Dr. Maria Montessori believed that independence was the most important trait to develop in our kids. She believed it was key to their self-confidence, their ability to learn, their sense of identity, and would enable them to contribute to the world. Developing independence calls for a balance of hovering and neglect. One mantra for Montessorians is remembering that the child is saying, “Help me do this all by myself.” We have to create space for independence and then support from a distance. If the point of childhood is to become a functional adult, then we have to work backwards from 18, 22, 25 (when do you expect them to wear the full weight of adulthood?) and create steps for independence.
Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert on friendship, warns parents to let kids work things out themselves unless there is physical danger. Dr. Julie Lythcott-Haims and Dr. Wendy Mogul both have best-selling books teaching parents how to balance their child’s academic needs with their needs for independence. These authors and many others tie the national depression and anxiety epidemic in teenagers and young adults with a lack of independence (especially through disappointment and hardship) when children were younger.
When we do something for the child we are telling them, “You don’t do this well enough.” Sometimes we want to say that (sometimes they really shouldn’t have certain privileges), but other times we are focused on our own needs or standards and they actually completed the task well enough for their age. If we’re thoughtful and purposeful about it, we will find that there is a lot they can do on their own, while we stand back and observe and maybe encourage — patiently available.
At The Fulton School, we believe character traits are like muscles–you have to practice them to get strong. We have identified nine key character traits that we look for daily in the kids:
We believe these traits are both timeless and timely, and we know that the children’s lives will be more fulfilling and more successful (on many levels) if they are well developed. But how do we develop these traits in our children? I will spend the next nine weeks exploring what research and literature say about developing these traits in our children.
Many of these nine traits overlap substantially, as you will see in the coming weeks. They feed and reflect each other. Initiative, independence, and confidence are like three points of a triangle; today I will hone in on one point of that triangle.
The tricky part of encouraging initiative is that the child has to start it–you can’t! We develop initiative in our children most directly when we implement a new idea they have. If your child suggests a change in the bedtime routine and you think it’s a good suggestion and you implement it, you have just sent her the message that her ideas are contributing to positive change. It’s rewarding and stimulates more growth in initiative. If your child gets up to take his dishes to the sink unbidden, state your appreciation; if he does his homework on his own, tell him you’re impressed; if she puts away toys or gets dressed before you ask, tell her you like her initiative. You are encouraging something that is undervalued in adults. Sometimes we hover so much, we don’t give our kids the chance to stretch these muscles.
If you have a child who shows little initiative, have a conversation with him at a neutral time in a neutral way to let him know you would like to see more initiative. Depending on the child’s age and why you think he resists, you can brainstorm ways for him to take more initiative. If he follows through on it, practice it, acknowledge it, and go with it! Sometimes you may need to set the stage for him and let others know that this was difficult for him in order to pave the way. When he experiences success a few times, he will continue taking initiative on his own and hopefully it can take root as a habit.
What do you do when your child has a lot of initiatives that you cannot or do not want to implement? Thank her for her creative thoughtfulness and explain why her idea won’t work. Or maybe take part of the idea and tweak it. Here at school, we will go some distance to give an idea credit and action–whatever morsel of productivity we can find in it. We believe deeply that in doing so, we are nurturing initiative in our students.
Last week was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of reasons for minimal screen time, but there are wonderful benefits for the screen time that we do allow. As with most things in life, the benefits increase the more proactive we are about them. The internet brings infinite opportunities for research and learning to our fingertips.
There is a wealth of informative videos (informally on sites like YouTube or formally on something like Khan Academy) that we can use to teach kids. The opportunities are mind-boggling. From how car engines work to what happens when you drop a ping pong ball three stories into a pool, this is all content that can support curiosity and learning.
Watching a show or movie with your child and discussing it together is a completely different cognitive experience for a child than watching something alone. Such shows provide great content for discussing your values, social situations, and decision making.
Apps and websites can make rote drills more fun — typing programs, math facts, names of countries/capitals, etc. through websites like JetPunk, Sheppard Software or Quizlet.
Connecting with friends and family is amazing (this just needs to be supervised and limited with kids).
There are options to organize kids who aren’t naturally organized (take pictures of assignments, homework apps, Google Docs).
And there are great coding practices for kids headed into STEM. The list goes on and on.
Back to my dessert metaphor: there is SO much good and joy and, better than dessert, really constructive uses of screen time. We don’t need to stay out of the candy store, we just need guidelines about how much we’re going to eat and how long we’re going to be in there (and who’s going to enforce that).
Many parents worry about screen time, but don’t necessarily understand all of the threats. I’m going to talk through four major categories for parents to consider.
1. Biological – Screens affect the brain and eyes primarily through the blue tint of the back light. This is changing all the time as new screens come out, but be aware that the light is extremely (unnaturally) stimulating and disrupts sleep and blinking significantly. Even sleeping near a screen changes our sleep patterns, as part of the brain appears to keep “one eye open” in case a message comes in. Experts recommend that children don’t use screens an hour before bedtime and do not sleep with screens in their rooms.
2. Chemical – This is more complicated, but screen addictions are real and chemically measurable. This is mostly associated with gaming, but we all experience slight stimulation when we see the little red dot indicating a notification and we all release endorphins as we tick off the checking of those dots–reading our texts or clearing our notifications. Adolescents are particularly susceptible to social media which imitates an addiction (adults report this too), but the chemistry here gets mixed in with social pressures and they are hard to separate. Lastly, due to their addictive nature, or how easy it is for us to pay attention to our screens, our concentration and attention when we’re NOT looking at a screen has suffered. This is a huge problem at school, obviously, where teachers and texts cannot compete with the entertaining nature of a device. Our devices are absolutely affecting our brain chemistry and we are only beginning to learn the ins and outs of it.
3. Social – Two dangerous elements of social interactions on our devices are that it’s virtually unsupervised and it never turns off. So imagine allowing your 14 year old to go to a large party in a warehouse with 50,000 other teenagers and then leaving them there for days without any adult around. Except it’s worse than that–since it’s virtual, everyone can craft their own brand or narrative. People can make themselves seem perfect, popular, skinnier, happy. They can make others feel awful in very subtle ways (I would argue that this is much more hurtful written down for some reason than when the same thing might happen in the hallway). Kids feel left out, uncool, unloved, behind on the latest news, etc. (they may *feel* isolated but they won’t look like it). And it never stops unless a parent stops it. It is VERY hard for kids to manage all of this without adult help. Also, the false sense of anonymity makes almost everyone (adults and kids alike) bolder on the internet–almost everyone will say things in a comment or text or even an email that they would never say to someone’s face. I predict that there’s some sort of neural inhibitor missing when you’re not looking at someone face to face (my own surmising, not research). It’s just kids being kids (impulsive, a little egocentric, and fighting for a sense of emotional survival) without adult supervision. They NEED adult supervision to coach, warn, provide perspective, call other parents, and periodically absolutely forbid something.
Secondly, screen time can stunt kids who are awkward and truly isolated because it gives them an excuse to avoid interaction. Much of socialization involves surviving awkward conversations, learning how to approach a group of kids and join in, and grinding away slowly at the process of building relationships. Kids who aren’t as good at this use screens to avoid these situations, so they are even less likely to develop these skills.
4. Self-Regulation – Devices give us all a way out when sometimes true growth or character is developed by not having a way out. While it’s fantastic that they have made our lives easier, we are learning that children benefit a lot by NOT having an easier life in many ways. The confidence and grit and independence that we want them to have can only be developed through actual practice, working through discomfort, fear and insecurity. Constantly having a lifeline to parents, or to avoidance/escape, or to entertainment leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness.
Was this too depressing? Part 3 will be the benefits of screen time!
How do we know that screen time is not good for growing brains? There is a lot of research out there that demonstrates the challenges of screen time. It’s too much for my little space here, so I’ll list some books below for those of you who want to dive deep.
It’s a tricky thing to test because quantifying any effects on our brains require human beings and ethical conditions. It’s nearly impossible to pull off direct, controlled studies of anything when humans (especially children) are involved. So we use a lot of surveys or other indirect studies. I’ll highlight a couple of powerful findings.
A child under the age of 12 (maybe others, but the testing was on children under 12) has a lower metabolism when they are sitting in front of a screen, than when they are sitting alone in a plain white room. This does not say so much about physical health (although that is certainly important), as it does about the stimulation of the brain and the overall physical effect on the child. It’s powerful.
On the other end of the age spectrum, multiple studies have linked increased depression and anxiety in adolescents with screen time. This is pretty broad and can mean a lot of things. Is social media making kids feel stressed and left out? Is gaming isolating kids socially? Are kids who spend a lot of time on devices less likely to develop social skills and interact with their peers? Or are depressed/anxious kids more likely to go to their devices for solace?
The Montessori philosophy is that children are more stimulated and learn more from the actual experience, from having the concrete right in front of them. So anything abstract or virtual is already less valuable to us curricularly. Screen time falls into the category of “not hands on” for the most part. It’s not real life. The most compelling research is really our own anecdotal experience. There is no doubt in our minds that students who experience limited screen time focus better, are more engaged in learning, and usually have a spark that kids who are in front of screens for unlimited amounts of time don’t. It’s difficult to prove scientifically, but it’s powerful when we see it over and over again.
Theoretically, every educator wants to engage kids, so how does the Montessori philosophy do this differently? It starts with a deep knowledge of child development. We build the educational environment around a scientific understanding of the child’s needs. Most traditions are based on the institution’s needs historically (schools have been factories that take a group who are the same age and do the same thing with them, test them, then move them on). While today’s trend is to focus more on a student’s needs, this is difficult to do well without changing the fundamental structure of the classroom–and sometimes even the standards in the classroom.
At Fulton School, when we focus on the developmental needs of the students, the classroom looks different than a traditional classroom. Students of all ages need choice, personal responsibility, opportunities for exploration and mastery, emotional nurture, and freedom to move within the classroom. They need to be able to learn on their own time table and in their own style.
Our youngest students can learn much more than our culture gives them credit for if material is presented in concrete, small chunks. Our elementary students will burst with enthusiasm if they are able to chase their passions and research their curiosity. Everyone doesn’t have to be on the same page of the text book or spend the same amount of time on every concept—especially as material grows more complex. But to do this well, that is, purposefully, carefully, and methodically, schools and teachers have to be willing to rethink classroom structure, schedule, and assignments.
Here at TFS, we have much more freedom to do this culturally at the youngest ages. We can teach three year olds to read and do math in ways they love, which is impressive, but we can also teach them pour water, to zip their coats, and to prepare their own food, which is extremely valuable to their sense of self worth.
As they get older, we have more cultural pressure to cater to the college preparatory environment, so we have to get creative if we are going to engage them! PreCalculus and long historical research papers may not fit the developmental needs of many adolescents, but practically speaking we need to include them so our graduates are prepared for the challenges that await them in college. We look for ways to include choice, movement, individual rhythms and learning rates, personal responsibility, relevance, and a breakdown of concepts in classes that may not be naturally interesting to the older students in the hopes of engaging them in a curriculum we can’t necessarily control.
While we engage toddlers and preschoolers differently than 6-12 year olds and 12-18 year olds, the key is being willing to take risks, allowing for some flow and some uncertainty, and watching for the student response at every age group. Dr. Montessori said that the work should call to the child and that is our goal: that our students are drawn to what they need to learn rather than be pushed, bribed or threatened. This is no easy task and is much more of an art than a formula, but we are committed to doing it every day in every class. This is what makes us different.
As a parent of a child who attends a Montessori school, you might get asked, “What is Montessori? What’s all the hype?”
The Montessori Method is the pedagogy (pedagogy is a fancy word for “how we teach”) that sets our school apart from others. There are different ways to summarize Montessori, but here is our core belief: Kids are natural learners and we must work with their desire to learn rather than against it. At The Fulton School, we strive to create an environment where kids can learn to their hearts’ desire.
The most fundamental characteristic of a Montessori classroom is engagement. Kids who are engaged when they’re learning will learn deeper, will learn faster, and will love learning. These three results multiply and develop into increased self confidence, higher self efficacy, and of course, a self-perpetuating desire to keep learning.
At the youngest ages (toddler and preschool), the difference between a Montessori environment and a non-Montessori environment is astounding. In addition to the academic pride and ability that our kids develop, their ownership in the classroom, their emotional and academic maturity, and their responsibility for their own actions stand out as incredible life skills for all kids to learn — no matter their age.
No one else is doing anything like this in early childhood. Most day cares are working to get kids to sit quietly on a line, share, and not fight with each other. That’s what we would be doing too if Dr. Maria Montessori hadn’t created another option that we at The Fulton School have all discovered in some way or another.
SEE US IN ACTION AT THE FULTON SCHOOL
Do you want to learn more about Montessori? Do you have a friend who wants to see — really see — how differently a Montessori classroom works? We’d love for you to set up an Observation Day — your own window into a Fulton School classroom.
Homework makes some families absolutely miserable. (I don’t mean eye rolling and sighing because it has to get done — that’s good frustration to barrel through in order to develop grit, self-discipline, and time management.) I mean regular melt downs, tears, lying, yelling (parent AND child) — complete disruption of the household because of homework.
One of our philosophical premises here, based on Dr. Montessori’s work and much more research in the century following her, is that all children want to please the adults around them and they are doing the best they can with what they have. We also believe that every sincere feeling is involuntary. Staunch, stubborn, regular refusal is therefore likely not misbehavior, but rather a symptom of something else.
If misery is part of your homework routine, then we need to partner together to tackle it. Your child is not learning constructive coping skills or building academic skills in that environment. When we partner together, we will try to figure out the root of the problem. Often there is some cognitive obstacle and the resistance is just a symptom.
We will talk through your observations and the teachers’ observations. Testing may be appropriate to identify some hidden obstacle in the way your child processes. Maybe he/she is overscheduled. Maybe the homework assigned is overwhelming, and we need to back off. Whatever the situation, we will analyze it (and change it if we have to) together until it has improved. This is what the TFS parent partnership is all about–working together to make sure each child is growing up in the environment he/she needs in order to thrive!
Another homework question that comes up a lot for students of all ages is the question of parent help. The student may be too dependent on parent help, the student may resist parent help, or it all may be a very messy process of some help, some nagging, some yelling, and some crying (on all sides!). To answer this question, we have to get back to the purpose of the homework and think about the type of help we provide.
If the purpose of the homework is preparation for class (usually this is reading or researching), then creating a situation where the child is doing that preparation effectively is the most helpful thing you can do. Creating the time for the work or possibly helping them locate audio books or software to support this might be the best way to assist.
If the purpose of the homework is practice or a final project, then the child really needs to be able to do it without your help (aside from creating the time and space for them to complete the work). If the child cannot complete this work on his/her own, then the teacher needs to know so they can address the needs in class. If this is a chronic issue, then we may need to meet about providing the child with the proper plan and support for moving forward in that subject. The most effective assistance will be offering supplies, time, and space.
The type of help we give is very important. The most important rule of help to remember is that every time you help, you send the message that “you cannot do this on your own.” This is an okay message to send when it’s true and you want to send this message. Unfortunately, we often send this message when we don’t intend to and we create helpless dependence on us, an aversion to failure/risk, and lower self-confidence.
Dr. Montessori said the child’s perennial request is “help me do it by myself.” Giving feedback, editing a paper, or looking over a math sheet might be fine if you challenge the child to think through what they already know. “You might re-read the first paragraph and look for appropriate capitalization.” Or “You didn’t show your work on #9. Doesn’t your teacher require you to show your work?” This is empowering the child to develop good habits. Sitting down to the computer to edit their paper or cutting out their science fair paragraphs is not empowering them… in fact it undercuts their growth. The daily grind of hard work, making mistakes, and receiving feedback is developing cognitive and emotional habits they need for life.
Many kids won’t want their parents’ help. This is fine too and displays a healthy sense of independence. Whether they feel vulnerable about the paper they wrote or they are just separating from their parents a bit, this is a healthy step for them to take. It shows great maturity and executive function skills if they can do their homework and turn it in without parent involvement — in fact this should be every parents’ goal before senior year.
If you have concerns about your child’s follow-through, you should partner with the teachers, letting the teachers know that you are hands-off and asking them to let you know if you should be more directive or if you should support them with any structure or discipline at home. Your relationship will be better without the added conflict, and your child will develop more self-confidence, organizational skills, and independence necessary for college and life beyond!