1. Involving Children in Creating Ground Rules and Routines
Routines give children the opportunity to predict what is going to happen next. When children can predict what happens next, they have the power to make decisions on how they can best prepare for what’s coming next (transitions, things they like or don’t like, etc.). They are able to self-regulate.
Ground rules let children know what the expectations are. They are boundaries, or limits, by which the children navigate the classroom community and maintain respect and cooperation for one another. In a Montessori classroom we keep the ground rules are simple and few, and we teach the skills that are needed to follow the ground rules.
Involving children in the creation of ground rules and routines invites cooperation, respect and connection. Even more, when children help create the ground rules, with teacher guidance, they are also more willing to help maintain the ground rules in the classroom. If the ground rules have been implemented and followed through with consistently, older children will model the adults and help younger children. When children help one another, they are experiencing social responsibility, and thus a sense of ownership and community.
In the appendix, you will find activities to help guide you in including children in the creation of classroom routines and guidelines.
Like family traditions, classroom traditions give children a sense of identity as members of the classroom community. Traditions mark time, growth, and maturity. Traditions celebrate our membership in the classroom community. Birthday walks, holiday celebrations, annual lessons, and activities are sign posts for children, and help them to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. Traditions also give the community an opportunity to problem solve and plan, and to see that plan come together. Because we have children for 3 full years, in most cases, we, as Montessorians, have an amazing opportunity to develop classroom traditions that will be remembered by our children, and adults, for years to come – reminders of the time that we shared together, and the connection that we will always have.
Now that I am no longer in the classroom full time, it is more difficult to get to know all the children at the school, like I did when I had my own classroom. I miss that connection, and the bonds we formed as a community, and especially the traditions that bound us together. However, one of the traditions that emerged at our school is a game called “Monster Ball”, which was borne many years ago when I was the Children’s House teacher. It started when I was playing tag with the children. They used to love when I was “It”, and started calling me “The Monster” as I chased them. The game evolved into just, “Monster” as time went on, which was simply me pretending to be a monster and chasing them (at this point it was one of those games that they loved a lot more than I did; and I was always a little worried about what the parents might think when they heard about me chasing their children around the playground pretending to be a monster). As the children entered the elementary program at our school, it evolved again into a dodge ball version of “Monster Tag” where I would throw Nerf dodge balls at the children in an attempt to get them out. Eventually it became called, “Monster Ball”. I still try to make it outside once per week to play, “Monster Ball” with the elementary students. Our middle school students usually evolve out of playing, but by the end of the year, when the 8th grade students start to come to terms with the fact that they will no longer be at our school, it’s amazing to see them rejoin us for their last few games of “Monster Ball”. (Note: In 15 years, as of the writing of this book, I have only received one minor complaint about “Monster Ball”, and we now sell “Monster Ball” parties at our annual auction, and they always a big seller!).
3. Sense of Humor
Everyone has a sense of humor! When adults share their sense of humor with children, laugh at themselves, and at the children’s jokes, or share their own jokes, they make themselves vulnerable. They show the children that they are human. When we know that others are human, it allows us the freedom to be human. Humor lightens the stress of difficult situations, and helps us to remember what’s really important.
I hesitate to write this story, but I will take the risk of sharing my humanity with you. I am one of those strange people who love working with middle school students. When I first started working with middle school students I started out pretty serious. I wanted to make sure that the boundaries were in place, that the students took me seriously, and that they respected me (not unimportant attributes for a middle school teacher). In hindsight, and with some years of experience under my belt, I now know I was being a little stiff, and rigid. This all came to an end one day during a class meeting. One of my tools for gaining cooperation from the students in circle was (and is) to just sit silently until the students settle themselves. Sometimes, I even sit a minute or two longer than I need to in order to make a point. This is what I was doing. And, as the students and I sat there in complete silence, one of the quietest boys in the classroom passed wind very loudly. At first, I simply tried to ignore it, and stay silent (and serious). But, the moment was really like something from a movie script. The timing couldn’t have been worse for trying to remain serious. The kids were all staring at me waiting to see what my response was. I started to laugh internally, and then started turning purple as I tried to fight it off. Before I knew it, I was collapsed on the floor laughing so hard that I was crying. I couldn’t stop laughing for almost a full two minutes. Of course, as soon as I started laughing, all the students broke out laughing, including the boy who had passed wind. It was at that moment that our classroom really became human (or maybe it was I who became human). The whole tone of the classroom changed, and we really started to get to know one another. If you work with middle school students, you know how important that moment is!
4. Taking Time for Fun Together
There is so much to do, and so little time. The three years that the children are in our classroom go by so quickly. Let’s not forget to enjoy them. Taking time to have fun together is such an important part of connecting with children. Some of my favorite memories of the classroom are the times when we would have indoor recess because of heavy rain or mud (which we have a lot of in the springtime here in Maine). We would take out board games and play together. Those moments are so important. They reminded me of who the children were outside of my day to day agenda of giving lessons and directing purposeful activity. This seemingly unproductive activity fostered connection between us all. For me, it allowed the children to become the subjects, and not objects. I found out who they were, how funny they were, and how much I really enjoyed them as people. I got to know them so much better, and they got a chance to know me better. It was such a powerful way to connect, worth every moment that I invested.
5. Making Special Time
Taking time, individually, with children is part of what we do as Montessorians. We spend a large part of our day, during the 3-hour work cycle, giving individual and small group lessons. This is what we do as part of our daily routine of connecting children to the work in the classroom. Special time is not simply individual attention, such as helping a child with their work, although it might be part of the plan. Special time, is time set aside with the sole purpose of fostering connection and developing a deeper relationship with the children in our classrooms. This does not need to be a long time, nor does it need to be outside our normal routine. Here are some examples:
- Having lunch with one student per day at a two-person table.
- Taking a moment to ask a child about some of their interests or activities outside of school.
- Inviting a child to help you with a task in the classroom.
- Creating a routine that allows for a child to count on your presence. This works especially well with children whose mistaken goal is attention, and gives the child the autonomy of being able to manage their own emotions and desires as they anticipate this time. The routine could be simply reading together before the day begins.
6. Appreciating Uniqueness
Have you ever noticed with adults, that our greatest strengths also seem to be our greatest weaknesses? Children seem to be built this way too. It’s interesting how quickly we make judgements on other people’s character traits, and sometimes find out later that it is just our perception or our own sensitivities that drive a negative reaction. Instead of judging characteristics, what would happen if we simply acknowledged them as unique characteristics? Is it possible that we then might even be able to see the positive elements of those characteristics, instead of just the negative.
Is that messy child also creative? Is that controlling child an organized worker? Does that aggressive child stick up for his friends? Is that clumsy child compassionate and helpful?
Taking time to acknowledge and encourage those uniqueness’s allows children the security of knowing that you are really seeing them for who they are. And, when someone really sees who we really are, doesn’t that build connection between you and them, and help you see yourself a little more clearly and compassionately?
“Samantha, I really appreciate how thorough you are with all you work. You really dig in when you are interested in something.”
7. Expressing Trust by Giving Children Opportunities to Contribute Meaningfully (strengths)
People thrive when they are trusted, and they go above and beyond to help when they feel capable. Children are very capable. That is the starting point in Montessori philosophy. We start with the understanding and belief that children are capable, that they want to learn, that they want to contribute, that they want to cooperate and become contributing members of the community. To start anywhere else betrays everything we believe in. We believe in the human potential, and in our capacity to create an environment that unleashes that potential. We trust children.
“Never do for a child what he can do for himself.” (Montessori). That is also a starting point. But it doesn’t end there. Children feel connected and as if they belong when they know that they can contribute to their community meaningfully. Not only is our obligation to the children to help them become independent, but we must give them the tools to become contributing members of their communities. Providing opportunities for meaningful contribution is one of the most powerful ways to do accomplish this vital goal.
As we will discuss, in more detail, in the next chapter, creating classroom jobs is one way to encourage meaningful contribution by children. Here are some other thoughts:
- Find out what the children’s talents are, and put them to use!
- Look for every opportunity to delegate tasks to children in the classroom (making copies, doing real cleaning jobs, laminating, helping prepare for events, helping to make classroom materials, leading a circle). Look at the tasks that you do day to day, and consider which things children could do. Remember, they are not doing them for you, they are making meaningful contributions to the community.
- Don’t wait for children to help one another with classroom work, encourage them to seek out specific children who can help. For instance, if a child is just beginning the stamp game, and they need help, ask a child who has just mastered that material to help them, or ask the child who needs help to ask the child who mastered the material.
- Insure that classroom jobs (chores) are truly meaningful, not just placeholders. For instance, if there are 25 children in your classroom, and only 20 chores that truly need to get done, avoid creating placeholder jobs so that everyone has a chore to do. Children know when work is not real work, and they will act accordingly, and it will even filter into the other meaningful jobs.
- Be careful of only giving meaningful work to those children who have “earned” your trust. Consider trusting that all children find belonging and significance through making meaningful contributions, and that misbehavior will often begin to dissipate when children experience true social responsibility.
8. Focusing on Progress, Not Perfection
We all have our ideals, and most of us are not satisfied unless we are achieving our goals. Many of us learned in more authoritarian households or classrooms that goals are “pass/fail”. You have either achieved them, or if you haven’t. Our focus is always on what we can do better, what our areas of weakness are, and what we need to do to correct those weaknesses.
One year, in one of my elementary classrooms, we were having a class meeting. The class meeting was about a boy, James, in the classroom who had been hurting other children, intentionally. The children were frustrated, and I had heard from more than one parent about James’s aggression towards other students. It was spring, and this topic had come up many times throughout the year. The children were perseverating on the fact that it had come up a lot throughout the year, and that it was still happening. One child commented, with exasperation, that he had to waste his time talking about this again, when it was just going to happen again.
Objectively, the aggression was still happening. But James had made great strides throughout the year, due in large part from the work that we had done in the class meeting. It was a rare occurrence now that James would hurt a classmate; maybe once every few weeks. At the beginning of the year, it was happening a few times a week. During the discussion in our class meeting, I asked one simple question, when the kids expressed their frustration at having to talk about it again. I said, “Has James improved since we began talking about this in the class meeting?” That was it. The whole tone of the discussion changed after that. The children acknowledged that he had made a lot of progress, and they saw that their efforts had made a significant impact. They also began to acknowledge him during the portion of the class meeting where children give compliments and appreciations to one another. Shortly after that meeting, James’s aggression disappeared altogether. He stayed in our classroom for three more years, and he never hit another child again. True story.
Let’s take our focus off our gaps, and put it on our progress. Perfection is not attainable, but if we try each day to do a little better, we can all make progress. And when we acknowledge that progress, rather than how far we still have to go, we are encouraged to continue our efforts, and thus making more progress.
9. Collaborating with Children to Solve Problems Together
Involving children in the problem-solving process invites ownership and cooperation in the classroom environment. It also helps the adults in the classroom discover how capable children are, and how much they truly want to create a cooperative and respectful environment (despite what it looks like sometimes).
Solving problems as a community using Class Meetings creates a structure in which children come together to help one another solve problems. Children bring up their problems on the class meeting agenda, discuss them openly, without blame, and work on resolving them together. Through this process children are given the chance to develop empathy, problem solving skills, communication skills, and social responsibility. The class, itself, has the construct to develop a deep sense of community, as individual children, and the group, share their problems openly, and become invested, not only in their own difficulties, but in the difficulties of their classmates. The bond that forms from this process is something that no teacher should ever miss.
10. Being Vulnerable
I don’t know about you, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a teacher. I continue to make mistakes. Not too long ago, I was teaching an Algebra lesson to some of our Middle School students. I did not look ahead and prepare for the lesson. I have been teaching Algebra for 18 years, and I took for granted that I could teach the lesson on the fly. I did a poor job, and had to review the lesson as I was giving it. After about 15 minutes of stumbling through the lesson, I stopped, and said to the students, “I ask you to do your homework every night, and come to class prepared. I took for granted that I could teach this lesson without reviewing it, and didn’t do my homework. I ask you to fix your problems when you make mistakes, and now I must fix mine. Why don’t you take the rest of class to catch up on any missed assignments? There is no homework tonight. I will teach this lesson tomorrow.”
I would have never admitted to something like this during my first few years teaching. I still carried with me the unconscious delusion that I must not admit to my mistakes in front of the children, because they would know that I am weak and fallible. The longer that I taught, though, it became clear that my attempts at hiding my imperfections from the children were in vain. They seemed to know, anyhow. And, when I tried to cover them up, it actually created a divide between the children and me, because they knew (as adults do) that I made plenty of mistakes. When I started coming clean, something amazing happened. They started to take responsibility too. Trust grew, and the need to call one another out on mistakes seemed to evaporate, and children learned to forgive one another more readily. Think about the last time someone honestly admitted their mistake to you, and took responsibility for their actions. What was your response? Did you feel the need to punish them for their actions, or did you feel called to mercy and forgiveness? It all starts with us. Our modeling, and our actions reverberate through the classroom.