Sunday, January 24, 2010

Observing our children

     In our evening Parenting Class, we have been discussing the importance of observation. Montessori teachers fully understand how much can be learned through quiet and consistent observation – in fact observing is a major component of our training - but this concept may be new to parents.

     So much can be learned about children through regular observation. Observation gives one a chance to see where a child is developmentally and what skills he or she is working to perfect. In the class, I used the example of something my son did when he was very young. He was sitting in his highchair with a bowl of Cheerios-like cereal. He took the cereal  out of the bowl, one by one, and placed them in the tray of the chair. When he had taken all of them out, he began to put them all back, one by one, into the bowl. When the little circles were all back in the bowl, he began to take them out again, one by one… This went on for quite some time.

     What I observed was not a child mindlessly playing with his food but a young child working very hard to perfect his pincer grip. His concentration was intense and we (his parents) did not interfere. We just observed. This observation gave us the insight to later offer him more opportunities for continued work on his pincer grip.

     The point I'm trying to make using this example is that without observation, I might have stepped in and taken the Cheerios away in the misguided understanding that he did not want to eat them. He may not have and, by observing, I saw what he was doing. Had I whisked the bowl away from him at that moment, I would have interfered with his learning (thrown up an obstacle) and, most likely, made him cry.

     Observation is an invaluable tool for parents. By waiting and watching parents can see what drives and motivates a child. They will be able to provide their child with more activities to continue honing their skills and observation gives parents an insight into behaviour that is often incorrectly labelled as 'misbehaviour'.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guidance policy and following the child

In 1949 Dr. Maria Montessori wrote “The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the Period from birth to age six. For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed. But not only his intelligence; the full totality of his psychic powers…at no other age has the child greater need of an intelligent help, and any obstacle that impedes his creative work will lessen the chance he has of achieving perfection.”

But how does one become an intelligent helper/guide/teacher and, at the same time, remove obstacles from a young child’s learning? By establishing a strong personal guidance philosophy that is reflected in one’s interactions with children, parents, other childcare professionals and the classroom environment.

My own personal guidance philosophy begins with respect for the child. In order to respect the child, we must know the child and in order to know the child, we must learn to observe the child. If we carefully observe children’s behaviour and interests, their ability to move and take on new tasks, their need to feel secure and relaxed in their environment, we can get many clues as to growth and development. If we can follow children’s clues to their needs and abilities and do our best to provide an environment that satisfies these, children will grow confident that they are accepted for who they are and not expected to fulfill another’s schedule for development.

Punishment and reward have no place in a philosophy that strives to respect and follow the child. Punishment, whether physical or otherwise, implies dominance. The use of natural and logical consequences is a far better way for children to learn responsibility for their actions. Rewards teach greed and remove the self-satisfaction felt by a job well done. Something as innocuous as a smile can instantly rob a child of the deep contentment felt by achieving a task, if that smile is perceived as a reward. Encouragement is a far more effective guidance strategy.

Ensuring success is another way to respect the children in the classroom. This is achieved through age appropriate, open-ended activities and a non-competitive classroom atmosphere. Open-ended activities allow children to express themselves creatively and ensure success because there is no right or wrong. A non-competitive atmosphere allows every child to work according to their own skill level and progress at their own rate.

Finally, I believe in constant and continual professional development. Attending conferences, workshops and retreats can give one new strategies and information, renew flagging commitment, and refresh one’s understanding of child development. Even taking part in on-line forums contributes to my commitment to learning as much as I can about guidance and childcare.

In conclusion, following the child involves deep respect, constant observation, a properly prepared environment which caters to the developmental needs of the children, guidance strategies that do not involve rewards or punishments, an understanding of the many systems that influence a child’s world, and on-going renewal of the teaching spirit. I found it very prophetic that in Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s (no relation) perpetual calendar page for the day I wrote this essay, is the quote “Your children are spiritual beings who come through you, not for you.” Words to contemplate.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dressing Frames

At this time of year I find myself thinking often of the dressing frames in our classroom. (These are wooden frames with various fasteners used to connect the material in the frame - zipper, buttons, snaps, hook & eye, safety pins, lacing, bow tying, etc - and they are used to teach the independent skills required to dress oneself.) The fasteners are chosen with care so that the zipper is easily pulled up and the button hole is not too small for the button; the snaps are not too stiff for little fingers and the tying frame's ribbons are just stiff enough to facilitate bow tying. In our hemisphere, by the time the weather turns cold and winter clothes are needed, the children (especially the youngest) have been practising for months and are eager to try out their new skills.

     Oh, if only manufacturers of children's winter clothing were as particular about fasteners as are Montessori teachers! At times it seems as though children's clothes are designed on another planet. Many of the zippers, buttons, snaps and clasps used are beyond the skills of many adults let alone the fingers of a 3 year old! It breaks my heart to watch our youngest students struggle and strain with poorly made plastic fasteners. After months spent practising with the dressing frames the light of success dims in a child's eyes when he has to turn in frustration and cry "I can't do this!".

     This is where parents can help their children retain that feeling of success. When a new coat or jacket needs to be purchased, take the child with you. (This is especially important if you buy gently used clothing, as I do.) Restrain yourself from purchasing something that is "cute" if your child can't fasten the garment without help. In addition, take some time at home to practise with the new clothes before the child actually has to wear the garment. A few minutes spent zipping up a new coat one quiet afternoon may make for an easier time on  busy mornings when everyone is rushing to get out the door. The more we can help children build on their successes, the more independent they will become.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

TV Talk

Sitting in a restaurant the other day, I overheard a very interesting conversation. Okay, I’ll admit it – I eavesdropped - but I couldn’t help it because the topic was one that comes up often.

The conversation took place between two young mothers about TV and what they thought was appropriate for their young children. One of the mothers felt that TV should be very carefully regulated and vetted – in other words, her child would never be left in front of the TV unless watching a video that she had already seen and decided was appropriate. Violence was forbidden in any form. The other mother thought she was being too strict and thought some violent movies were Okay as long as the parents had a discussion with the children about the violence.

I’ve heard the latter argument many times . Some people have tried to tell me that there is death and violence in the real world and children can be prepared for it by watching gentle yet violent films like the Disney films. Oh, really? I remember how devastated I was when Bambi’s mother was killed. For days I worried about my own mother, hovering and clinging until she sat me down and got to the bottom of the behaviour. I didn’t watch TV for a very long time after that and the fact that I can still remember how I felt 50 years later is the strongest proof I have that even a little violent TV is not Okay.

Oh, how I wanted to barge into the mothers’ conversation with my own opinion. How much I wanted to tell the second mother that violence seen on TV is re-enacted in the classroom and how other children will react negatively to her child’s behaviour. I also wanted to tell both women that if it is a choice between yelling at a child and using the TV as a sitter long enough to calm down, then by all means, turn on that machine. Just be mindful of what your child is watching and don’t leave them there for long.

My experience working with children has taught me that they react to violent programs or movies in three ways:

- They may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
- They may be more fearful of the world around them.
- They may be more likely to behave in aggressive ways toward others.

Yes, I wanted to tell the young mothers, TV in moderation is fine as long as the child is watching a non-violent film with supportive adults. There are many good movies and programs available and, though finding them may take a bit of searching, you’ll find it well worth your time. After all, raising our children is our most important job.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vase of Irises

In her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards reminds us that "research revealed the dual nature of human thinking - verbal, analytic thinking mainly located in the left hemisphere, and visual, perceptual thinking mainly located in the right hemisphere."  This is based on the ground-breaking discovery by Nobel prize winner, Dr. Roger W. Sperry.  In general, traditional schools tend to favour left-brain thinking while downplaying right-brain thinking.  Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy.  Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity.  In order to be more "whole-brained" in their orientation, schools need to give equal weight to the arts, creativity, and the skills of imagination and synthesis.  In a Montessori classroom, right-brain learning activities are integrated into each of the classroom areas by incorporating pattern work, dimensional work, role playing, visual and auditory learning, and movement into all the activities.

The creative arts are forms of self-expression which should complement and enhance a child's ongoing explorations.  The materials for art and music should be integrated into the environment as part of the day-to-day activities of the children.  "We do not teach a child to draw by having him draw, but by giving him the opportunity to prepare his means of expression." (Discover of the Child).  The opportunity to explore with various media, such as crayons, chalk, pencils, pastels,  paint, clay, textiles, and a variety of papers, should always be available to the children.  One day, I placed a print of Van Gogh's Vase of Irises within sight of the painting easel.  Then I placed pots of blue, yellow and green paint in the paint tray.  I did not say anything nor did I point out the print to any of the children.  Within the week, one little girl was painting blue flowers in a vase.  Her attention to detail was limited only by the materials she'd been given to work with - that is, tempera paint and a single paint brush.

Children do not need to be taught to be creative, but in order to aid development of their creative abilities, we must provide them with opportunities that allow exploration and experimentation in all the arts.
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