Photo courtesy of Lena Atkinson
What is Montessori?
Rather than explaining what Montessori is, I am offering an excerpt from an article that does a beautiful job of describing what Montessorians do. Maria Montessori's Decalogue is a set of 10 rules for adults working in a Montessori classroom. It is relevant to parents, grandparents, and caregivers of all types who strive to relate to children peacefully and respectfully in any environment.
I hope you will enjoy this expanded version of the Montessori Decalogue as written by The Mammolina Children's Home Montessori Kindergarten in Beijing, China.
The Montessori Decalogue
1. Never touch the child unless invited by him (in some way or another).
Unless there is a very strong reason to (like avoiding an accident, for example), one should never touch a child unless a child requests it. Picking up a child without the child’s consent, even if in a playful manner, or grabbing her hand, pushing her, etc., should always be avoided. If children are engaged, looking at a book, working, playing, resting, the same principle applies. Children invite contact in many ways, and parents and adults in general, who work with children, know how to interpret the signs they send. It is important also to respect a child when she is angry and does not want to be touched or picked up.
2. Never speak ill of the child in his presence or absence.
Speaking ill of a child, or making negative comments about a child, either in the child’s presence or absence, denotes lack of respect for the child. It also sets a frame of mind and denotes an attitude that is negative and conducive to confrontation—and not always open! Preconceived ideas often linger as negative thoughts and breed reactive behavior. If an adult falls into this trap, it is very easy for a lack of patience and negative attitudes to creep in and damage the relationship with the child.
3. Concentrate on strengthening and helping the development of what is good in the child, so that its presence may leave less and less space for what is negative.
If adults focus on negative behavior, children will feel inadequate. This will result in low self-esteem, and a self-fulfilling prophecy like behavioral patterns will take over. Negativity will become second nature. Instead, by focusing on what is positive, the child will feel safe and confident. Children are learning what is and is not acceptable behavior can and cannot be done, etc. They do not need punishments or rewards. Simply to be shown what is and is not acceptable, by adults that model appropriate behavior.
4. Be proactive in preparing the environment, take meticulous and constant care of it. Help the child establish constructive relations with it. Show the proper place where the means of development are kept and demonstrate their proper use.
If the child is presented with a prepared environment, there is little need for much more. Again, modeling appropriate behavior is essential. A child that is shown an orderly environment will likewise feel encouraged to keep it orderly. If a child has available manipulatives she can handle, play and work with, rather than things she cannot touch, she will feel at ease to explore the world around her. If objects are at reach, that the child may break or hurt herself with, she should be shown how to handle them, rather than told “don’t touch!” A kitchen is a world full of wonder for a child! Cutting, cooking, stirring, pouring, etc., are all activities the child will want—and need!—to master in order to become independent. Include the child in as many activities as possible at home, from cleaning to cooking; there is enough to keep any child busy and engaged all day long.
5. Be ever ready to answer the call of the child who stands in need of you, and always listen and respond to the child who appeals to you.
There is nothing worse for a child than to feel insecure and ignored. Abandonment is a feeling no child should have to live with. “If a child asks for attention, then that child needs attention,” stressed Montessorian Margaret Homfray. When people brush a child aside and say, “she just wants attention,” that person is missing the point: a child only wants attention when she needs attention. Children who feel cared for and do not have to worry about being abandoned, even if for a short time, are far more likely to care for others and show concern for and trust others, than those who experience this sort of “cold shoulder” treatment. Also, “timeout” and “go to your room and stay there” approaches are also expressions of abandonment.
6. Respect the child who makes a mistake and can then or later correct it herself, but stop firmly and immediately any misuse of the environment and any action which endangers the child, its own development or that of others.
Avoid rushing to correct mistakes a child has committed. Children are learning to cope and function. They will persist and practice to their heart’s content whatever skill they need to acquire, until they master it. If a child starts throwing things around and disrespecting the environment, by all means, stop her. Yet, explain why you had to stop her. Reason and listen to what the child may have to say. Maria Montessori said that “a child’s first tantrums are the first ills of her soul.” There is always a reason for everything. Try to bring the reason to light. Punishing, isolating the child, etc., will only feed her pain, and burry deep those reasons—she will learn to hide rather than communicate.
7. Respect the child who takes a rest or watches others working or ponders over what she herself has done or will do. Neither call her nor force her to other forms of activity.
A child that is idle is often not idle at all… Children need to be given space to find what it is they are interested in and want to do. Once they do, they pursue their interests with unrestrained passion and perseverance! A child that is observing other children or adults is also learning. If the child is resting, she is not being lazy and doing nothing just lying there—she is most probably processing information, observing, reflecting on something she did, or saw, or is planning on doing.
8. Help those who are in search of activity and cannot find it.
Be sensitive to the needs of the child including differentiating when apparent inactivity is inner activity, or in contrast, a child is simply lost. A child in search of activity and unable to find it is usually restless. If sitting or lying down, it can be noticed that she is not “engaged;” she is not resting, but simply lost and prostrated. There is a thin line that separates these two worlds. It is the adult’s responsibility to observe carefully and find out the signs—often very different from child to child—that can reveal what the child is experiencing. Abandonment differs from rest and contemplation.
9. Be untiring in repeating presentations to the child who refused them earlier, in helping the child to acquire what is not yet her own and to overcome imperfections. Do this by animating the environment, with care, with purposive restraint and silence, with mild words and loving presence. Make your ready presence felt to the child who searches and hide from the child who has found.
A child may need to be shown the right way to do something, say a word, express her feelings or acquire any sort of new skill, many, many times. One should never grow tired of repeating it, such as reading the same bedtime story or singing the same jingle. Children seek perfection in all they do until they reach a level which meets their needs (not what the adult may think “perfect” is, or means.) To be always available but not intrusive is an art. When a child needs help, she will ask for it. When a skill has been acquired and the child no longer needs assistance, adults should respect the child’s new acquired or reached level of independence.
10. Always treat the child with the best of good manners and offer her the best you have in yourself and at your disposal.
Children who are respected will learn to respect others. Giving the child the best one has to give helps the child learn that you are someone she can count on, and teaches her to also give others the best she has to give. It is important the way Montessori puts it, “the best you have in yourself,” as if to say, always reach higher, but do not feel dismayed if you fall short, and “the best” that you can give is not the best you think or know you should give. If your best manners are not always what they should be—a common feeling parents harbor when children seem to be pushing their patience beyond the limits, do not lose heart. The way Dr. Montessori put it, is basically this: have realistic expectations towards the child, and yourself too. Give the best you have to give, but don’t feel guilty if you fall short. Simply keep striving to improve and always do your best. If you commit a mistake, giving the child your best may well be recognizing it and apologizing. “Amy, Mommy got upset and shouted. That was not nice of me. I am sorry.” Children also need to recognize mistakes, learn to apologize, and that parents are not always perfect.
These are basic principles. What Montessori strives for is to protect the child from all sorts of negative influences that can create deviations in the child’s spirit and psyche. To preserve the natural curiosity of the child, help her find her interests, protect her passion for learning, foster it and let it grow in a healthy way. In this way, the child can contribute her best to society. This is conducive to world peace, as Dr. Montessori envisioned it, and Montessorians believe is possible. It takes passion, it takes commitment, and it takes working together.
- Excerpted from Montessori: Committed People with a Passion for Children by the Mammolina Children's Home Montessori Kindergarten in Beijing, China.
I had the great pleasure of working in my former classroom today and it reminded me of why the three-year cycle in Montessori classrooms is so beneficial, not least of all, to the teachers.
Our Montessori preschool classrooms are composed of a mixed-age group of children who remain, ideally, in one classroom for three years. A child starts at age three and stays through her Kindergarten year. This is called the three year cycle. Each of those years brings new and unique learning opportunities for the child. As a three-year-old, the child observes her older peers and benefits from their experience. As a four-year-old, she starts to see herself as one of the “big kids” and expands her social circle. In her Kindergarten year she is recognized as a leader and takes pride in helping others.
When I took a sabbatical at the end of the school year in May, I left behind children who had been in my classroom for one or two years. I was able to catch up with many of those students today when I visited the classroom. I observed that two of “my” third-year students, I’ll call them S and K, were part of what Montessorian John Chattin-McNichols calls a “roving pack of 5-year-olds.” They were wandering around with some other boys and mixing it up a little. I knew these two boys when they were just barely three years old. I knew them before they could consciously control their bodies at group time and even before they could dress themselves successfully. Now, here they were - big, bold 5-year-olds and I was curious to see who they had become eight months after we last worked together.
Angie, my dear friend and the lead teacher of my former class, shared with me that S and K had been working on the squaring and cubing chains in the math area, so I asked them about those activities. They were eager to show me what they had already done and tell me what came next. Within a few minutes, they broke off from the pack and were ready to master the 10 cubing chain.
The 10 cubing chain - or 1000 chain - is a concrete representation of 10 cubed. It’s made up of one thousand pea-sized beads organized into bars of ten. The bars of ten are attached at the ends to make a chain. Children are ready for this work after they have mastered the 1 - 10 squaring chains and the 1 - 9 cubing chains. This video from the DuPage Montessori School in Naperville, Illinois provides a good overview of how the squaring and cubing chains are presented in the Montessori classroom.
The 10 cubing chain is nearly 30 feet long so it must be laid out in the hallway outside the classroom. So, off to the hallway we went.
S and K divided up the tasks between themselves. One carried the rolled-up mat and the other carried the chain. We established the space we would use in the hallway and K unrolled the mat while S went back into the classroom for the number tabs. We discussed how they would sort the tabs on the tray and move it down the mat as they worked.
S found the 1000 tab. He knew it went at the very end of the chain but he left it on the tray. There was a pause before they started and I asked what number they would start with. S said, “We have to count them all.”
That is certainly one way to do it. But when a child is ready for the 1000 chain, he is generally ready to complete it without counting every number because he can now count by tens and hundreds. Once you trust that 10 is ten, you don’t have to count it again.
I asked if they thought they could first put tabs on the hundreds. Yes! They were sure they could. Together, we counted the bars as 10, 20, 30 and so on until we got to 100. S got the 100 tab and marked that spot. K quickly grasped the system and immediately went to work sorting out all of the hundreds tabs in a separate group so that S could place them. This was my cue to find something else to do. I went back inside the classroom to assist Miss Angie while the boys marked off every 100th bead on the chain with the appropriate tab.
They repeated the process, stopping after each bar of ten. K was the sorter, S was the placer. “150! I need 150,” S said. K had it ready. There was never any disagreement, that I heard, over who would do which task. They just got started and they each found their niche as they went. And they were really digging their work.
They started the cubing chain work at 9:45 and I checked in with them every few minutes. They finished at 11:00. One of them stopped to use the bathroom then went straight back to his work. Other children would step into the hall to see what was happening and then go back inside to their work.
Sometimes I checked on S and K without speaking and other times I acknowledged their progress. Once, I said I would be back to check on them in a bit unless they needed some help. “We need some help,” S said. They could not find the tab for 590. I suggested they leave a space for that number and they could put it there when they found it. They never found it, but they were able to move on without hesitation.
As they got to the very end, S picked up the 1000 tab and started to place it under the 1000th bead. K said, “Hey! We decided we would put that one on together!” And so they did. That’s when this photo was snapped.
If you had asked me three years ago if these children were developing normally and if they were going to learn to read and write and grow up to be compassionate humans I would have responded, “Of course they will!” But in the back of my head there would have been a tiny voice saying, “What if they aren’t? What if they are never able to sit in a chair for more than 8 seconds? What if they never learn to put their shoes on by themselves? What if they show no interest in reading? What if they always write six as 9?”
That doubtful voice is a familiar one to parents because most of us only get to experience the development of one or two children. We fear we will do something wrong and our children will not achieve their potential. Preschool teachers should know better because we get to observe hundreds of children over the course of our careers, right? But sometimes, even with years of experience, we forget that our job is simply to prepare a nourishing environment. It is the child who must do the work of building the man.
In 1949, Maria Montessori offered us some guidance in our quest to relax and trust that each child will reveal himself as a competent and confident being in his own time. In The Absorbent Mind she wrote, “...for while, in the traditional schools, the teacher sees the immediate behavior of her pupils, knowing that she must look after them and what she has to teach, the Montessori teacher is constantly looking for a child who is not yet there.”
Dr. Montessori also implemented the three-year cycle in our classrooms to give us enough time to look for that child and see him before he moves on to primary school.
I am not at all surprised that S and K can count to 1000 by tens and hundreds. I am not surprised that they can recognize 3-digit numerals or that they can prepare, complete, and put away their work. I am not even surprised that two 5-year-old boys willingly work together on a math material for 1 hour and and 15 minutes with only a bathroom break and very limited guidance. I’ve seen it before.
I am surprised at the sense of joyous relief I feel each time children reveal themselves in this way. It's an experience that never gets old. I suppose that’s the ultimate reward of being a teacher.