Child Development: Week 4

Adolescence, Part 1

For the last three weeks I have been writing about the phases of childhood.  Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the Planes of Development) from birth until 24 years of age. Dr. Montessori said that children are creating their person the first six years, elaborating on the mind and personality from years six to 12, then creating their social identity from 12 to 18 years, and elaborating on that from 18 to 24.  She uses the language of creation verses elaboration to distinguish between the upheaval of the first six years and the relative calm of the next six; the upheaval of the adolescent phase, and the relative calm of the last phase.

3ccc65d3-f493-4b84-ba03-a182bfa75645Adolescence is a phase that perplexes us.  We don’t always feel that we know our child; sometimes they act like they don’t remember us (their family, their roots). There’s drama, withdrawal, mood swings, and frustration from a child who was likely calm and enjoyable a year or two before.  Dr. Montessori (and many other developmentalists) argue that it’s not a whole lot different than the turmoil of the first six years.  The child is growing and changing tremendously, so there are lots of hormones (the chemicals that produce change in the body).  She is creating herself in some way, which requires a separation/distancing of sorts from you.  Her highs are very high, and her lows are very low (you will never be as upset as you were at two or 13 again, but you may also never feel quite the same thrills as you did at those ages either).  Her tantrums can be similar, but she is much more articulate, and she knows you well enough by now to lash out with sophistication–right where it hurts.

But they are still kids and they need you after the drama as badly as your three-year-old did.  They are trying on various identities, figuring out who they are, but they need you to remind them who they are.  They are pushing the boundaries to test their strengths, but they still need those boundaries.  The tricky part is that the six-year-old emerged ready to dress himself and make his lunch, but the adolescent will emerge ready to have a job, live on his own, manage relationships and school, etc., which often scares us. The stronger his core sense of identity is going into adulthood, the better set he will be for the stresses and demands of relationships–both intimate and professional.

So the tumult is all worth it, if it creates the adult that he will become. YOU have to be the calm in the storm, where he finds rest and remembers who he is.

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Child Development: Week 3

6 to 12 Years Old

Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. The past two weeks, I spoke about the first six years. In the second phase, between ages six and twelve, Montessori described the major goal to be mental/cognitive independence.  Freud called this period latency (because it’s so calm). Erikson said that the subconscious goal of this age group is competence — kids will either develop a sense of industry or a sense of inferiority.  These developmental tasks should resonate with what you observe in elementary students, and they all dovetail off of one another.

Six to twelve year olds frustrate/confound parents, teachers, therapists, etc. less than any other age because this time period of developing skills fits in beautifully with what society is asking of them.  They want to develop competence, and we want them to develop competence. We want them to go to school and work on typing and math and reading; in general, they want to go to school and work on typing and math and reading!  They want to play soccer and learn to play the guitar and take dance lessons; we view all of those activities as healthy, constructive needs that we want to meet.  Our goals for them work in harmony with their natural developmental goals, so during this period we usually feel pretty good about our kids, our parenting skills, and their school/teams/activities.

An ever-present thread, however, is Dr. Montessori’s theme of independence.  Physical independence (dressing themselves, feeding themselves, climbing, running, etc.) has been mastered, and is therefore no fun.  Skill mastery is the new thing, and the freedom to experiment with and tackle new skills is the next step in building their identity, but it has to have a measure of independence for it to be truly theirs.  When we “over parent” and push them too hard in these areas, we not only take the fun out of it, but we also take the independence out of it.  The result?  They don’t develop the confidence and identity they need to continue to build through their industry (hard work).  They will need a strong sense of competence–and identity–before heading into the next very tumultuous period–adolescence.

Stay tuned for next week: Adolescence


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Child Development: Week 2

The First Six Years of Life, Part 2

Erik Erikson, a renowned psychologist in psychosocial development, broke the child development process down even further. He observed that from birth to the first birthday, children are learning whether or not the world is a trustworthy and essentially good place. When your stomach aches for food, does it get filled? When your body is cold and wet, does it find comfort?  The core strength developed is a sense of hope.

Between the first and third birthdays, a child is learning autonomy (often called the “terrible two’s”).  If they are not able to develop this core strength of will, they are left with self doubt.  Children who learn to say “no” appropriately are more likely to be able to say no to negative peer pressure later, say no to injustices they observe, and have a stronger sense of their core ego–who they are.

Lastly, from three to six years old, children are subconsciously driven to develop a sense of purpose.  They do this through exploring their world; if adults encourage it appropriately, they learn initiative, if not, they learn inhibition.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned for next week’s post: 6 to 12 Years Old

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Child Development

The Montessori Method challenges educators to shape the curriculum and pedagogy around the developmental needs of each age group.  There is no universally accepted or articulated framework for psycho-social development the way there is for biological development, and frankly, I don’t know many educators or doctors who give much thought to it beyond the superficial stereotypes.


Dr. Maria Montessori

But Dr. Montessori was deeply intrigued by it, as were several of her contemporaries (Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and Anna Freud to name three), and they created a solid foundation in developmental psychology, although their theories never seemed to affect mainstream practices significantly.  We know a lot about teenage behavior from neurological research (they’re developing their frontal lobes) and biochemistry (for example, the chemicals of adolescence create mood swings), but why do they feel so lonely?  Why will they engage in something that we think they will mock and then mock something we think they will like?  What is the difference between an 8-year-old who wants to learn and an 8-year-old who doesn’t want to learn?

I believe that the better educators understand these tasks, the more effective our education will be.  We cannot help our students become the best version of themselves, if we don’t truly know them — and know which phases will pass.  We need to work *with* their natural drive rather than against it whenever possible.  In this day and age, with so much data and science and information, it’s shocking how dependent our entire child-rearing system is on gut and intuition.

There’s a lot of information missing still, but most schools are not addressing the information we do have.  I want to spend the next few weeks (here on this blog) discussing what the developmental stages are and how TFS addresses each of these stages in our own way.  The more we all understand our children, the better we can love and grow them.

Week 1: The First Six Years of Life

Montessori2Dr. Montessori proposed that there are four major phases of childhood (she called them the planes of development) from birth until 24 years of age. In the first phase from birth to six years old (infancy/early childhood), children focus on physical independence and the core task is to create their personality.  They are developing independence from mom biologically, and from all adults in terms of fine and gross motor skills.  They want to do concrete tasks by themselves, take care of themselves, and work on skills that interest them.  The foundation of their character, a positive sense of self, will come from their achievements in physical independence.

These are very broad generalizations, fleshed out over decades and thousands and thousands of written pages, but suffice it to say, most of us recognize our kids in those descriptions.  An eight year old does not find the same joy in zipping his own zipper as a four year old.  No one is quite as moody and contrary as the two year old who is setting her boundaries (except maybe the adolescent–we’ll address that later).  Big things are happening inside them during those early years that will shape the rest of their lives, and that’s why we give as much attention to the three year olds’ curriculum and day-to-day experience as our high schoolers’.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of Birth to 6 Years.

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Introverts and Extroverts

Last week, our faculty read some articles and discussed introversion and extroversion in the classroom.  Traditional schools tend to bias towards introverts, rewarding students for sitting quietly, not disrupting anything, and then moving to the next class.  Assignments due are completed individually and questions are taken at the end of the lesson.  But extroverts learn by talking and engaging, they have a difficult time holding their thoughts very long, and with their energetic focus on the world around them often comes disruption.  They work better in groups, unless the assignment is very difficult, in which case they usually need to be alone to concentrate.

intro and extro

As the need for “21st Century Skills” plays a more important role in pedagogy, progressive classrooms are focused more on collaboration, discussion, and projects.  The bias shifts towards extroverts by imposing on introverts’ processing time, rewarding speaking quickly and spontaneously, and demanding group and spontaneous participation in projects.  Introverts will learn better with time to formulate their thoughts, may pull away from overly energetic discussions, and grow exhausted by group work.

So what’s a teacher to do?  Fortunately, the common ground is that both introverts and extroverts can benefit from working on their weaker skills (for example, some students need to learn how to control “blurting out,” while others need to learn how to jump in and share their thoughts).  A well-supervised discussion, where the teacher is aware of both possible biases, can challenge both preferences in a constructive way.  Choices that address the differences between the preference are also key to optimal learning.  Students will naturally choose the least draining option and self-select into their optimal learning situation.  Wait time before requiring responses, outlets for extroverted energy, and meeting varying social needs can all be considered without much sacrifice in our independent environment.

Know that your children are with faculty who are focusing on how the students learn best, while pushing them beyond their natural inclinations.  We are nurturing who they are, with an eye on who they can be.  And we are always learning ourselves.


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Parents: Let Your Child Do Hard Things

unnamed (1)Is your child ready to deal with bumps in the road of life?  Can they handle disappointment, failure, and embarrassment with resilience?  These issues continue to be at the forefront of most higher education (college) publications.  College preparatory has come to mean much more than, or rather something very different from, academic preparation, as the crisis over student emotional preparedness grows broader and deeper.

I have written about this issue several times over the past decade, and our community is more united about these issues than many, but the problem continues to grow and so I believe we need to keep it on our community radar.  You can read the most recent article that has gone viral here, but suffice it to say that toddlers and preschoolers are not too young to start preparing for adulthood–in fact it’s the whole point of childhood.

Kids should have a little focused attention every day, but not 100% of your attention 100% of the time.  We should be our kids’ biggest fans, but also their most constructive critics.  We should not fix their problems, not let them stay home from school needlessly, not avoid uncomfortable situations, and not make excuses for them.  From the very start, they need to hear us say to them: You can do hard things and I know you can handle this yourself.

Dr. Montessori pioneered the idea that every time we do something for a child, we are sending them the message, “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do this well enough”.  This is an appropriate message when they are not yet capable (driving, planning the family calendar, being alone in public), however the crisis in college readiness and the extremely high levels of anxiety and depression in adolescents demonstrates that on the whole, we are not allowing or requiring our kids to do enough all by themselves.

Certain personalities will fight this, but most are happy to sit back while adults around them work hard.  They don’t know that doing things for themselves and contributing personally to the community around them is how they build confidence.  They’re kids!  They don’t realize that their muscles are atrophying and senses are dulling with each passive moment.

What do you do for your kids that may not be necessary?  What are they capable of doing around your house, for school, for friendships that they are not doing?  Do you think you should require any additional independence from them or raise the standards at all?

These are tricky principles to apply in our own lives, and I’m more than happy to wrestle with the issues alongside you!

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Homework – Stop the Struggle

This is the time of year when we’ve been in school long enough for homework to build up, get old, and stress some students out. I want to reiterate our philosophy about homework–we either give it for practice or for preparation. In math, and later in Spanish, homework is primarily practice, supplementing and reinforcing class activities. In English, Science, and Social Studies, homework is usually going to be preparation for some class activity (for example, reading ahead to prepare for discussion, preparing a presentation, writing in preparation for a one-on-one conference with the teacher, etc.).

We ask parents to provide a calm environment and block out the time for their child to focus, and answer a question here and there, but parents should not be teaching the child his/her homework each evening. In fact, if you do (or a tutor does) the teacher needs to know because the homework provides the teacher with a snapshot of the student’s depth of understanding. Homework that serves as practice is probably MOST important for students who are naturally slow workers, because those students are fully capable of handling the material, but not as productive during limited class time.

All that said, homework will not profoundly influence your child’s future. Constant tears and fighting WILL influence your child’s future. It affects your home life, and it will often make that child grow to hate the subject causing the stress.

Slowing down, doing less homework, working with the teacher on alternative assignments, or even eliminating homework might be the way to go. And you may have to make that call (your child may resist it). At the Lower School level, that may mean your child is in a different book, working on different chapters, or feeling different from other kids in some way. That’s okay! (And it’s a small price to pay for eliminating misery at home.) At the Upper School level, it may mean a lower grade, and that is also okay! Many studies show that your child’s grades have little to nothing to do with their futures as long as they are passing their classes and learning.

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What Can Students Learn from Goats?

As I watched the goats arrive on campus last week, the energy of the welcoming committee of 7th through 10th graders was electric. They were acting like brand-new parents. Boys were testing out the new shelter’s durability, kids were smothering the animals one minute, testing their free will the next, and fawning over their first bite of plants on the hillside.

The goats (any animal, really) provide a broad platform for character and academic lessons across all age levels at the school. They offer an acceptable means for shy kids to feel safe, for boys to show affection, for active kids to be tactile, for timid kids to be brave, for enthusiastic kids to have to wait their turn and share, and for kids who aren’t feeling a lot of successes to find an area that they may thrive.  The goats will be serenaded, have their portraits painted, and star in stories and films.

Furthermore, they provide us with a means to build student, family and academic skills; Dr. Montessori said that educators should create lessons using materials that are naturally interesting to the student. It is more engaging to teach responsibility through care and connection to a goat, than through rote cleaning chores (although we have those too). Scientific inquiry is deeper when you’re truly curious about which plants your goats are eating on the hillside than when it’s just the next chapter in the science book. As physics and robotics and programming advance, we hope to automate their water, add webcams, and come up with other excuses to study and research and innovate–about something real and meaningful and right in our backyard.

So what will the students learn from the goats?  Just about anything and everything.

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Welcome Back!

Welcome back to a new school year! The classes are in full swing. New students and new teachers are still adjusting, and for returning students, the newness of the routine and friends and growing up a year is fresh and exciting.

Big Leaf TFSFor many of us, the start of the school year feels more like a “new beginning” than January does.  I’m naturally drawn to resolutions for the school year, rather than the New Year.  I came across this poem this summer and it really resonated with me. I hope, like me, you’ll be inspired to make the ordinary come alive this year.

Make the Ordinary Come Alive
from Parent’s Tao Te Ching by William Martin

Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.


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Fostering an International Program

ballet team extracurricularAt The Fulton School, we have been growing an international program here for a number of years.  Since the high school was founded, we have offered at least one international trip each year.  One legacy that a Chinese teacher and a Korean teacher left here years ago was the capacity to issue visas to international students.  Since then, we have had a steady stream of Asian students.

high school classThree years ago, we expanded the number of international students we could accept to 12 by offering a home-stay boarding program and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.  In the interest of international diversity, some of our families participate in hosting students through exchange programs, which enables students from Europe and South America to study here for a year.  All of this together makes up our international program — a series of opportunities for our students to grow in their understanding of other cultures and our place in the world.

boy in caligraphy classThis spring I visited schools in China, along with our admissions director Diane Loyd and two TFS high school students, hoping to build partnerships that can bring increased depth and opportunity to our program.  Through these partnerships, we can systematize our Asian admissions process, develop relationships with referral schools, and create opportunity for our American students to take short terms trips where they get to know Chinese homes and schools in addition to culture and history.

We also visited with a few of our TFS parents/families there.  They were all such gracious hosts, sharing their hometowns, their homes, and their favorite foods with us.  We were quite moved.  Hopefully this trip was the beginning of a whole new area of adventure for Fulton School students!

*Note: Photos shown here were from our recent trip to China.

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