Every August and September a beautiful dance plays out in early childhood and toddler Montessori classrooms across the globe. Children and their families begin a new school year. Some children rush in with the confidence and energy of a bee gathering nectar. They flit from one thing to the next and can hardly wait to put their hands on the materials. The adults who brought them are left standing in the wake of the flurry of activity, wondering, perhaps, if they’ll be missed. More children enter slowly and cautiously, often with their arm wrapped around the leg of their beloved adult. They observe the environment with a timid curiosity but hold tightly to the security of the familiar as they shed some tears. Still, other children come to school each year with varieties of liveliness and inquisitiveness that is uniquely their own.
Similar performances occur in elementary and secondary Montessori schools. The bodies are bigger, and the demonstration of excitement and concern looks different than the behaviors of their younger counterparts. Yet, the freshness of a new school year greets children of all ages with new opportunities.
One thing all of these children have in common is, however, that they do not arrive alone. These children are the culmination of interactions with their environments, the expressions of their temperaments, the unique potentialities within their beings, and the people with whom they share their lives. Regardless of the configuration of the family, the kith and kin of the child arrive as well. They, too, bring their unique personalities, prior experiences with school, expectations, and knowledge of their child. They bring a mix of emotions of excitement for the child and sadness, as the child moves on to enlarge their circle of ‘others’. One of the most significant others is their child’s teacher and the relationship that, if prepared intentionally, can unfold between the child’s family and teacher.
Where does that relationship begin? It begins first with the intentions and ideas of the adults. Whenever we enter a relationship, the first occurrence in interaction occurs in our minds. What are our first impressions? How do we interpret those impressions? What previous experiences do we have with this person? How do we interpret those experiences? Truly, there are a myriad of answers to those questions, yet one thing remains consistent: We control only ourselves in the answers. We, teachers, and families, control the intentions!
In 2018, I had the privilege to write my first book, Intentional Connections: A Practical Guide to Parent Engagement in Early Childhood and Lower Elementary Classrooms, and present it to educator audiences, who were anxious to connect with the families of the children in their classrooms. One question continued to resurface from those listeners: “Do you have a companion book to share with parents?” It seemed evident to me that there was a need for a conversation between educators and parents. That dialogue seemed to be centered on the wisdom, experience, training, and understanding of children that educators implement daily to effectively serve children, as well as the deep love and commitment of a parent or caregiver for a child. Those very children are the ones who are delivered to schools and care settings by families who entrust the educational professionals to guide the skills that the child will use to transform themselves into citizens of the world, Dr. Montessori said, “Since we have the means to guide the child, it is clear that the formation of man is in our hands. We have the possibility to form citizens of the world and the study of the young child is fundamental to the peace and progress of humanity.” (Montessori, 2019, p. 93).
Truly, our goal is lofty and cannot (and should not) be left to chance. Preparation is foundational to all Montessorians, and relationships deserve that same preparation, because the “formation of (the hu)man is in our hands!” It is the vision of both the educator and parent to see that the child’s talents, skills, and ambitions are developed to their fullest potential. And you may ask,
How in the world do we get there? The answer is both simple and complex…Together…So, where does the conversation begin?
It begins with a word of gratitude. Thank you to the parents, families, guardians, and caregivers who share their children with educators in schools and educational settings around the globe, and to you, dear reader, for caring to build rapport with your child’s teacher enough to read this article. As a parent, your time is valuable, your demands are high, and your energies are divided among home, family, and daily work schedules.
Children don’t come with an instruction manual; there isn’t a “how-to” video that guarantees their or your success; there’s no device that creates more time or resources to share with them; and there is no article, meme, or post that answers all your questions.
This introduction is a collection of wisdom and suggestions gathered during 30+ years of working with children and parents and candid conversations with more than 100 educators in public, private, Montessori, and traditional educational and childcare settings. The nine topics contained herein are those subjects that the surveyed educators wished most to share with families.
Regardless of the adults’ experiences, sometimes we have to “just do it” and trust one another. It begins with a perception —an idea that only the individual can control. For those adults with positive school memories, the idea of trusting may come naturally. For others, the phrase, “It isn’t happening now,” may be helpful in separating your past experiences from your child’s current one. An intentional decision to trust a teacher is a powerful decision that benefits children’s experiences in school settings. It was also one of the most common, occurring reflections that teachers shared with me when this book was being researched.
How do teachers and parents develop trust in one another once the decision is made to do so? According to provisional psychologist (Australia) Heather Craig, building trust occurs through keeping your word, careful decision making, being consistent, and acknowledging that trust takes time to develop, being honest, admitting when you’re wrong, sharing your feelings, showing kindness, and being open for participation and communicating.
Wow! That is a lengthy menu of behaviors that lead to trust. So, maybe we can approach one thing at a time. How about we begin with kindness. My mother used to share folk advice that as a child I thought was “uncool,” of carrots is a “yes, please” serving, while a small serving of peas can be a “no, thank you” serving. Ultimately, the child is consuming vegetables and benefitting from the nutrients that they contain. The choice is simply a matter of serving size. Providing children with some degree of choice may eliminate struggles and, more importantly, encourage the child to exercise independence within a prepared environment that adults create.
Are we all guilty of distraction by devices? Yes, myself included. Emails demand our attention; questions are answered by search engines; games are rated by their addictiveness; and social media can entertain and make us feel connected and “liked”, however, young children develop their social skills by imitating the adults in their environments and through the experience of interacting with others. Nothing can replace human contact. Children are drawn to the human voice. Regardless of the addictive potential of any device, a child will not learn to beep and whistle like a video game, but they will learn by attending to the people in their lives. It’s an opportunity we really don’t want to miss.
“She started it!” “He did it first!” “They made me do it!” These are some of the classic childhood deflections of responsibility for one’s own actions and reactions. Oddly, sometimes we hear these immature responses coming from adults as well — with slightly more sophisticated language, of course. Accountability means accepting the consequences for one’s behavior and has the word able as part of its root. It does NOT mean mistakes don’t happen. In many cases, learning occurs more powerfully when mistakes do happen. The tool to learn from mistakes involves the separation of judgment and shame from the error. For example, we can address the common childhood activity of spilling. I could go into a lengthy discussion about immature coordination and the environmental reasons for spillage, but that is outside this discussion! A child who feels shame about spilling cereal may blame someone else for the spill. This is an opportunity to tell the child that spills happen, and it is okay when they do. Adults can say, “We simply clean up the spill. May I show you how to use the dustpan and brush?”
The next time a spill occurs, and it will, the child will reach for the tools to remedy the overturned items. Please note that the child, not the adult, cleaned up the spill in the above scenario and took full responsibility for the actions, while learning how to use a dustpan and brush! The mistake is “no big deal” and can be corrected.
My husband would remark, “little pitchers have big ears,” when our conversations were ones that we shouldn’t have had within earshot of our children, regardless of the topic. It’s an old-fashioned saying, but its meaning is still relevant today. Children adopt the attitudes of their homes and schools without intention and, sometimes without understanding. Political rhetoric provides a great example of the acquisition of ideas that children carry into schools from external sources. In recent history, debates concerning the character of political candidates have made their way into early childhood classrooms, as children passionately proclaim a candidate’s “goodness” or “badness” without any understanding of the complexity of political races or vast components of personality. These opinions are not a result of the study of political science but are a result of “the absorbent mind.”
Of course, disagreement is a natural component of a relationship. Just as any number of individuals can have multiple perspectives of a common occurrence, so, too, can parents and teachers have differing ideas about a child’s development, achievement, and behaviors. These differences can provide opportunities for greater understanding for both teachers and parents and can be for the benefit of the child. However, children that are exposed to these differences in ideas may conclude and generalize the very environments that mean the most to them, home, and school, and those who dwell there, as either “good” or “bad.” This oversimplification and conclusion could create an obstacle that influences a child’s attitude toward school, her abilities, and her trust.
8. Intellectual Development
Perhaps it seems odd that an article influenced by teachers and written by a teacher would reserve intellectual development for such a late entry into a conversation designed for parents. Most teachers enter the field of education to help children and parents with much more than the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Dr. Montessori referred to education as “a help to life” (Montessori, 2018, p. 38), which implies a greater responsibility than the acquisition of skills. She also wrote, “The urge towards growth lies within the child himself; his intelligence and character will grow whatever we may do, but we can help or hinder the growth.” (Montessori, 2017, p. 48) She also went on to describe the environment in which children learn, “… there are always two factors, the human as well as the material one.” (Montessori, 2017 p.49)
She reminds us of adults, and especially you as parents and primary caregivers, are the most important teachers in a child’s life. When children are read to and see adults reading books, they develop a love of reading. When they hear, “I’m terrible at math,” they adopt those feelings as well. When they receive a written note in their lunchbox, inbox, or mailbox, they learn that the written word is a powerful tool that can build others up or devastate feelings. When we demonstrate kindness, they learn to express kindness. The human factor of a child’s surroundings cannot be underestimated. For the child in Montessori’s first plane of development (0-6 years of age), the absorbent mind is taking in impressions from the environment without filtration. An adult may ask themself, “Is this behavior/value/attitude/lesson what I wish to impart upon my child?” Wow! Our actions and words always provide lessons to children in all settings, not just at school. This is a huge responsibility and a wonderful privilege!!
Children don’t come with an instruction manual; there isn’t a “how-to” video that guarantees their (or your) success; there’s no device that creates more time or resources to share with them; and there is no article, meme, or post that answers all your questions.
Dr. Montessori reminded us of the vast differences between the adult, who produces through work, and the child who is not concerned with the “purpose” of his activity, but in the “doing” of the activity. She referred to “playtime (as a) time of learning by practice and every plaything a tool for his work.” (Montessori, 2017, p. 45). These tremendous opportunities for growth occur when children are free to choose their play activity without scripted play themes, such as those that are generated by movies, games, video games, or books, but are generated by the child’s imagination and the stories she creates. The deep play ideas or schemes, however, take time for the child to develop and deserve uninterrupted opportunities for development, as all good stories and projects do. In a Montessori setting, this uninterrupted time is typically 2-3 hours in length and allows the child to become truly immersed in the activity without distraction. Perhaps, undisturbed play of this suggested length is a luxury that busy families cannot afford. Perhaps, children who haven’t experienced long periods of play will find it difficult to entertain themselves. However, just as stamina is developed through exercise, stamina is also developed through practice and opportunities to play, so start with shorter periods of play until a time of greater length is appropriate. Early childhood was formerly the period of play, but academic preschools and kindergartens, organized activities and sports, and intrusions in our homes in the form of streaming videos, television, and video games defraud children of the joy of boats made of cardboard boxes, forts constructed of blankets, fairy rings fabricated out of rocks in the yard.
This is not to say that children’s play should never be interrupted by the reality of scheduling, such as work, school, or social opportunities; instead, it is to suggest that children benefit from unscheduled and uninterrupted playtime, even if that unscheduled time must be planned and intentionally reserved for play. Perhaps, think of this gift of time as an appointment, much like soccer practice and music lessons, without a commute! You may find that the gift of scheduled play time for grown-ups may be beneficial for the adults who care for young children as well. After all, the joy of playtime has no age limit!
What are the odds of me?
What an amazing journey a child makes from conception to adulthood. The conditions had to be just right for cells to form and develop, for birth to occur, for development during childhood to take place, for survival from the trials of adulthood, for the presence of a life on a beautiful planet to occur, and for the individual to be an occurrence in a vast universe. It staggers the mind to consider, “What are the odds of me?” None of us got here alone. We were dependent upon the environments that surrounded us, including the people. In The 1946 Lectures, Montessori reminded us, “There is a vital force in every human being, which leads them to make evergreater efforts for the realization of individual potentialities. Our tendency is to realize them. Joy and interest will come when we can realize the potentialities that are within us.” Together, intentionally, we can realize our potential as educators, as parents, as children, and as humans.
For more information on these topics, please look for Intentional Connections: A Conversation for Parents from Educators coming from Parent Child Press, Fall 2022.
Or watch the nine-part guest educator and parent webinar series at www.facebook.com/ DorothyHarmanEducatorandAuthor with guests: Reagan Vanderplas; Jess Stanley; Donna May Tomboc; Jasmin Fiel-Samson; Jonathan Wolff; Stacey MacKinnon; Nancy Smith; Emily Kimm; Kim Boyd; Andrea Otte; Kitty Bravo; Katrina Dumar; Virginie Butin; Cassey Wesnofske; Cassi Mackey; Karen Lirange; Resa Steindel Brown; and Erin Urwin. •
Craig, H. (2022, June 4). 10 ways to build trust in a relationship. PositivePsychology. com. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https:// positivepsychology.com/build-trust/
Harman, D. (2018). Intentional connections: A practical guide to parent engagement in early childhood & lower elementary classrooms. Parent Child Press.
Montessori, M. (2019). Citizen of the world: key Montessori readings. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
Montessori, M., & Haines, A. M. (2018). The 1946 London lectures. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
Montessori, M., & Lillard, P. (2017). In Maria Montessori speaks to parents: A selection of articles. Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
Dorothy Harman is an AMS early childhood Montessori guide. She holds a BA in early childhood Education and a M. Ed in curriculum and Instruction with an Emphasis in Creative Arts. Dorothy Harman serves as a Montessori consultant and Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. She serves as a Field Consultant for the Center for Guided Montessori Studies and was a 2018 recipient of an AMS Peace Seed Grant. She is the author of Intentional Connections: A Practical Guide to Parent Engagement in Early Childhood and Lower Elementary Classrooms, published through Parent Child Press.