By: Shannon Helfrich
Parents today are inundated with media and written materials designed to support them in their role as parents. Many of them are keen to learn the ‘right’ things to do or not do, keen to learn the techniques for raising ‘good' children. Yet, as they read they discover as much conflicting information as they do insightful information.
Often, this is no help!
Shannon Helfrich gives some insight into how we can interact with parents and what kind of things it is important to help them to understand.
As Montessori teachers it is very important that we find a way to help parents understand the developmental principles that we are using to inform our work with the children.
To make matters worse, our mobile society has left many a young parent isolated from the old network of extended family, that in the past functioned as the ‘wizened elders’ of parenting. In today’s world, young parents have typically lost this resource so they look to other avenues to replace the cultural wisdom. This is where teachers can play a greater role. We are collaborators with the parents. We can support, educate and encourage parents.
There are many opportunities to work with parents; some formal and some informal. Our contact with any family begins when they inquire about the school for their child and hopefully come to observe. For most of these parents, what they see in the classroom is very different from their own experience at school. A few minutes on the part of the teacher, some time with the administrator, and a good guide sheet for these observations can help significantly. The prospective parent can ask questions and get some insight into the uniqueness of our Montessori approach.
Once a parent has enrolled their child, the real opportunity for education begins, usually with some form of New Parent Orientation. New parents can meet experienced parents, get a sense of the school community and get their first insight into the Montessori approach to child education. This is a good time to go through the essential elements of the Parent Handbook. While this might seem like a lot of ‘nitty gritty’ at the beginning, we need to remember the basic human need for orientation which brings physical and psychological security. A new parent who feels confident in what is expected of him/her can become a part of the community and take care of their child’s needs with comfort. Now is the time to talk about pick-up and drop off procedures, lunch guidelines, clothing expectations, the box with a change of clothes etc.
Throughout the school year, parents are invited to attend a series of Parent Nights. The focus of these gatherings ought to be on parent education. This is our time to really share what we know and understand about the nature of the child, with the very people who have the greatest impact on them. Then we can rest assured that the child will have the best opportunity to grow and learn. The child who spends a few hours a day within the Montessori prepared environment will be able to go home and continue to feel supported and encouraged. While there are always practical matters to review at the parent nights, the important objective is to keep the focus on principles of good parenting. Often, the focus is on helping the parents to understand the Montessori materials or the classroom applications. This is a valuable experience for every Montessori parent, but cannot be the sole focus of Parent Nights.
For many teachers, the most intimidating part of parent communications is the formal Parent Conferences. This is the time to share with the parents the progress their child is making in learning and any ways the parents can support their child’s independence and continued growth and learning. Many schools schedule these conferences at a set time throughout the year. Other formal conferences are scheduled with the parents to deal specifically with challenges. The focus of these conferences should be exclusively the issue at hand. Remember, we are collaborators and often the challenges we experience with a child are the same challenges the parents are dealing with on a larger scale at home. Brainstorming strategies and providing community resources can all be a part of this communication.
One additional formal contact with parents occurs when the parents come to observe their child in the classroom. Anything we can do to help the parents feel comfortable, and appropriate, and to provide insight into their observations goes a long way in helping the parents understand what they are observing. Remember to tell them that the behaviours of their child are probably not the norm. Children seem to lose a bit of “normalization” when the parent comes to observe. This is heartening for both the teacher and the parents to remember.
There are also several informal opportunities for contact with parents. We see many parents on a regular basis during drop off and pick up times. Parents don’t always understand that we are not available to them during these times. Being pleasant and warm in greeting the parent is important, but we have to set the limit that this is not the time for a conversation. We see parents coming and going in the halls. Be warm, but this is also not a time to socialize or problem solve. While we set boundaries to protect our availability to the children during these two aforementioned times, we must set times when we are available. Make parents aware of when and how to contact you by phone. Parents then will be more able to respect the boundaries we set, because we have made ourselves accessible to them at other times.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether the contact with parents is in the formal or informal context, this can seem to be an overwhelming part of the teachers mission. Let’s look at how to work together with the parents and also at what aspects of our Montessori philosophy might be helpful in supporting the parent in their life with the child.
There are several things to keep in mind regarding parents. I offer some simple guidelines.
Recognize and respect one another’s knowledge and expertise: it is humbling to admit that the parents probably know this child better than you do. While the parents may look to us as the experts on the theoretical knowledge of child development, they are the ones living through it on a daily basis. We need to respect the experience and knowledge of the parent and validate them for this expertise.
Share information through two-way communication: communication between teacher and parents is no less important than communication between parents. Many parents have insights from their own experience that will be quite valuable to us as the teacher. Listening indicates to the parent that they have something important to contribute. It helps them to feel a part of the collaboration, as opposed to being dictated to by “the expert.”
Acknowledge and respect diversity: I don’t even want to count how many versions of ‘family’ exist in our current society because it really doesn’t matter. Whatever form the family takes, that is the family the child has. There are cultural influences, religious influences and familial traditions. We don’t have to personally agree or disagree with any of these, but we must respect their differences and understand them as best we can.
Create networks of support: Some times, the teacher is not the best person to offer help, or does not have the expertise necessary to be of help. In these cases, the wise teacher has a network of support that he or she can suggest. Sometimes, another parent with similar challenges is sufficient and at other times, more professional resources are needed.
The way in which we can help parents to gain the information they are seeking falls into three categories.
Category One: The Nature of Growth and Development
Parents don’t need the whole lecture and all the details of the Four Planes of Development, but an overview can be helpful, as we look at each individual plane of development and help parents to see how the manner in which the child learns changes from plane to plane. We can use the Geometric Chart of the Four Planes to explain the cyclic nature of development. This helps parents to see that growth and learning is part of a predictable whole. It is a continuum throughout early life and the needs of the child are going to change over time. It is encouraging for parents to understand that the skills they learn at earlier stages of their child’s life become the building blocks for communicating and dealing with their child later in development.
The overarching role of the basic human tendencies provides insight into the learning process and can serve to remind all of us that the dominant powers for learning in each plane are amplifications of these human tendencies. It is not necessary to look at all the human tendencies, but we can look at a couple examples that parents can relate to in their own lives and see how they can be observed in the lives of children. For instance, we can take orientation - that most basic human tendency. The newborn must orient to the physical and psychological environment. They must create landmarks of familiarity for themselves. They learn behaviours by modelling themselves after those they trust. We can look at exploration. The young child explores the limits of their own body and later the world surrounding them. They come to an intimate relationship with this world as an interesting and safe place to learn.
Most of the parents in our communities have children in the first and second planes, so a bit of depth about growth can be helpful. Looking at the powers for growth (absorbent mind, sensitive periods for first plane, and the powers of abstraction and imagination in the second plane) can be helpful.
The Sensitive Period for Language is an easy example for parents to observe. Every child, everywhere in the world creates for him/herself in a relatively short period of time a mother tongue- a spoken language. The child learns to communicate thoughts, ideas and needs with words. The vocabulary and structure of language develop side by side.
The Sensitive Period for Movement is also easily observed in children as they first master the demands of locomotion and then the refinement of the hand as the instrument of the mind. What parents often don’t understand is the role of movement in relationship to the will and as the vehicle in the brain for the building of neurological pathways needed for later learning.
The Sensitive Period for the Development and Refinement of Sensory Perceptions is virtually unknown to parents. They readily acknowledge that all humans use their five senses, but to understand the role that these senses play in the learning process is often missed. The refinement of the sense, which is in actuality the training of the brain to interpret and analyze the incoming data, leads to the creation of the basic classification system we use throughout our lives.
The Sensitive Period for Order is essential in supporting the creation of both a capacity for external order, but also mental order. It is one level of ‘knowing’ to be able to put a group of objects into a sequential progression; it is quite another level to apply that mindset to a pattern of words in a sentence or the process of addition. It is one level of order to keep the physical environment tidy, but quite another to create order when it is needed and not present.
An understanding of the nature of the Absorbent Mind is important for parents who quite easily presume that the child thinks like they do. The notion that the child’s mind works so differently from our adult mind is a difficult concept to take in.
Category Two: The Nature of Learning
We can look at what we know today about the nature of the brain. Neither we nor the parents have to be neuroscientists, to understand a few of the basic notions.
Category Three: Supporting the Child Through Control of the Environment
Home is a prepared environment, whether it is thoughtfully prepared or not. For many parents, this is a new notion. They think about their home as their place, and indeed, it is, but is it only a place for adults? Many children feel like ‘aliens’ in their own homes simply because no thought has been given to making a space for them.
As soon as the child can begin to move, s/he becomes an interactive explorer of this new world. The child who is given freedom to move and to explore builds a sense of confidence both in him/herself and in the world. From early on, the child placed on the floor with interesting things to move toward becomes stimulated. The act of moving and the freedom to respond to the interest stimulated by spotting the ‘object’ creates a sense of self-esteem. The child not only learns about the object being explored, but also is building a network of neurological pathways through the movement itself. We can make our home a safe place with interesting motives for exploration. Remember even the most mundane things to us are new to the child and worthy of exploration.
Language is a marvellous aspect of development. It also needs a rich environment from which to draw. For the very young child this simply means that they are spoken to with clear vocalizations. There is a moment in time when the child begins to replicate the sounds that they hear. The art of babbling allows the child to work out how to use their own muscles to make these sounds and he or she is soon able to put simple sounds together. Thus appears on the child’s lip their first word! A rich language environment does not start and end with being spoken to. The child must also observe the other means we use in our culture to communicate.
Research for the last thirty years has shown that children who are read to are much more easily taught to read. Our world is filled with symbols. The child sees these, innately knows that they are used to communicate and this creates a desire to learn to decode the secret of the symbols. As the parent reads the story to the child, the child can see the wonderful illustrations that support the words, but it is still the words that tell the story. It is the words that communicate the magic! Any parent who has been so audacious as to change the story knows that the child has already discerned that the symbols do not change! Beyond children’s books, do our children see us reading? Do they see the joy, the interest, the excitement that reading brings to us? This adds to the interest and motivation to learn the magic of the symbols.
As children grow in their powers of movement, they can become participants in the life of the family. The drive toward independence is great for the young child. Some of the first power struggles a parent may find themselves engaged in are with a child who wants to ‘do it myself!’ Not only are children great explorers, but as they move, they development greater powers of coordination. The first great “gymnasium” for practicing these new skills is the home. The child wants to feed himself, dress himself and do simple everyday, practical tasks that he sees others carry out for their own benefit. Any time we do something for the child that the child is capable and desirous of doing for himself; we are an obstacle to independence! It does take some forethought, planning and patience to allow the child to function and make choices, but this is critical to the development of a sense of competence. The child who can do for himself grows in self-esteem and confidence.
We can also help parents to see their child as a member of the family community. The child is often the ‘forgotten citizen’, seen, but not heard; and not acknowledged as a functional member of the social group. We can help parents see the value of allowing the child to function at their innate level of skill and competency. Children are not efficient, they are not neat and tidy, to say nothing of quick when carrying out common tasks, but they need the right to this participation to feel respected.
As Montessorians, we understand the challenges of finding child sized and child proportioned items and tools. Many parents have never thought about the different proportions of the child’s young body and how their capacity to carry out tasks is hampered by oversized tools and uncomfortable furnishings.
We have the luxury in our classrooms to prepare places specifically suited to support and stimulate the growth and learning of the child. In many ways, we the adult are the ‘foreigners’ in this environment. The home, on the other hand, has to be suited to a great variety of family members and cannot be specifically suited to one age or need. We can help parents understand that this does not need to translate into an environment that is not child friendly. We can think about each room in our homes and see little adaptations that can be made to allow the child to function as independently as possible.
Many parents may find it difficult to prepare the home environment, but they can be encouraged to think about their child from a Montessori perspective. I call this having a ‘Montessori mind set’. Let's look at what awareness we can share with parents to help create this mindset.
Respect for the child revolves around allowing them to be participants in the life of the family community. For Dr. Maria Montessori, respect for the child was critical. She saw the child as the ‘lost citizen’ who had no rights and at best was ignored. Respect comes from how and what we say to the child. Communication with clarity, focused on what we desire the child to do, as opposed to what not to do is the basis for respect. Respect comes from being spoken to, not at or about. Speaking clearly, without innuendo is essential. The child is a literal listener. The child’s vocabulary is still limited and the child can only take at face value the words they hear. Saying what we desire- no questions left to interpretation, no subtitles, and no logic! Before the age of 3, logic is beyond the capacity of the child. They have no mental construct for following logical explanations that lead to an expected conclusion. Even if the conclusion is stated for them, they can’t follow the thinking. This capacity begins to show itself between the ages 4 ½ and 6 yrs, and becomes more possible as the child moves into the second plane. Respect means allowing the child to do what s/he can do, at a level that the child is capable of. This child is still learning and perfecting everyday skills. This takes time, practice and the opportunity to make mistakes, for it is our mistakes from which we learn the most. In Montessori, we call this ‘friendliness with error.’
Not many of us, if any, can perform a new skill perfectly the first time. We practice, we get expert help, and then we practice some more until we get it as good as we can at the moment. This is self-perfection! We make mistakes and we correct those mistakes! Or life goes on and the mistake becomes nothing more than a learning experience. Often, we don’t need anyone else to point out our mistakes, they are pretty self-evident and the challenge is to problem solve the difficulty in our own novel manner while still learning. This acceptance of imperfection is so important for the young child, who is still very much under construction!
This article is edited from the transcript of a seminar given to teachers and students by Shannon Helfrich in London on 24th February 2007 and organised by the Montessori Society AMI UK,Shannon Helfrich is an AMI trainer at the 3-6 level. She has been involved in Montessori Education since 1971 and has served as the Director of Training at training centres both in the United States, Thailand, China and Australia.