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Montessori FAQ

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Is Montessori too rigid? I want my child to be allowed to be creative and have fun. Becasue there is often a focused and sometimes even quiet atmosphere in the classroom, people sometimes assume the program must be very strict. On the contrary, one of the central ideas guiding Montessori education is Freedom For the Child. Allowing freedom of choice necessitates expectations of behavior from everyone in the community to ensure that everyone’s freedom and concentration is respected. For instance, we never run in the classroom because someone could get hurt. Rather than being “rigid,” our rules create an environment where children feel safe and know what to expect- which is key to allowing creativity to blossom. Children have a lot of fun while they use the classroom materials in safe ways either independently or with other children, and sometimes they even get so absorbed in their actiities that the classroom feels very serene and quiet. Does Montessori offer too much freedom? I want my child to learn to follow rules. A child’s ability to make choices in the classroom is limited by the necessity that she use the materials carefully and that she respect the safety of herself and others. Children need limits to feel comfortable and confident, and we provide these limits by explaining our expectations and by modeling appropriate behavior. All of our classroom customs are developmentally appropriate and based on the idea of safety and respect for one another. I have heard that I should be encouraging my child’s “functional independence.” What is that, and how do I encourage it? Healthy children want to learn how to get along in the world. Encouraging and allowing your child to do things on her own, such as dressing, carrying objects, and walking on her own encourages healthy self-esteem, and also helps develop spatial, fine motor and gross motor skills. According to the teacher my child behaves so well at school, but that nice polite behavior goes away at home! What is going on? There is no “magic” behind what you see going on in the Montessori classroom. Children’s behavior is very closely linked to their environment. Some features of our prepared environment that result in the cooperative behavior you see at school include order (things have a place), consistency (adults agree on the rules and expectations and are consistent about them over time), and choice (children are given limited acceptable choices whenever possible). Keep in mind that it is normal for all people to behave differently in different environments. You child needs a place (home) where he can relax and he does not necessarily have to be on his “best behavior.” If, however, home behavior is being a problem you can talk to your teacher who will help you to translate some of your child’s positive “school” behavior into the home environment. What is this “art” that my child is bringing home? In Montessori schools, we value process over product. At this stage in a child’s development (3-6 yrs.) it is important for him to be able to work freely with materials that are provided for him. Much of what the child is accomplishing is exploratory and prepares him for future tasks like writing by developing his hand-eye coordination, color discrimination and kinesthetic senses. The drawing or construction may not look recognizable to you, but this is a positive indication that an adult did not interfere to do parts of it “for him.” Why are my child’s shoes on the wrong feet? Wasn’t the teacher paying attention? The answer to this question is similar to the answer to the art-related question above. If your child has her shoes on the wrong feet, it means that she put them on by herself! The teacher refrained from pointing out the error because she was so proud of the effort that the child put forth to achieve such an advanced task. To point out to the child who did not ask for help that she actually did it “wrong” would be harmful to the growth of her independence and self-esteem. Constant correction can lead to learned helplessness, where the child does not take the initiative to help herself because she is afraid that she will make an error and she knows the adult will always step in. Is it true that Montessori schools do not make children to share? Children in Montessori classrooms are very socially conscious, and you will see them, especially the older children, sharing generously. This is because we regard sharing as an internally motivated activity that children will want to participate in if they are allowed to develop this motivation naturally. We do not “make” children share because to do so is a violation of their right to choose, especially for the youngest (2-3), who see objects that they are using as extensions of themselves. Repeatedly prompting a child to share can result in a child who does not want to share when she has the chance in the future. Why does my teacher not make the children apologize to each other? It is so important that children learn to do this! Like sharing, the use of social words is something that children will want to do if they are given a good model. In our “Grace and Courtesy” lessons, the children are shown how to apologize and are taught that an apology means that she has done something she wishes she hadn’t done (or that was an accident), and she wants the other person to know it. If she is given space to think about the results of her actions without adult interference, she will be able to assess her feelings about what has happened. It does no good to force or even prompt a child apologize when she does not feel bad about what she has done (or hasn’t had time to think about it), and to do so is in effect teaching the child to lie to get out of trouble quickly. Apologizing can also be made to seem like a punishment, and practicing saying it when she does not mean it could lead to problems, including an aversion to ever saying it at all. Your model of meaningful apologies both to other adults and to your child will greatly assist her learning of this important concept, and allowing children to learn to say “I’m sorry” on their own terms will make their use of the words more meaningful in the long run. I heard that my child was inside working during outside play-time today. What did she do to deserve that? Whenever possible, the teachers will not make the choice for the child about whether or not he will go outside. Just as the teacher will not make a child stay inside during outside time, she will also not force him to go outside if he has work that he feels he needs to finish, or if he is aware that he needs to take a rest from the fast-paced activities that are going on outside. It is assumed that the child has inner needs that need to be fulfilled, and we allow the child to prioritize those needs accordingly as long as he is being safe. I heard that my child was cleaning the classroom today. I don’t want my child doing that kind of work. Participating in maintenance of the classroom is a big part of involvement in a Montessori community. Children are enthusiastic about being able to do tasks that they observe adults doing at home, and we use this enthusiasm as an opportunity to developing a number of skills in a fun way. Using tools such as brooms and dusters develops muscle coordination. Squeezing a sponge develops muscles in the hand necessary for writing. Even table washing is made to be an exercise for handwriting. Remember those loops you made with a pencil in elementary school? We draw those in soap on the tables! What if I want to send my child to a traditional school later on? Won’t he have trouble adjusting? Skills learned at Montessori school such as logical thinking and self-control translate well to traditional schooling, even if the rules and structure are different. Montessori provides a very solid foundation. There is no guarantee that your child will not experience stress in a traditional school setting, but our experience indicates that a Montessori background will not be a handicap. Many traditional private schools actively seek out Montessori students because of their reputation for internal drive and love of learning. Why do these teachers act like this school is so important? This isn’t college! There is much research that indicates that the Early Childhood Years (from birth to age six) are critical in a child’s development. Early experiences can affect a person’s learning and behavior for life (even in college!). This is why we take our jobs very seriously and have gone through rigorous training to learn how to provide early experiences that will assist your child’s healthy development. Why does it really matter if I drop my child off on time or not? It matters for several reasons, which is why the answer to this question is the longest! First, order and consistency is very important to your child at this stage. On days when your schedule varies from the norm (if you are late), your child will likely be upset and disoriented, though he will not necessarily understand or be able to verbalize why. He might say that he doesn’t want to stay at school when the real problem is that he expects his teacher to greet him as usual and she is already occupied in the classroom. He might also see that he has missed circle and will show his disappointment by giving you a hard time. Children whose morning routines are disrupted often have trouble functioning for the rest of the day, and this is closely connected to their need for order at this stage of development. Another reason that your child should be on time is that our class is a community. When children are not present, they are missed. Many of our activities center around building community, and you child will feel sad if she is repeatedly left out. Finally, our “work period” is prescribed by the Montessori philosophy as a three-hour uninterrupted period of free choice. This is a “magic” number that has been shown over time and through observation to be critical to achieving the outcomes that we are striving for, such as development of concentration and decision making abilities. If you child is late, she does not get that full experience. Additionally, her entry to the classroom poses a distraction to children who have already greeted each other and have started to work. How does this non-competitive environment prepare children for the future? The real world is competitive! By “competitive”, I assume that you mean you want your child to do her very best. In this environment, children learn to follow their own inner drive and go as far as their ability will take them, stretching their limits whenever they can. This is different from working for a grade or simply trying to “get ahead” of the people around them, and it usually means that Montessori children, when placed in an environment that uses grades do very well relative to their peers without having to “compete” to achieve. My five year old has started lying! I am horrified. A child at this stage of development is becoming more socially aware. He is starting to understand for the first time that his frame of reference is different from other people’s. In the case of lying, he is aware that there is a disparity between the truth and what the other person wants to hear. This is a normal development, and not something to be concerned about. Talk to your teacher when this behavior appears so that you can discuss strategies for encouraging truth-telling. What is the purpose of the three-year cycle and mixed age classrooms? The length of time that the child is able to spend with his teacher and peers allows for a strong sense of community within the classroom. The teacher gets to know the child very well and because the Montessori curriculum follows each child’s development individually, this relationship is important. There is an important purpose to each of the three years in the cycle. The first year children are able to learn from observing and working with their older peers, who are often able to relate ideas to the younger children even better than the teacher! Three year olds (first-year students) have certain sensitivities (ease of absorbing language, attention to fine detail, and love of order) that make three years the ideal age for beginning the Montessori curriculum. During this year they develop the social and motor skills that prepare them for years two and three. The second year is a bridge, where the children can all see where they have been, and also where they are going. They have opportunities to teach and be taught, and all of these interactions strengthen their learning. The third year is a very important one in the cycle, as it is the culmination of all that the child has learned. It is usually during this year (5-6 yrs. old) that the indirect preparation that the child has been working on comes together in reading and writing. It is also a time for the older children to look back with pride on where they have been. This is the year when the third-year children learn leadership, as they regard the younger children’s struggles with empathy, and are often proud to be able to help. I don’t want my child spending so much time helping younger children. I’m worried that this will hold her back. She should be focusing on her own work. The leadership and teaching opportunities that second and third year children experience are actually intentionally designed to strengthen the older children’s understanding of the material. Learning a concept with the goal of eventually teaching it, as opposed to learning to score well on a test, leads to very solid understanding. It is necessary to fully understand a concept in depth in order to be able to teach it. Furthermore, the leadership experience is wonderful for developing the child’s self-esteem and autonomy. My child is staying in the same area of the classroom all the time. I am worried that she isn’t learning enough to keep up in the other areas. When a child is focusing on a particular area, it is because she is fulfilling an inner need. Whatever she is doing is restful for her because she is developing a skill that will make the next step in her development a little easier. She will not “fall behind” in other areas, because all the areas are interrelated and a task in one area may have a prerequisite in a completely different area. If the teacher feels that a child does need to spend time on a particular task, she will present the task and often will make adjustments to the curriculum so that the child will be attracted to the areas that she needs work on. Remember, whenever a child is able to focus on anything in the classroom for a long period of time she is developing her powers of concentration and attention span. My child is starting to question the rules at home! He needs to learn that I am the boss and that he should show me proper respect. It is okay (and important) to let children know why the rules are in place. The respect your child has for you will not be diminished if you take the time to do this. You can tell your child that you always want to keep him safe and that sometimes there is not time for you to explain why you are telling him to do something. Explain that if you are asking him to do something and are not giving him a choice he should respond right away and you can explain why later. If you are good on this promise you child will respect you for it. Remember that it is really a desirable thing for your child to want to know “why.” There will be times in the future when you will not be around to tell your child what to do. He will have to make decisions on his own, and if you want him to make decisions based on your values, it is important for you to explain what those values are and where your rules and limits come from. I want my child to challenge herself in school. What can I say to encourage her to choose more challenging work? Is my child getting enough attention? How does the teacher manage giving individual lessons to so many kids? As the children learn independence and choosing their own work, the teacher has time to focus on giving a lesson while other children work independently. The classroom assistant helps to “maintain tone” in the room so that the teacher is not interrupted. Additionally, students very often show each other how to use materials, so there are actually many little “teachers” in the room! What the Montessori stance on TV? Different people have different feelings on this, and there is not an official “Montessori position” on the issue. Contemporary Developmental Psychologists generally agree that TV is not a good idea before the age of two, and after that it should be limited to an hour a day for the next two years. This “No Characters!” policy seems awfully strict to me. My child loves these characters, and I don’t see how having them at school could really be such a problem. I love characters and children love them too. Everything that we ask of parents has the child’s interest in mind. Our observation, and the consensus among many Montessori teachers, is that media culture, when it enters the classroom, hinders the normal exploration process that should happen there. Characters are very appealing and capture the attention of the children. This is fine at home, but at school we hope that the educational materials capture and hold the children’s attention so that they can learn. We observe that when characters are there, whether on clothing, slippers, or lunchboxes, children pay less attention to the materials. In addition, characters can cause competition between children and prompt behavior (i.e. pretending to be Spiderman) that is a distraction during work period. Enjoy characters at home, and keep them out of the learning environment! Why doesn’t my child bring any work home? I want to see what she is working on! One of the core values of Montessori is that it is focused on process, rather than product. Your child may choose to save a sample of their work in their cubby for you to see, they may give it to a friend, they may ask to have it hung on the wall, or they may recycle it. It is important that they not feel that their work has to be “for” someone and for most of our work there is an expectation of a product. We try instead to show you what your child is working on through photographs of their process. What’s this about not learning the alphabet in Montessori? I taught my child his letters. Is that bad? No, it’s not bad. But in Montessori, we teach the sounds of the letters instead of their names. We introduce “mmmm…” instead of “Em,” because the names of the letters (Ay, Bee, See, Dee…) do not help the child in learning how to read. Knowing the “Alphabet Song” will not help when it comes to actually building or reading words! If a child has been drilled at home to recognize letters by their names, learning to identify the letters all over again by sound may not come as easily or be as fun. But she will eventually get it, and will get it just as well as a child who did not know any letter names before starting school. In the future (say, grade 2 or so) knowing letter names will be useful for out-loud spelling, and are easy to teach at that age, so there is no benefit in teaching the names sooner. My child can count to a hundred. Why hasn’t the teacher taught her math yet? There is a difference between rote memory and understanding of the way numbers work. We introduce number concepts in a way that leads to a deep understanding of quantity and lays a strong foundation for arithmetical concepts. It is important that these lessons occur at the appropriate times in your child’s development to really be effective. Remember the butterfly? Development of a mathematical mind can’t be forced, but must unfold at nature’s pace. There must be ways that I can prepare my child academically at home before she starts in the fall. What can I do to give her an academic advantage? Often parents want to “beat the teacher” to certain concepts like reading or counting before the child starts school, especially when the child is very bright. The parents want the teacher to see how bright their child is so that the will get accelerated work. The first issue with this is that in a child’s development, earlier does not necessarily mean smarter. You will not impress the teacher by showing that your child knows things already. The second issue is that the language (reading and writing) and math curriculum in Montessori is designed to follow the child’s abilities, and will offer your child the best advantage for the future if she is able to do the whole thing from the beginning. If she has been drilled at home, the introductory lessons will not offer the same magic for her as they would have had she had a more relaxed exposure at home. So what CAN I do with my child that is developmentally appropriate? Encourage functional independence by allowing your child to do things for herself. Play games that provide exercise and coordination challenges. Go to a tumbling class. Listen to music together. Order your house so that it is safe, and allow your child to participate actively in family life (your teacher can offer suggestions). Talk and read to your child so that she absorbs language. Use correct names for things, because your child will mentally assign labels to things based on the words you use, even if you are not talking directly to her. Research indicates that at this age (birth to three or four), movement and social interaction are critical to brain development, and the above are the best preparation for Montessori school.

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