You may noticed the precision with which even the most seemingly simple of tasks are presented in the Montessori classroom. Step by step, with each movement calculated and measured, Montessori teachers offer children methodical lessons from everything from how to carry a chair to how to build the square of the decanomial. This precision (like most everything else in the Montessori Method) is by design, helping to establish reliable cognitive habits upon which more advanced concepts will rely, helping to develop specific fine and gross motor skills, and helping the child to build his or her attention span. In Montessori parlance, we call these qualities order, concentration and coordination.
But perhaps the most important outcome of the precise lessons is support they provide to the child’s developing independence. Consider your child’s arrival to school. Piece by piece, the teachers guide your child to remove his or her hat and tuck it carefully it in the cubby, unzip his or her coat and hang it carefully on the hook and, finally, sit down to remove carefully his or her boots and replace them with our slippers. Some of these tasks require great effort and may be immediately frustrating to the child. You may notice the teacher offering specific guidance to the child, for example, “Push your toes all the way into your slippers before you fasten the strap,” but rarely stepping in to complete the task. You may notice the teacher naming your child’s frustration, “Zippers can be hard,” but not rushing in to move the process along faster. You should always notice the teachers using a soft, gentle voice in accompanying the child, modeling the patience we hope children will internalize to their own struggles.
Following this precise order for simple tasks allows the child to take greater ownership over the task itself, because process is clear and sequential. Steps that seem simple to adults may be overwhelming to the child who is doing them for the first time on his or her own. Breaking them down into a routine, repeated sequence makes the parts of that sequence easier to manage and makes it more likely that the sequence can be remembered and completed independently. Throughout, the teacher provides warm and loving support, but not intervention, assuring the child through her own confident and peaceful tone that the child is capable of struggling through even some of the more frustrating steps. Children may flounder, and they may even ask for an adult to complete a task on their behalf. By accompanying the child while he or she persists through the struggle, though, the teachers are supporting a much more important outcome than merely getting a coat hung up.
Of course, it would be faster and more efficient to just unzip the child’s coat and hang it ourselves, but the coat is not the goal. The goal is the independence, concentration, coordination and order that emerge from persisting through challenges that are just beyond the child’s comfort zone. With each new skill mastered, no matter how small, the child’s self-efficacy grows. The time spent in accompanying the child translates into a resilience, self-reliance and problem-solving capacity that the child must build through his or her own experiences. We may be able to take off our children’s boots for them, but we can’t develop a strong sense of self on their behalf. They have to do that themselves.
Slow down… the small steps lead to extraordinary outcomes.
This post was originally published in October 2017.