Building a Safe Space for Understanding
The Montessori classroom is a microcosm of the world outside of your child’s school walls. We create and give tools to your child so that they are prepared to make independent decisions as they grow older. Maria Montessori states, “the greatest sign of success for a teacher is to say, the children are now working as if I did not exist.” If we are able to provide and allow practice of the right tools, your child can feel confident in choosing the right decisions, even if a teacher or parent is not present to choose for them. In building a safe space for your children, they are able to practice and maneuver different social interactions while making mistakes and finding solutions. To establish trust and respect amongst the children, teachers provide a sense of safety for each child.
The Montessori classroom is a prepared environment that lends opportunity for purposeful work. In the beginning, children have to understand responsibility. Developmentally, children first and naturally think and feel that everything is theirs. As they grow both physically and mentally, they have to feel safe that their toy is theirs, and that no one will take it away from them. If a child feels unsafe with their toy, then they will purposely hold on to something, even if they do not desire it.
The concept of sharing in the Montessori classroom is unique and different from traditional education. Sharing doesn’t mean to give something to someone because they are younger or older. It doesn’t mean because one child has had the toy for too long of a time that they have to give it away.
In the classroom, each child has his/her own work. They understand that they are responsible for that. There is an understanding that no one can take it away from them and that there is no time limit. They are responsible for working with it appropriately, cleaning it up, and putting it away. Natural sharing happens when a child observes and initiates the act of giving without the direction of another. Sharing means that the child cares for their friend and that they feel this care is reciprocal.
To encourage positive behaviors in the classroom, we often practice positive reinforcement. For example, during classroom circle time some students move around or talk, but instead of pointing out the bad behavior of the individual students by saying that they are bad, we focus on the positive behaviors of other students. We would thank students that were sitting appropriately and not talking. We would say that they were teaching appropriate behavior to everyone in the circle. Children soon realize that everyone can be a teacher, not just the adults. We explain that we always observe them to show their good behavior. The children understand this because we ask everyone, ‘is there someone you saw that was being a good teacher to you?’ Many children would then raise their hands and name specific students that were visibly silent and not playing. It is amazing to see how observant children can be. A good teacher does not mean that you are the oldest in the class. It is each and everyone’s responsibility to be a good role model for each other.
In the Montessori classroom, we also try to avoid praising students too much. Although this is better than shaming children, too much praise can be harmful. Teachers avoid making comments to the well-behaved children to say that they are ‘so good’ and that they are ‘the best behaved’ in the class. This could cause feelings of resentment from other students and demotivate other children to correct their behavior. Over-praising these students could also make them think that they are ‘the best’ student, to the detriment of others. This type of praise could also be stressful to the child, because even though they may enjoy hearing that they are ‘the best’ they may feel stressed that they always have to be ‘the best’. This is not fair for the child. In some cases, too much praise can make a child feel embarrassed or uncertain.
Gratitude is humble and neutral. You can never make a mistake by saying "thank you" instead of "you are the best", or saying to others "you are bad.” It is a healthy habit to start saying "thank you" and "I feel grateful for."
The power of expression
With every opportunity, teachers review different ways in which our words are more powerful than our bodies. Often children use their bodies to show what they want or need, instead of using their words. Sometimes when a child wants a toy, they can just use their hands and grab from another child. This usually results in arguments and feelings of frustration. Although the act was disrespectful, the child may not want to be disrespectful. They may not know how to ask for the toy or that they feel worried that if they don’t use their hands to grab, that they would not be able to get the toy.
In the Montessori classroom, we teach children the specific words to use when they need or want something. We can remind them to use their words carefully, but it is more important to teach which respectful words to use. Very rarely is a child mindfully disrespectful – only their actions cause them to be perceived this way. We also provide opportunities for choice. It is fine if the other child says no. If a child says no, then we have to respect that answer and find other solutions to the problem. Problem solving is a complex concept that is always evolving with students. As new and more complex situations occur, their problem solving skills become stronger and more creative.
By Anna Lee,
Montessori Teacher at Montessori School of Shanghai