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