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Discover the secret of childhood from 0-3 year old:

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Wanna Nurture Will, Determination and Concentration? Help Your Child Find His Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014 7:58 am | By Stephanie Woo

Brooke Washing Dishes

In Montessori, we talk about the child ‘finding his work.’ This means helping the child discover a piece of work that grabs his attention so much that – when undisturbed – he will work at it for long, long time. Preferably, it is a solitary piece of work done with his hands, using real objects, accompanied by increasing precision and concentration. Play kitchens, dollhouses, legos and most other conventional toys do not fall in this category. Don’t get me wrong, those activities serve wonderful purposes and are important, too. But in this case we are referring to activities like polishing a shoes, cleaning the windows, sweeping the floor, ironing, sewing, etc. Again, to review, these are 1. solitary activities 2. done with the hands 3. using real objects 4. requiring increasing precision 5. accompanied by concentration.

Helping a child find his work is a science and an art. You need to create the right environment. You must observe the child to see what he’s capable of and interested in doing. You have to respect the child when he finds his work and never interfere when he’s working. And you have to never give up on the child. Some children take a really long time to find their work and you have to keep presenting new materials till it sticks. Once found, nothing should stop you from protecting those critical moments of concentration.

I’m telling you this because when a child finds his work, you’ll be the happiest parent ever. Here’s how I know.

I have two very different children. Mackenzie loves to work. She is constantly busy. The quintessential Montessori child, she’s always coming into the kitchen saying, “Mama, I want to help you.”

Before you ask why I should be so lucky, I have another child, Brooke, who is the exact opposite. She’s more of a floater. She doesn’t like to work much. When I offer her lessons, she wanders off. Her favorite activity is to lie on my lap and suck her thumb. She’s not a passive child though, as 90% of the tantrums in our house originates with her. Cleaning up is especially painful and can take her twenty minutes to put away three pieces of Lego.

If you remember this post, she found her work here: changing into swimsuits. That has continued to be something she loves doing, changing outfits, doing her hair and putting on accessories. But recently, we went through another difficult spell with her. “I’m at my wit’s end,” was the exact text I wrote to my friend.

Then, about a week ago, after we made breakfast together, I asked Brooke (3 years 10 months) if she wanted to do dishes. I did a double-take when she said yes. For half an hour, she stood in front of the sink and washed those dishes with precision and care. She would sponge up a cup inside and out, put down the sponge, rinse away all the soap suds, then place it carefully in the dish rack. She worked for such a long time, I checked on her several times. When she got to the bottom of the sink, I found more dishes and quietly slid them into the sink. I even put in a few clean cups. I wasn’t going to let the lack of dirty dishes stop her from working with this level of concentration! When the sink was finally empty, she said, “I’m done.” Without any prompting, she noticed and wiped up the (very wet) floor too. Then she took off her apron and put it away.

After that moment, I saw a change. For days, she didn’t throw tantrums. She’s been working with intense concentration on other things. Overall, she’s been a much happier child. But you know who’s even happier? Me!

M washing fruits and vegetables to juiceM washing fruits and vegetables to juice

B and M have been doing Practical Life activities since they started walking. And they haven’t stopped. Now that they’re older and more capable, I give them more complicated Practical Life activities. Take juicing, for example. At 2-years-old, they juiced pre-cut oranges, all presented to them on one carefully-prepared tray. By 3, they learned to slice fruits and vegetables before juicing them. Now, they fetch the fruits and vegetables from the fridge, wash, cut, juice, clean up everything, then serve it to the whole family. A 1-year-old can only do one step of the process. At 4-year-old, the child can do the whole sequence.

Now that B and M are almost 4, I feel some pressure for them to learn to write or do math (it’s in the Asian gene, what can I say?!). We work on some of those things, but the bulk of their time with me is still spent working around the house. I know Maria is right when she placed her first emphasis on Practical Life. That is where the child builds will, determination and concentration. That is where the foundation is set. If you’re wondering how to ‘fix’ the child who loves to throw tantrums, or one who can’t concentrate on anything, or one who is overly aggressive or overly clingy, or if you’re simply wondering what activities to do with your child, try practical life activities. Ones that fit the criteria I mentioned in the beginning: a solitary piece of work done with the hands, using real objects, accompanied by concentration and increasing precision.

I think you’ll be happily surprised.

If Your Child Hits, Bites, Screams or Throws Tantrums

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 12:05 am | By Stephanie Woo

M (3 years, 1 month) hammering a screwdriver into a piece of plaster to find dinosaur bones

Parents ask me about discipline more than any other questions. What do I do if my child hits, screams, cries or throws tantrums? 

When I address this question straight on, I can offer parents band-aid solutions. We all need something to fix the problem now. However, what I’m really interested in is working with parents to find permanent solutions. Bad behavior is never what it seems – there is always a root cause hidden underneath. 

Dr. Montessori’s own story provides a clue to the conundrum of bad behavior. An Italian physician, who worked with special needs children in psychiatric hospitals, Dr. Montessori became a sensation when her students passed the regular state exams, many of them with flying colors. She questioned how her methods would work with regular children. When a new housing project for migrant workers went up in Rome, the officials couldn’t figure out what to do with the children while their parents were at work. This is how Dr. Montessori came to be entrusted with 40 3-6 year olds children. 

Her methods produced miraculous results. In one year, aristocrats, scholars, teachers and parents around the world started visiting her school at the news of 4-year-olds spontaneously writing. And not just that. The dirty, sullen, timid children of poor, illiterate workers had become polite, self-disciplined, graceful and independent little human beings. 

Montessori writes about her experience in The Absorbent Mind, “The disorderly became orderly, the passive became active, and the troublesome disturbing child became a help in the classroom. This result made us understand their former defects had been acquired and were not innate. But all these disturbances came from a single cause, which was insufficient nourishment for the life of the mind.” (p.199, Kalakshetra)

Herein lies the answer to tantruming, screaming, difficult children: “insufficient nourishment for the life of the mind!” 

So how can we give our children sufficient nourishment for their minds? Let me offer a few places you can start with:

1. Help them do it by themselves. Mackenzie has to constantly remind me with her little shrieks, “BY MYSELF!” That little shriek (and sometimes full-blown crying) is an act of self-preservation.  She needs to learn to do things by herself and become independent. The survival of the human race has depended on our drive for self-sufficiency. If I’ve undone the button for her, opened the door for her or poured the milk for her, I’ll just go back two steps and button the button, or close the door or pour the milk back – and let her do it. That is not spoiling or giving in to her, that is giving her the help she really needs. Do you ever just pick up your child without asking? Do you ever just do things for them because you’re on automatic – serving them dinner, cleaning up after them, putting on their clothes? Yes, it’s automatic for us parents, but if you’ve got a tantruming child, see if you’ve just intruded on their independence and made them into babies. If there is anything they hate, it’s being a baby all over again.

2. Give your children plenty of opportunity to work with their hands. Play kitchens are fine, but pretend cooking with a plastic skillet will never require the kind of hand-eye coordination, care and attention that real pancakes on a skillet would require. Dolls and cars are great, but activities like hammering a nail, sewing with a needle, cutting with scissors are even better for their developing hand and intellect. And your child thrives on perfecting his coordination and abilities. Provided everything is child-sized, those kinds of activities make them happy, independent and trusted. Expect them to become fully absorbed and do things you never imagined young children doing. A child at 18 months and over can start using many kinds of kitchen utensils. B and M used their first pair of scissors at 19 months, cut with knives at 20 months and made scrambled egg here at 22 months. Watch what this Montessori mom does with her little one.

3. Children will do best when activities build on the skills of previous activities. Instructional scaffolding improves learning. If your child has never poured water before, don’t put them in front of a hot skillet to pour eggs. To learn pouring, a young toddler can start with stacking cups in the tub, then given a pitcher and glass at meals to pour his own milk. You can then teach her to pour through a funnel before letting her pour faster, runnier things like eggs. Let your child peel first bananas, then mandarins, then eggs. Let your child help mix things – first something liquid, then something heavier like batter before moving on to salads and spaghetti. Yes, the kitchen is a great place to build skills!

If your child is throwing a tantrum, screaming, hitting, yelling, calling you names, you need to address the behavior. You’re more than likely to encounter resistance though. But a child who is concentrating on doing something with his hands and absorbed in that activity isn’t interested in throwing a tantrum. He’s too busy. And usually, you’ll find that when he comes out of a period of concentration, he’s happier, lighter and more ready to do what you ask. 

I’ll leave you with one final thought: young children need lots of collaboration. If they don’t want to do something in the moment (even though they did it so well yesterday), their brains are not developed enough to have the kind of consistency you want and expect from adults. Today, they may just need a little more help. But not too much help – just enough till they can take over. 

Toddler Discipline: How Do I Get My Child To Clean Up and Do What I Ask?

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014 1:24 am | By Stephanie Woo

One evening, B and M (3 years, 1 month) decided to take everything off their kitchen shelf and put it into their backpacks. Plates, bowls and utensils jangled around loudly in their backpack as they hauled it around the house. When I announced storytime, they dropped everything in the hallway. Daddy stopped them and said, “You guys need to put everything away!” Mackenzie does as she’s told, with some help from me. Brooke, ever the rebellious one, refused. 

Mark is an amazing dad, but – like all of us – sometimes he doesn’t know what to do when the children don’t do what he asks. He asked first in a firm and respectful tone. Then he gave Brooke choices, “Do you want to go by yourself or do you want me to carry you?” She avoids looking at him, so he chooses for her and carries her to the kitchen. They stand in front of the kitchen shelf for a good five minutes where she still refuses to put things away, so he decides to give her ‘time-out’ on the couch. She somehow falls off the couch and starts screaming. 

It was clear this classic power struggle was going nowhere, so Mark handed her off to me (teamwork, people). I first asked where she hurt herself. She pointed to her head, so I sat and held her quietly for a couple minutes till she stopped crying. Even if she fell trying to get out of time-out, she still needed empathy first. (See Connection Before Correction)

Then I looked her in the eyes and told her the facts, “I’m going to read stories now. You can join us after you put away your dishes and utensils.” I added, “You don’t have to put anything away if you don’t want to, but then you won’t be able to read books with us tonight.” I wanted to convey this was her choice. I put her down and went back to the bedroom. I sat down next to M and started reading. B got into bed with us and tried to pull the book toward her so she can see it. I held the book close to my chest and said in a friendly tone, “You can join us for this story after you put away your dishes and utensils.” She doesn’t move. She tried to pull the book toward her a couple more times, but each time, I tell her the same thing. My tone was friendly, but my stance was firm.

Finally, Mark came to ask her again. This time she got up, went to the kitchen and put everything away, with some of his help (see Collaborating With Your Child). When she was done, she ran back to the bedroom and joined us for story time. 

This kind of scenario happens in our house frequently and it illustrates a few key things around disciplining young children:

1. Understand your child’s developmental age

In this post, I talk about Montessori’s Three Stages of Obedience. Up to 3 years old, children are too young to be expected to obey. They have an inner directive that guides them, and their obedience is to that inner voice only. If they obeyed your request, it’s because it coincided with what they wanted to do. When it comes to cleaning up – if they are not readily willing – you can ask them to help, then hold their hand and model doing it with them by your side. 

Recently, my children have transitioned to the 2nd stage of obedience, where they want to obey, but can’t do it consistently. How do I know this? I’ve observed them doing what I ask more frequently, but still inconsistently. If you’ve notice your child being able to obey your requests more frequently, then you can make more requests, while continuing to offer collaboration. It is appropriate at this stage to provide logical consequences if they don’t do as you ask.

2. Provide logical consequences

Here are few things that are NOT logical consequences:

  • Taking away favorite toys that are unrelated to the situation
  • Withholding sweets, trips to the zoo or anything that will happen tomorrow or a later time
  • Time-outs and other arbitrary punishments. What does sitting in the corner have to do with cleaning up? Nothing. 

A logical consequence is something that is directly related to what is happening. For us, we clean up before storytime, so it is sequentially logical: if you don’t clean up, you can’t join story time. If you throw a fork on the floor or leave the table, it means you are done eating. If you don’t get dressed, it means you can’t go out to play. These are logical consequences that make sense in the context of what is happening. 

3. Don’t take it personally

If you understand the 3 Stages of Obedience, you will see that it is not personal. It is developmental. Your child is not being defiant on purpose, trying to make you angry, or being a bad kid. And you are not a bad parent! Their brain just hasn’t developed all the linkages it needs to follow your requests.

Last words of advice: Choose your battles. Don’t insist on everything. When they get to 5, they will obey your requests much more readily. If you don’t get embroiled in power struggles with your toddler, you’ll enjoy the magic of 2s and 3s so much more!