“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
- Maria Montessori
Because we care deeply about our children, we seek to protect them, to shelter them from harm or struggle, to preserve the carefree state we so often associate with childhood. But sometimes our efforts to protect our children do them more harm than good, shielding them not only from the struggle that may upset them, but also from the benefits that persevering through the struggle can provide.
Montessori classrooms are designed with one primary intent: that the environment should support the children in becoming independent of adults. With that in mind, we offer the children furniture they can access with ease, materials that are appropriate for their size and strength, access to the tools and skills for basic care that will allow them to take ownership of the physical space. Beyond the physical design elements, Montessori classrooms foster intellectual independence as well. Self-correcting materials allow children to identify and respond to their own errors without asking for a teacher’s approval. Careful sequences of lessons assure that children master concepts in isolation before combining them in more complex ways. Visual patterns within the presentations themselves build cognitive structures that later support more challenging work.
One of the most important ways in which we support the children’s growing independence is through our interactions with the children. We recognize that there is no substitute for the joy and confidence that comes from solving a problem independently. When children are engaged in a task, even one that is challenging to them, we resist the urge to jump in to “help” the child complete it, understanding that, for the child, the satisfaction comes from the process, not the completion. Instead of finishing tasks for the children, we offer emotional support and encouragement to assure them that we trust in their abilities and that they can, too. You may see teachers sitting nearby a child who is working to put on his shoes, for example, articulating for the child that it is hard work, motivating the child to keep trying, and, when the shoes are on (even when they’re on the wrong feet!), acknowledging the finished task as the child’s accomplishment.
Remember: it is not whether the child can complete the task independently that determines our intervention. It is whether the child feels he can. Adults can always identify ways to modify a task to manage the level of challenge, but we should not seek to remove the challenge entirely. Instead, when we step in to complete tasks on the child’s behalf, we should ask ourselves first whether doing so would be at the child’s expense. Does the activity require adult assistance or is it just done faster or more efficiently with an adult’s help? Does completing the task for the child promote his or her ability to complete it independently in the future? Finally, would certain modifications or support allow the child to complete the task without relying on an adult?
In accomplishing most everyday tasks, children will take more time than adults. Their accomplishments will likely be less precise than if an adult had completed the task. But children don’t learn to be precise by watching other people’s precision. Developing the ability to complete a task quickly, efficiently and precisely requires practice, patience, and the belief that we can complete it without assistance: developing those skills is something that, whatever the task, the children have to do for themselves.