understood that in order to be free one needs to be independent. She also said that learning to be independent came before freedom. Teachers and parents that are new to Montessori sometimes misunderstand this concept and expect a child to become independent by granting her/him freedom of choice without limits. Instead, fostering independence first will lead the child toward a sense of freedom and self-esteem.

With independence comes the need for self-discipline. In the prepared environment (classroom), the Montessori child moving toward independence will experience making decisions from limited choices and will meet with success in those decisions. Parents, too, learn to create the environment for such successes by planning ways to involve their child in daily life activities and in offering limited choices. In doing so, the child is then able to learn how to make wise, well thought out decisions.

So, how does a Montessori parent go about encouraging independence in their child? Here are some helpful ideas for parents to incorporate Practical Life activities at home and foster the confidence and positive development as part of the Montessori philosophy of an “education for life."

Encourage your child to make wise choices. It is best, in the beginning, to give limited choices. For example: Would you like an apple or a banana in your lunch? Notice the question is not “Would you like fruit in your lunch?” Another example would be: Would you like to clean up the playroom before or after dinner? Your teen may be planning a movie outing with friends, so reminding them that they need to keep in mind chores and make sure that there’s a plan for those chores to get done in a timely fashion may be a good idea. Allow for them to take charge of the plan. Again, the choice is not whether or not they want to but when they would like to do so.

Experience logical (natural) consequences. Once your child makes a choice, allow them to experience the consequences (good or bad) of that choice. Of course, since you are limiting the choices, the child is in no danger of being hurt. If you ask your child to take their gym shoes to school for field day and they choose not to, the natural consequence may be that they are not able to participate fully. Your adolescent may stay up late watching a movie on a school night. Having to get up at the usual, expected time will certainly be difficult but will hopefully help her/him think twice about this kind of choice.

Be careful of praise. “Excessive, long-term praise can inhibit children from gaining independence because they rely heavily on the praise of those in authority positions.” Instead, encourage your Montessori children to make judgments of their own behavior, work, and ultimately, worth.

Include your child in family decisions. Ask for her/his ideas and input. For adolescents, this is an absolute must. Adolescents will learn from these conversations how to go about making future decisions for themselves. Any experience will be more meaningful to the child who feels they have some control over the situation, than to the child who has not engaged in planning.

There can be no freedom without self-discipline. Self-discipline must be taught, modeled, and practiced before a child reaches a mature ability to self-discipline. Without self-discipline, the child cannot be independent, and independence is the true goal of the Montessori philosophy.

Culture and Counterculture

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; “these virtues are formed in a person by doing the actions” – Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea

Respectful behavior and language is one of the goals we all, parents and teachers, desire for our children. The work of the individual in this area is often more acute at the Elementary or Adolescent stages when a larger exposure to popular culture and bank of potentially colorful language is at their disposal. Rude humor is now so mainstream that it’s almost unnoticeable and profanity so common that it’s barely profane. These older children and young adults, understandably, enjoy trying on these elements of culture and, at the same time, are tasked with making good choices for themselves and those around them. How do we help equip them with the education and experiences to filter the culture and make choices that will help them to connect with their own greatness and positive potential? We know that the first step is always to examine our own modeling, but we can also mindfully offer counter energies to the culture with mercifully simple and enjoyable ingredients. A few avenues for families to consider:

Time Outdoors: Having time to just be in the world is essential. A weekend hike, with devices tucked squarely away, gives the opportunity to step out of our routine and just notice the natural world. As we feel our smallness before nature, we are gifted with perspective on our cares. Children love to explore and climb outdoors, rain or shine, and unearth the smallest insects as well as try to move the largest logs. Children who love nature grow into adults who are mindful of our essential relationship with the earth and are capable and inclined to incorporate environmental stewardship into their future choices.

Physical Fitness: A team sport provides both exercise and also opportunity to engage interdependently with others. Even the most gifted player cannot succeed without the coordination of her team. Individual sports challenge us to the task of incremental self-improvement, even if it’s just by a few seconds. When an activity is new, there is opportunity for the whole family to step outside their comfort zone and be novices together. My daughter, who loves to jump rope, has taken our family into a world of learning about jump rope tricks and creating nightly moments of hilarity as we try to master different movements. The well-being we feel when our bodies are healthy and the larger life lessons we learn through our physical effort directly carry over to the rest of our endeavors.

Volunteering, Community Life, and Service: Giving back is essential to learning how to take other’s perspectives and needs into our own awareness. Most children in our community have all they need or more and a potential pitfall is that consumption becomes the currency of our social relating. Vacationing together is lovely, but so is helping a friend paint a room. The practical life curriculum in the classrooms and the children’s participation in the care of their home environment are the base of service. Whether bigger efforts through a community organization, or smaller efforts such as picking up litter on the street or taking a meal to a sick friend, keeping others in mind is key to the feeling of social belonging and responsibility. Time and again, those who give generously of their time report back an overall higher sense of mental well being. If empathetic action is a core value in the family, stronger are the skills of ‘response inhibition’ or self-control when it comes to choosing their own words and actions. When we understand we belong to one another, we are more thoughtful with our choices.

Music and Art: Singing, dancing, and art have been a part of all humanity for good reason. The arts provide joy, insight, beauty, challenge, and movement. Playing or singing music or dancing together feels good because we create a moment of shared connection. An art or craft such as learning to knit, for example, gifts us with the connection to others working with the material and challenges the knitter with the endless variations and intricacies of yarn and pattern as well as the reward of a finished creation.

A perhaps counterintuitive upside is that these endeavors support not only positive social behavior but intellectual functioning. Through these efforts, the tools known as executive functions (attention, inhibition, discipline, reasoning, problem solving, cognitive flexibility, working memory) that help young adults meet the lower parts of our culture with a critical eye are also the components of fluid intelligence. The child’s work is to build these skills through exploration, curiosity, creation, trial, success, and error. The adult’s work is to provide boundaries, support, guidance, and feedback. Working together with healthy doses of patience, trust, and love, we can strive through our repeated actions toward Aristotelian virtuous excellence.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

The Child-Guide Bond

When Maria Montessori's principles first were illuminated over one hundred years ago, her description of the ideal relationship between the adult and child took particular notice. Gone was the authoritative “old school” teaching of the child and in came a truly transformative way of thinking: when the child moves outside of the nuclear family and establishes relationships with other adults, the adult needs to be prepared to support the growth of that distinct individual. As Maria Montessori said in those years, “This child is like no other that comes before them and is like no other that will come after." She proposed that guiding the child to become that special being, rather than directing the child to a prescribed destiny, would result in a self-actualized human who would have the skills to face an ever-changing world.

Fast forward 120 years and you find yourself having decided that Montessori philosophy makes sense to you. And you have become the parent of a child who is now occasionally outside of your family nest and living in community at Childpeace. Your link to their world outside of your family is their Guide—that person who is trained and prepared to support them toward their future. Their guide isn’t just a teacher, even though they have mastered curriculum. S/he isn’t strictly a caregiver, though they often play that role. They may be good with their words or expressive in other ways. They may be new to the work or a seasoned mentor. But they all share this: they want to be with your child. They love to be with their students. They are skilled at knowing, in developmental terms, what behaviors and characteristics came before their students’ current ones and which will come after. They have perspective on the child’s time line and patience with the unfolding.

As Carol Dweck, noted Stanford psychiatrist and author of Mindset , puts it:
“Every word and action can send a message. It tells children, or students, or athletes—how to think about themselves. It can be a fixed mindset message that says: You have permanent traits and I’m judging them. Or it can be a growth mindset message that says: You are a developing person and I am interested in your development." Therefore, as we build the bridge of trust with parents at Childpeace, we try to be in partnership with families using a growth mindset.

My proudest memory of the work I have done all these years at Childpeace will be that of choosing the teachers who will be my colleagues. Beyond good training and character—always top priorities—what do we want in our Montessori Guides?

In the Toddler Community we want guides who are patient and caring. They need to be keen observers, love to create a beautiful environment, and available to the toddler who approaches for a hug or for help. They need to offer solid information and support to parents in the time of a toddler’s tremendous growth and change.

In Children’s House we want a Guide who is able to handle the detailed maintenance of the environment, the constant movement and activity, and the record keeping that is ever-present. The CH Guide enjoys the growing independence of each child and knows exactly when to step in to present something new or repeat something again. They know their bond with each child will look a bit different as the child’s approach to their world starts to reveal itself. Above all, they will quietly put in motion a social environment that empowers the children each day.

In Elementary the Guide, aware of the elementary child’s tremendous need for social interaction, has the special blend of “great inspiring presence” and master planner. S/he gives enticing lessons, expanding the resources for access to knowledge about everything, while tracking the detail of what the student does and knows. The Elementary Guide observes the child’s ability to organize and complete work and supports the specific approach that each student takes as their academic skills solidify. S/he is a counselor and sage in the emerging years of social life and is a master of math and science. Wow!

In Middle School our adolescent student requires guides who have a strong moral compass. As they work more frequently side by side, Guide-student relationships form the patterns that students will carry into adulthood. The MMM student needs to be accountable to the guide and the guide needs to be fair, expressive, and consistent. The MMM Guide has areas of specialty which allow for the deepening of a student’s experience. The hero worship that started in elementary can be really strong as the adolescent begins the process of separating from the family. Saints, I think.

When our alumni visit after their high school transition, they typically say that what stands out—what marks their school experience prior to high school as unique—is their strong and loving relationship with their Montessori Guides and the other adults at Childpeace. Those Guides were viewed as resources, mentors, and friends. I believe that is because, at all levels of our work, Guides offer warm and caring emotional support. They take seriously their responsibility to know their students as learners and as people. The deep respect for the “child that is like no other” is felt in the classroom and in our community, and it becomes the common thread in building the trust we have with you, as parents.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School


Rick Ackerly writes, “Greatness. It’s a different thing from excellence and the ‘best.' In fact, it’s partly the result of liberation from all comparison, for greatness can never be achieved when comparison is involved. If you look over your shoulder to see if there is a person gaining on you, someone will. Fear will kick in, you will become more self-conscious, and the greatness that you are will fade -- and with it, the quality of your work [effort]. Greatness is the face of the genius engaged. When each character is moving in the world gracefully, this is education!”

One of the recurring joys of my work is the task of observing the children and staff. To my eye, this September has been filled with greatness. I see shining faces of new three year-olds as they wash chalkboards, prepare their own snack, and fetch something for the teacher from across the room. I see a small group of Lower EL kids stretching out a timeline and collaborating on how to make another one that spotlights their own historical interests. Two boys problem solve a grand way to make their map of the world economy. Two Upper EL students in the kitchen are calculating how much smoothie they’ll need to make for their class’ snack. A group of middle school students are having an animated seminar discussion on a math question; another group is fearlessly practicing a Spanish conversation, undeterred by mistakes.

In the Toddler Community, seven children see snack appear and eagerly move to set up their placemats and plates while the eighth is enrapt with his intricate bead stringing for another ten minutes before choosing to eat. Back in the Children’s House, a guide is playing a taped song and leading a large group of children in the hand motions, every eye focused on her. It’s as if a magic spell of engagement had been conjured. In the next class over, a four year old is creating an intricate chalk drawing on the 4’ x 5’ chalkboard, occasionally humming some notes as he works. Just a few feet away are six children making joyful social connections as their bare feet try to walk on a line without falling off.

Throughout Childpeace, one can feel the sense of loving community. Children are comfortable being themselves. They are confident to act on their ideas, yet also listen to others and make great efforts to collaborate. I sense the caring for each other, teacher-child and student-student. Even the moments when a child is struggling with a difficulty, there is an atmosphere of acceptance, encouragement, and respect. These are all signs that we have a great school, and we are nurturing children toward their own, individual greatness.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Making Mistakes

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

As adults, we may sometimes have the urge to help our youngsters with whatever they are working on or grappling with, to lighten their loads and help them find their way. We want to make things easier for them. But, what if by letting them grapple, we are helping them find their way?

Recent research indicates that when a child makes a mistake in his/her schoolwork or as they go about their day, the process of assessing their mistake and getting to a solution results in learning that cannot be duplicated. Mistakes allow the child to evaluate and come to a decision about what to try next. The research suggests that this kind of trial and error allows the brain to collect information and gather data from the experiencing of numerous mistakes. The brain then takes all of this information and identifies the useful lessons, retaining them for future problem solving.

In the classrooms, this means that students are encouraged to work at their own pace so that they have room to make mistakes and time to come to an understanding of a material or work. At each level at Childpeace, the child grows in their ability to master their work; first with the physical manipulation of their environment in the younger years and evolving to improving writing skills through editing and rewrites. At the middle school level, it means that we sometimes build and rebuild a bike a dozen times or bake several batches of zucchini bread before we have a batch that’s ready for public consumption. It may mean that we spend several days on a seminar problem, especially when there is no right answer. It means that students are not rescued by the adults in their environments, though they are guided by them to focus on solutions. It requires that we, the adults, have faith in them and that we let them make mistakes, try again, and repeat.

When an error is made and the child doesn’t know it, we strategize ways for the child to gain awareness. Lessons with Montessori materials most often include a way for the child to check their own work. Observation that the child is unaware of errors leads the guide to giving a future lesson rather than correct the child at the moment.

Home is another great place for a child to become friendly with error and understand that none of us is an expert the first time we try something. As she/he learns to use tools in the garden, kitchen, or workshop, they learn that perfection comes with practice and dedication, and usually with many mistakes along the way.

Nancy Coronado, Metro Montessori Middle School Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

Help Me Help Myself

"It was on my fifth birthday that Papa put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Remember, my son, if you ever need a helping hand, you'll find one at the end of your arm.'” ― Sam Levenson

What does carrying one’s own lunchbox have to do with long division? The answer is a fundamental underpinning of our work as parents and educators. No doubt, when enrolling in a Montessori program, parents are introduced to the strong emphasis placed on the practice of facilitating each child’s independence. Occasionally, it might seem rigid or there can be confusion that this equates to abandoning the child or an unloving approach. But the truth is just the opposite; we aid the child and show our love, and just as importantly, our respect, by communicating confidence in the child’s abilities. In the classrooms, we prepare the physical environments to support independence but the other, essential part of the equation is the preparation of the adult.

Our day to day interactions are equally as important as the beautiful materials. Laying out the expectation that a child walk into school on their own, be responsible for their belongings, work toward graceful behavior, or help prepare a meal are important family supports for the more academic work in the classroom. Likewise, a quick hug and kiss at drop off communicates trust and confidence in the school environment while the opposite communicates, well, the opposite. Our faculty work to observe each child and give lessons that fall within the “zone of proximal difficulty” – that is, just challenging enough to be interesting and reward the child with a sense of genuine accomplishment. Taken as a whole, these experiences allow the child to discover their own capabilities.

The engine in this process is the child’s own innate desire for agency and independence. Think of the battle cry of the two-year old, “By myself!” When we observe the children, it’s easy to see the obvious joy of the toddler that knows exactly where and how to hang her coat, the Children’s House child working through a series of precise steps to wash a table, the Elementary child developing the grit to conquer a uniquely challenging math problem, or the Middle School student equipped to navigate the bigger, adult world. When we say that we hope our children become lifelong learners, part of what we mean is that they carry the confidence to act on their curiosity and the determination to persevere through life’s obstacles.

Facilitating independence is not the same as withholding emotional support. Of course, every child has moments when some extra TLC is needed. We might pack the sports bag knowing the child was up late the night before, or give an extra hug at the door when a parent is out of town. It’s when these moments become the routine rather than the exception that we can undermine our best intentions.

One practical note can be to interpret routine complaining as a cry for a new level of independence. A child who is unhappy with her lunch contents is ready to pack her own food, for example. If a child expresses nervousness about coming to school, we can give the challenge of “What ideas do you have to solve this problem? Let’s work together to come up with a solution.” The idea being that the child learns they have the power to change and solve the challenges before them. Making time for a child to pack a lunch or have a full conversation is no small feat in a busy family life, but the long range outcome is well worth it.

When educators create lists of their ideal characteristics in a student, it rarely has to do with content (though, nobody would argue that content matters). It does have to do with qualities such as: ‘motivated’, ‘problem solver’, ‘involved’, ‘asks questions’, ‘solid citizen’ & ‘hard worker’. Children have the opportunity to strengthen and practice these skills in both the act of carrying one’s own lunch box or while learning the division process, each reinforcing the other. In my role, I hear from the schools that receive our alumni how much they value the work ethic, creativity and independence of students who have been through our program. What is sometimes called the invisible part of our curriculum is a unique and special part of a Montessori experience.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School