Creating a Family Mission Statement

As parents, there can be moments when we find ourselves thinking (or saying out loud), “I never wanted it to be this way!” Whether it’s the unease of family members snapping at each other in exhaustion at day’s end or feeling unable to find connected time together as a family, we can be struck by the awareness that our lives are running us rather than the other way round.

We all have individual moments where we snap out of routine and suddenly realize we are not where we want to be and we adjust. With our family life, if we are not intentional, we risk bending to the whim of social trends rather than moving from a desired vision. Information-age parenting is overwhelming; there is no shortage of books, blogs, and classes to consult as well as the casual advice by way of family members and friends. Much of it is helpful. A lot is contradictory or impractical to the specific family circumstances. Yet we read on because we know life’s small details add up to a very important whole, as they are expressions of the values and priorities we communicate to our children.

How do we tune in through the static and know we are making decisions proactively and authentically? One possible tool is to create a family mission statement. Crafting a statement of intentionality around the most important events and relationships in our lives leaves us less vulnerable to others filling the page for us. Stephen Covey writes “A family mission statement is a combined, unified, expression from all family members of what your family is all about – what it is you really want to do and be – and principles you choose to govern your family life.”

In many ways, the process of creating a mission statement is more important than the product. The family conversations about values and principles are enlightening and really can range as far and wide as serves the individual family, from “What kinds of things do we want to do?” to “What do we want to be remembered by?” or “Try to discern a list of core values, those central principles that honestly resonate and guide your decision-making.” Elementary children are introduced to a deliberate exploration of the different values in the classroom and so a meaningful connection to discuss these at home. It’s great to write a few notes that can be revisited from time to time or posted somewhere in the house. It might even be fun to make a family motto.

Ideally, it will be a platform, a rubric used for identifying which puzzle pieces do and do not fit with the family’s mission. When we are feeling frustrated, returning to this statement may offer some insight as to why and should offer a fairly clear action item. If adventuring in the outdoors is part of the mission statement but all of the weekends seem to be consumed with commitments, then the next step is to begin blocking out days proactively. If service is a core family value, what can be planned in the next few months? If our mission is to be patient and kind to one another, we can practice new ways of speaking (and be patient with one another as these skills develop).

The end result of a family mission statement is that everyone’s enjoyment of daily life improves. Members feel that their dreams and desires are a part of the family fabric. We feel strong in our family choices, priorities, and the ability to set aside information or advice that doesn’t honor the mission. Our children benefit doubly as their voice is a part of the family mission, and they also learn to ask meaningful questions of themselves and use this self-knowledge as they become more independent from the family. By being intentional, we shield ourselves from the urge to compare our lives or our children’s paths to others’, and instead feel a sense of security, value, and appreciation for the wonderful path that is our own.

Dawn Cowan, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

A Case for Movement

I got a little nervous hearing the news last night about how sitting too long each day contributes to the risk of heart attacks.  I had a conversation with myself about how much my expanding administrative duties keep me in my seat, and despite considering myself physically active (for my age) I began to plot my daily escapes from my office.  

And yesterday I read a Washington Post article titled, “Letting Kids Move in Class Isn’t a Break from Learning. It IS Learning.”  A quote from Aleta Margulis, who runs a DC nonprofit called the Center for Inspired Teaching. 

“So how do you teach teachers to take this next step in building their practice? The answer lies in ensuring professional development engages teachers the way we expect them to engage their students — physically as well as intellectually. By taking teachers completely out of the typical training model, which requires them only to stare passively at PowerPoint slides, my colleagues and I ask teachers to tap into new ways of problem solving, community building, and communicating with those around them."
It seems sad that we are having to teach teachers to allow children to move.  And I know you are going to guess my reaction to that, “Montessori programs have been doing that for 120 Years!!!”

How lucky are we that Montessori schools and classrooms start with designs based on the need for movement and collaboration?  I looked around again today and saw at least five examples-in a snapshot of a child’s day-of how Montessori thinking is imbedded with the notion that to move is to live and thrive! We don’t even think about it because it is such an essential part of the way we educate.   Here are a few of the things I saw:

  1. Toddlers, on their daily trek from their classroom to the kitchen, passed my window.  In training pants and colorful tops, they pushed their little cart full of dirty dishes and composted food, jumping and skipping along the way.  I followed and watched as Devin and Albert greeted them with a smile in the kitchen.  
  2. I listened to a Lower Elementary student’s piano practice at 11:00 in the morning.  This student had finished a project, took the room pass, walked to Elementary Aftercare, and headed to the piano.  No questions asked.
  3. Earlier this morning I saw a parent in the office with a group of elementary students.  One of the students was writing their destination and travel plans on the office white board.  In this instance it was a 6th year service project trip to the Book Bank where the students would be doing book repair.  Out of class, moving, active, learning, and contributing.
  4. I walked by the Children’s House classes and noticed two students who were engaged in what looked like charades. I stopped and asked them what work they were doing.  Command Cards was their answer.  They had small red cards and a large red circle (the grammar symbol for action) and they were reading the words and acting out the phrases “Jump in place," “clap 5 times," and “run in a circle."  Verb commands are not sedentary.  
  5. At MMM three students were working in the shop making wine bottle holders.  As part of their microeconomy, the students learn practical skills for making and selling products with a goal of earning a profit.  Hands on, practical, purposeful. 
Does this make you wonder how constrained or free to move your child feels each day?  How many hours are spent in the car or sitting in front of a screen?  Now is the time to set lifetime habits that will support our children’s health as they move into adulthood.

Our students do not have assigned seats; they work at a table or floor or sometimes standing up.  They move freely through the rooms making choices, completing projects, and hopefully using up a lot of energy.  Movement is not just a component of Montessori education, it is the foundation.

Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School

Quality Early Education

This week, on December 10th, the White House hosted a Summit on Early Education. President Obama committed $750 million to be invested in the funding of education for birth through age five. Our Childpeace Head of School, Sue Pritzker, is on the national Montessori Leaders Collaborative “0-6 Initiative” committee that expects funding for the development of Montessori community centers that serve the whole family in high risk communities. The Trust for Learning fund represented the MLC at the White House Summit and has committed $15 million specifically to implement quality Montessori into public sector schools and for support of Montessori teacher training. The total of philanthropic commitments to early education funding from the attendees of the Summit is $330 million. These are exciting times, nationally, in the world of early education!

Our growing understanding of brain development alone is a forceful mandate for tending to the education of our youngest. An individual’s brain construction project takes about 20 years to get all the basics in place, but those first five years are the physical foundation upon which everything else is built. For example, even by 24 months old the differences in a child’s amount of vocabulary is directly tied to the verbal environment that the child has experienced.

Economics is also a forceful mandate, with numerous studies showing that about $7 is saved for each $1 spent on early childhood education. As our federal and state governments move to invest in our future in this way, defining “high-quality” early childhood education has become a major focus. Obviously, there is a mix of opinions. Montessori educators have a rich history, wealth of anecdotes, and a growing pool of educational and neuropsych studies that support the principles of our practice. We know in our bones that the quality of the adults, the beauty, peace, and order of the environment, the mixed aged community, the child’s ability to be independent in their work cycle, are all elements of a quality early education environment. Yet it feels like moving a mountain when we work to bring these principles to the established bureaucracy of the conventional school system and agree upon their definition.

The Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) has been established during the last couple of years in Oregon (along with 40 other states). Childpeace has taken steps to be a part of this conversation of defining “quality” in Oregon by creating a QRIS Portfolio that documents our practice in great detail. We are in the midst of having it reviewed; observers have come to “rate” us and more will come in the future. It is fascinating to see the state standards for quality take shape. We have created statements of practice (e.g. about appropriate screen time, nutrition, and mixed-age groups) to help shape the conversation. Some colleagues have worked to articulate the Montessori teacher-training so that it is understood when the state quantifies the education level of our guides.

Investing in early childhood can take many forms. You yourself have given up a major chunk of income to stay home with your child and/or to have your child with excellent educators. It is a noble work to extend outside of our own homes to the neighborhood and society around us and invest in this fundamental tool for transforming our society. I am pleased that this is now a bigger part of our national conversation.

Merri Baehr Whipps, Assistant Program Director
Childpeace Montessori School

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