Positive Communication with Children

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We hear about ineffective communication all the time, and many of us have experienced it directly at one point or another. Communication can make or break relationships. It can lead to failures or successes in the work place and can create or clear up misunderstandings. Communication is a skill that takes practice and is a work in progress for children and adults alike.

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“What Did You Learn Today?” Encouraging Dialogue

Compiled By Ms. Aja

A million things, great and small, have happened since your child came to school, so when you ask “What happened today?” they may be overwhelmed.

As a parent, you must feel frustrated when you ask your child what they did at school today and they reply “nothing.” As a Montessori teacher, I’m even more frustrated when I hear my students give that same response to their parents. I want to say “What do you mean you did nothing? We worked like crazy all day long!” Parents come to the teachers asking what their child was doing all day in the Montessori classroom because they can’t get them to share their own experiences at home.

Let’s analyze both the question and the responses. First, when we ask our spouse or our friends “How was your day”? They respond with “fine” or “ OK,” and elaborate as they feel the need.

On the other hand, children need more direct questioning. They are developing the art of communication, and therefore need to be guided through the process. Let’s start asking questions that require more than one word answers.

What was the worst/best part of your day?

Children often reply that they did nothing all day because they are so busy ‘learning and doing,’ they don’t realize that what they are ‘doing’ is important. After all, Maria Montessori said that “play is the work of the child.” It is only natural then, that they feel that they are working and doing their jobs. Learning that “M” sounds like “mmmm” as in mouse, mat, mug, match, and muffin or learning that the square root of 36 is 6 is just what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s not momentous enough to them to attach daily significance of good or bad.

Asking your child what the worst and best part of their day was makes them stop and reflect back and analyze their day. Maybe the best part was being the line leader or getting a lesson on the Africa map and Land and Water forms. Maybe the worst part of their day was not having Spanish, or spilling their water at lunch time. Whatever it was, surely it was important enough to make an impact. As Montessori parents and teachers, we need to use active listening skills and respond in a way to encourage more conversation. Here is an example:

Mom: “What was the best part of your day?”

Child: “When I dropped the addition tile box.”

Mom: “When you dropped the tile box? How was that the best part of your day?”

Child: “Well, because Suzie came over and helped me pick up all the tiles and put them back in the box. Afterward, she helped me roll my mat and asked if I wanted to work on some science together. We had a lot of fun and we sat beside each other at lunch.”

Mom: “It must have felt nice working with Suzie. I’m glad to see you are making new friends.”

From the parent’s perspective, dropping the tile box and having to pick up all the pieces does not sound like the best part of any day. However, from the child’s point of view, it was the catalyst that started a series of positive events.

This is a good thing to do at the dinner table. As you’re eating, go around the table and each family member can tell the worst and best parts of their day. If you ask for the worst parts first, then you can end on a positive note.

What did you learn today?

“Can you tell me three things you learned today?” is a simplistic question, but requires a complex mental process to answer it. The metacognition to recall three things learned out of all the many other happenings during the day is difficult. It requires thinking back to lessons and extracting exact information.

With younger children, you may decide to ask them to tell you one thing. Or ask more specifically, “What did you learn in Geography today?” Not only does this focus your child on what they learned in school, but it shows them that you are taking an active role in their learning and education.

To find out exactly what happened in your child’s Montessori classroom, ask direct, rather than vague questions. You’ll soon find out that your child is really doing a lot of work, and you’ll be pleased with the increased communication between the two of you.


That’s Not Fair! Moral Development in the Second Plane

The second plane of development is sometimes called the birth of the social personality. In the Montessorian framework of development, each plane can be considered a rebirth, in which certain aspects of human nature are brought out and undergo critical periods of development. Some very prominent changes are the growth of language and the onset of puberty in the first and third planes of development, respectively. In the second plane of development, there are a number of features undergoing significant growth, and they produce certain psychological characteristics common to this plane.

One very prominent characteristic is moral development. I’d like to focus on this characteristic, because interestingly enough it is also recognized across many different cultures and religions. That is, in law and in many different religions, ancient and modern, there is normally an age when a child is deemed responsible for their actions. It normally happens at the end of what Montessori would call the second plane of development, and sometimes earlier. (So, around 12 or 13) Also, we observe it on an almost daily basis.

The child between the ages of 6 and 12 is constantly working out what is fair and what is not fair, what is right and wrong, and who is and who is not responsible for this or that situation. In fact, many times something happens because of circumstance, or accident, and the child wants to infer that someone was to blame. This is because they are working out their own moral compass, and developing a sense of right and wrong, and developing notions of moral responsibility. Sometimes things which are not moral considerations – like is it right or wrong to wipe my hands this way – become objects of intense moral scrutiny!

The child is learning what it means to interact with other people, and what it means to be responsible for their own actions. As they undergo this developmental process they will be using their peers and adults as benchmarks. It is therefore important to cultivate in them a willingness to think about moral questions on their own, and also to act how we say we will act. A child at this age will notice immediately if we say we ought to do one thing, and then we do something else. This also creates confusion as it establishes a disconnect between moral prescriptions and practical actions. Of course, no one is perfect, and it is very hard to try and live up to all of the moral standards we set for ourselves. And in any given situation we may be pulled in any number of directions.  Yet, a child at this age is acutely aware of these conflicts, and so they keep the pressure on! This makes it important to do our best in modeling the behavior we want to see, and explaining our actions where appropriate.

We also should try and help the child reason independently, as it is easy for children to go too far in using adults and peers as benchmarks, and not to think through moral questions on their own, which is much harder to do. This poses difficulties for adults as well, as they also need to help the child develop a respect for the wisdom gained through years of experience and tradition, while allowing a space for the child to become their own free and independent moral actor, who can take responsibility for their actions, and question the world around them. If a child is always following an order, or doing what others do, it will be hard for the child to understand when they are responsible for their own actions and to develop their own sense of morality. If I have only a teacher to serve as my conscience, and only a book to serve as my understanding, then I do not have the chance to develop my own abilities in these domains.

It is of course important to guide them in these areas, but it is also very important to give them the space necessary to work out social conflicts on their own, while keeping a close eye in case one has to step in to prevent emotional or physical injury.

This is also why, at around six years old, children become very interested in fairy tales, science fiction, and stories about good and evil. Moral dramas appeal to the developmental process they are undergoing at this age. And many times, when thinking about these stories, or when involved in a conflict, the moral dilemma’s the child poses will not have easy answers. Adults themselves are still working many of these problems out. It is ok if we don’t have all the answers, and it’s important to let them know about the complexities of moral decisions by asking the child questions, and getting them to think about their own moral reasoning. By posing questions instead of immediately giving answers, we help the child think through moral problems independently. This will further inculcate a desire to learn and to discover, and more importantly it will help them become comfortable with conflict resolution among peers in situations without easy answers.

And so, although this age can be a frustrating age at times, as it is rife with social conflicts, complaints, protests, and reports of unfairness, it is important to view these actions as a process of development, and as necessary growth pains in the child’s life. It doesn’t mean that the child isn’t listening, or that we aren’t making ourselves clear, or that they don’t understand the feelings of others, it means that the child is repeating these behaviors to gain a better understanding of them, often unconsciously, as they grapple with the nature of right and wrong. So, the next time your child yells, “That’s not fair!” try taking it as an opportunity to question them about why they think that.



Montessori from My Perspective

I will never forget my first visit to a Montessori classroom when my son was 3 years old. I could literally feel the enormous respect for the children displayed in the beauty of the environment and the conscientious attention to detail. Small vases of flowers were on the tables, tastefully chosen works of art hung at the children’s eye level and the children were happily and calmly working both independently and collaboratively. I didn’t understand how this ‘method’ worked, but I knew it was the answer to my long journey to find a school for my son. At the time, I didn’t know it was going to also change my life!

Montessori classrooms are prepared environments for children of multi-ages meeting their unique and varied needs. The furniture is appropriately sized, the materials available on low shelves for easy access to the children and the layout of the room is warm and inviting. This preparation gives the children what they so deserve which is the freedom to find work that has a range of ability levels from very sensory materials and practical living skills to complex language, mathematics and cultural explorations. There is never a shortage of materials to engage any child. The mixed age range in the classroom allows the children to be both student and mentor. The younger children look up to their older friends modeling on their mature behavior and excellent language and motor skills. The older children have the opportunity to teach their younger classmates both through use of classroom materials and from their broader understanding of social cues. Nothing in the classroom is put there by chance. Each guide (teacher) is a keen observer who recognizes opportunities to introduce new work to a child ready for just that lesson. The magic is in the match! Each guide leads a child to maximize their potential socially, physically and cognitively.

Current thinking indicates that Montessori is an incredible experience for the very young child and it is, but can those same concepts of independent, hands-on learning be applied to an elementary and middle school level? The simple answer is yes! Montessori children become vested in becoming competent, confident individuals who want to make a difference in the world. They learn to become friends and supporters of their classmates in a calm, yet vibrant setting. There is great deal of research indicating that children who are participants in their educational journey will be more creative in their careers and have a sense of belonging becoming global citizens. Many researchers are now aware of what a difference a Montessori Education makes. Montessori children learn to collaborate, to think independently and to pride themselves on work well done.

The Montessori children that I had the honor of knowing in my long and most satisfying career as head of school became partners in their educational journey. They became active participants in their education, not passive receptacles of information. How much more satisfying to feel a part of the learning process.

A high school honors English teacher came to visit me one day and asked if she could observe our students. I asked why and she told me that she had 8 of our graduated students in her honors class and they were different than the other students. I was intrigued and asked for more. She told me that they went beyond what was required in the work. They kept asking for more depth, but she also recounted how respectful they were with the other students and interacted with her as a collaborator. They set an example and raised the bar in the class.

One always wonders what makes the difference in the life of a child. I believe I found one thing that makes a difference – Montessori.

Mary Ellen Kordas

Mary Ellen Kordas is a former Montessori school head, current American Montessori Society Board Member, Leadership Faculty at Seton Montessori Institute, Chicago and CMTE, New York, but most importantly she is the grandmother to two of our Kinderhouse students.