Inspiration from Montessori

Maria Montessori really 'got' children. She also understood human beings in general. Through her observations, she saw and wrote about many of the amazing discoveries that are today being proved through neuroscience. One of her great realisations was that children need to be connected to the environment around them: that we have to explain the world to them, and show them how to use it, rather than just assuming they know.

One of my favourite times of the year as a Montessori teacher was when new children started and we spent the first few weeks on 'orientation'. This could range from using the toilet, to preparing a snack or choosing an activity, even learning how to hang their coat up or blow their nose. This supported their desire for more independence, and they loved it!

Sometimes we just expect children to know how to do things and how to behave. I remember one parent asking me why her child was struggling with doing her buttons up on her coat. This was leading to frustration from the child, well-meaning offers of help from mum, and a fierce refusal of that help from the child; something many parents and teachers will be able to relate to!

When I asked the mum how she had shown her daughter to do 'buttoning', she stopped, looked surprised and said, "Oh, I didn't think of showing her!" This isn't unusual! We think that by helping the child, they are learning automatically. To some extent, of course, this is true. Children have remarkable minds that absorb everything that they experience. However, to really help them to be independent, we can break things down into smaller steps:

  • Identify the things your child is finding hard to do (this could be anything from a young child learning how to fasten a coat, to saying please and thank you, to an older child tidying their bedroom and pretty much anything else you can think of).
  • Work out, without the child present, how to show them the skill. You might want to think about how you move (the slower the better), and how to make it feel like an exciting challenge (rather than being told off for not already doing it!).
  • Show your child the skill or activity, making sure it is at a time when they are relaxed and happy. For example, if you want them to learn how to say please, it's best to do this out of the blue one day, rather than when they have just forgotten to say please and are feeling defensive. If they are feeling defensive or embarrassed, they won't be open to listening or learning.
  • Now you can use this experience as a helpful reminder in the future: "Do you remember what we talked about the other day? Let's have a go at using that now!" Children love the respect that they feel when we use this way of reminding them rather than 'nagging'.

How does all of this help your child? Once we have shown them how to use the things around them, and how to navigate the world, they feel connected to that world. Once they feel connected, they feel safe and secure. Safety and security leads to confidence, a strong sense of self-esteem, and independence.

And these things lead to happiness :-)

Challenging Times

When challenging times arise in any relationship, it's easy to focus on what is wrong and get lost in the worry and the detail. This is no less true than in our relationships with children.

"Why is she doing this?"
"I know he knows better than this!"
"If only he would listen"
"Sometimes she is amazing, and then we have a horrible day."

Thoughts such as these take over, and it is easy to lose sight of everything else. There is a common thread of thinking that if we do nice things with children during times of negative behaviour, we risk 'spoiling them' or 'rewarding bad behaviour'. With this in mind, we end up telling them off, sometimes calmly, but often less calmly than we would like. The result is usually stressed, cross and unhappy adults and children.

The reason for this is that when we tell children off and withdraw the nice things in life we risk engaging - or enraging - the part of their brain that sends them into a 'flight, fight or freeze' response. When they are operating from this part of their brain, they end up trying to avoid us, fighting back, or freezing with fear. They are also filled with adrenaline and cortisol: stress hormones which make it impossible for them to listen to what the adult is saying. None of this will lead to better behaviour, in fact the opposite is true, and we end up in a vicious cycle of negative behaviour and anger.

Instead, when challenging times present, taking a step back and focusing on the relationship and the connection we have to the child can help. This doesn't mean ignoring negative behaviour, it is simply that if we want to help children to learn, first we need to help them to feel happy and relaxed. With a brain that is calm and relaxed, the child is open to communication and to learning. This is the optimal time to teach them, and to have those meaningful conversations.

The secret to helping your child to be relaxed and open to communication is to increase their oxytocin levels. The best way to do that is to give the child a hug - or simply connect. This is especially important during periods of challenging behaviour. With a relaxed and open brain, it is then much easier to talk through the situation that led to the negative behaviour and find a solution together.

Obviously, in the heat of the moment there are many emotions and frustrations that surface which make this approach at times feel hard to manage. As with all things, with practice, it becomes easier and more natural over time. As one parent recently told me: "Connection really is everything. It isn't always easy, but it's completely worth it when I see how our relationship changes for the better."

To all parents, with love

I have seen time and time again how parenting brings up a multitude of inner thoughts and feelings that previously lay dormant. It brings out the most incredible and primal protective instinct completely unlike anything else seen in human beings. Parents have so often said to me that it is a journey that brings them both their happiest and most challenging moments.

Children have a remarkable gift: they bring out the best and the worst in all of us. They hold up a mirror to show us our flaws, and they enable us to re-enter a world of childhood that is both beautiful and magical. Through the former we are given the chance to work on ourselves, and through the latter we get to experience pure joy.

Children bring with them the most wonderful opportunity to look within, and to challenge ourselves. To challenge ourselves to be just that little bit more patient, to communicate in a new way, and to handle our emotions differently than we might have done previously.

I have been incredibly lucky to have had access to some inspirational teachers who have given me an insight into the world of childhood, and who have shown me how we can, just maybe, make the world a happier place if we can start to change the way we see these amazing little (and not so little!) beings, and change the way we communicate and respond to them.

This blog is never meant to judge. It is not about trying to make perfect children, parents or teachers. Every post is written with love and is dedicated to every parent out there. I am in awe of every one of you. I hope my blog provides a little help and inspiration x

Choosing Connection

I was thinking about how best to explain 'connection' in parenting when a friend told me about an experience with her daughter that explains it beautifully.

Amy and her 10 year old daughter found themselves at logger-heads over school work. Amy was doing her very best to help her daughter, while Elizabeth was resisting with full force. Arms folded, frown spreading across her face, her feet were pushing down on the floor while she rocked her chair back and forth.

Amy wanted to explode with frustration borne out of both the small detail and the big picture of parenting: she wished her daughter would simply let her help, and she was filled with desire to help her to learn so she could achieve her dream of becoming a vet in the future.

They had been in this situation many times before, but on this day Amy chose a different path. She suddenly stopped, jumped up and said "Elizabeth, get your coat and your wellies. We're going out." Amy took her nature-loving daughter to a place she knew she would love, in the middle of the countryside they splashed through puddles and crouched down to watch birds swooping and diving.

The school work that had been such a barrier between them was a distant memory. In that moment, Amy chose a path that enabled her to re-connect to her daughter: she focused on their relationship and on the natural world that is so close to Elizabeth's heart.

What happened later that day? Certainly, putting the focus back on their relationship meant that when it was time to go back to the school work, Elizabeth was far happier to accept her mother's help. Even more importantly, Amy gave her relationship with her daughter a much-needed boost that meant both of them felt happier, more connected and more able to face the world.