Thursday, November 10, 2011

NaBloPoMo: Taking it to School, Solving Problems

So, some of these ideas are great when there is only one child to deal with... only one fight to mediate... no other hungry, crying mouths... etc.  I was asked how this applies to the classroom, and I'd like to share a couple observations of my experience directing the after-care program at the Montessori school.  I've been directing the program since August, I have never worked with elementary aged/ 2nd Plane of Development (6-12 yrs.) students before this year, this age group is SO DIFFERENT from the 1st Plane of Development (0-6 yrs.), and this is my first time in the lead role in a Montessori environment of any kind.  The perfect storm for disaster growth, right?  ...especially if you've met me and/or a child in the 2nd Plane!

I'm a person who reverts to a "do what I say when I say it," approach when stressed; it is definitely my biggest struggle, and it is one that I am CONSTANTLY working at and self-loathing over evaluating and reevaluating.  So this year I went into this after-care gig thinking, "these kids are going to be in charge of menu-planning and cooking, and cleaning up after themselves, and they're going to have constant access to art lessons in tons of different media, and they are going to freely explore in nature and study plants and work in the orchard, and engage in dramatic play and theatrical performances, and they'll practice their musical instruments, and read books, and so on and so on.  First fatal error:  thinking.  Ok, not really, but I have LENGTHY outlines of my goals for the "flow" of after-care and my "expectations" for the students, etc, and they did not match up to the way things actually came to pass (to put this into Old Testament terms for bad stuff happening all around, if I'm understanding that phrase accurately).  I've felt overwhelmed with conflicts that seem so trivial and simple, that I've wondered (silently in my head), "what the heck am I doing here?! what the heck area these kids doing?!"  I should have known that my outline would not have immediately materialized, and looking back, I am thankful to have planned out my "philosophy" for this endeavor to look back and see how we are progressing.

So, what has HELPED, is gradually handing more responsibility to the students, especially in the area of critical thinking.  At first, I was quick to give in to judge a situation when a child came to "tattle", and I was quick to use that judgement to issue a verdict and a sentence.  Then I was quick to realize that I was constantly hearing tattling and "getting kids in trouble," leading to more tattling and more "mischief" and unhappy kids.  So, my first step was to get the kids SOLVING PROBLEMS, which goes something like this (sometimes it works to talk this through with one child, but usually I work through it with all the involved parties):

  • "You sound angry that he took that stick out of that tree fort, what is going on?"
  • "Have you told the child who took that stick how you feel?"
  • "What words did you use?  Does it seem like he understood what you said?" (inevitably the words were, "STOP THAT NOW!"... not so much a feeling as a command...)
  • "What is it that you are needing right now?  Respect?  Space?  Cooperation?"
  • "Perhaps you could say to that kid, 'When you take that stick, I feel angry, because I need respect for my work and my space.'"
  • "What do you think that child might be needing?  Inclusion?  Friendship?  Respect?"
  • "Is there something you can do to solve this?  Is there a way you can help meet both of your needs?"  (the most popular response to these questions starting out was "I don't know" or "tell the teacher"... ugh... not what I had in mind)
  • When they're reluctant to offer a solution or say they don't know immediately, I ask them to take some time to think about it, and that I'm happy to wait while they think.  If they ask me for a solution, I follow my own advice and say "I really need some time to think about it, that's a tough one."  I do not start offering ideas until the children first come up with some ideas.
  • When they've offered some suggestions, which we talk through (would that really meet everyone's needs? how would that make the other child feel? etc), I might offer some ideas, but when we review the ideas with those questions, they usually come up with something else that will better meet everyone's needs.
  • After working through these steps with the children for a while, because Lord knows that took a LONG TIME at first, I've added the question, "Do you have an idea of how we could prevent this from happening in the future or could have prevented it today?"
  • We close these diplomatic mediations with a recap of what everyone is agreeing to in moving forward:  "OK, so you said you won't take any sticks away without asking, and you're interested in helping build the fort, and other child, you said you'll explain the fort design you are working on and give this child some ideas of things he can do to help build the fort.  Can we shake on this and move forward?  Let me know if you need any other help!"
So, this was ANNOYINGLY TIME CONSUMING at first because it seemed the children weren't really used to this type of adult "intervention," at least not in the more free-form after-care setting.  They would be called together to work through a problem, and immediately complain that it was taking too long, that they just didn't care anymore, "fine have it your way, I'm just going to do something different," and you can imagine the other forms of whining (which I completely understood, because I was thinking the same thing).  As we would come to a solution, I would point out, "wow, that only took 9 minutes (or whatever), I'm glad you're working together to solve this."  Now that this is established as the culture of our group, these mediations take less than 5 minutes, depending on the length of the "background story" leading into the discussion.  The amount of time it takes to get the children working at solving problems is actually AMAZINGLY REWARDING in time I do NOT have to spend saying, "Hey, you stop that right now, you're wrecking that fort, you're being mean, you need to come sit over here, you cannot play right now, etc."... amazingly rewarding... I much prefer kids playing joyfully to kids sitting in a "time-out" complaining at me... and of course that is not to say it is all joyful play, but there are certainly lots of opportunities for this BIG WORK of problem solving and critical thinking within our community and that working through those problems leads to deeper joy and stronger community bonds.  

This is also REAL WORK, and it is work that will serve them as long as they are living around and with other people.  In the film "Race to Nowhere," I remember a doctor who teaches at a medical school was talking about her concerns for the future of the medical field because so many of her students were so tied to the answer from the textbook, that she feared they would be unable to meet new diseases at the gate and confront them head-on with new innovative cures.  I do not have the answers to everything, and I would be doing a horrible disservice to these children if I were "training" them to ask someone else (even an adult) to do all of their thinking for them!  I want children who will run into a problem and think of every possible solution, who will try their solutions, and then try other solutions if their first attempts are not 100% successful.  I don't want them to say "well, Miss Renee isn't here to say who's wrong, so I have to keep being pushed around by kids taking my things or calling me names." NO!  I want them to have a toolbox full of ways to confront that kid that is going to offer them alcohol in high school, to suggest an alternative when their friends are squabbling over something, to dump that pushy boyfriend or girlfriend who just doesn't hear the word "no" clearly enough, to walk away when they simply cannot control the choices of another person.  

By allowing the children to develop their own moral responsibility and compass (and taking the almighty-judge title from myself), the children seem to be more lucid about the way their actions affect other children, and more thoughtful in solving the problems - the 2nd Plane of Development is a sensitive period for moral development, meaning this is the developmental window that these children are acutely interested in solving problems with the utmost care.  All we need to provide are the tools to do the work of solving real problems in their community (however small the community).  It is so exhilarating to see them dash off from a mediation to get to working together, rather than leaving the sentencing table with heads hung low or fists clenched in resentment.  Fun, challenging work.  I've been reading more in the past 3 months than I have in any other 3-month stretch (which probably doesn't reflect well on my former study habits...), and I am really enjoying your feedback and encouragement.  I have to point out, that a blog post is always a LOT longer than the way things actually go down... I really do less talking in these situations than these posts seem to suggest... almost like the posts have all the "stage directions" and "historical (philosophical) background" that show up in the playbill, but don't show up in the ballet, itself.

A closing thought:  now that they are able to work through those "he took that toy from me"/"she isn't being my friend" moments more independently (and those moments are happening less frequently), we're able to do more of those cool and fun ideas I had at the beginning of the year.  Moving forward, my next step is to get these kids functioning independently in their snack planning and preparation... always another hurdle to practice jumping!


  1. Great post, Renee! Amen! We deal with the same issues at the Primary level, of course, but those Elementary students have so much more verbal (and critical thinking) potential the change is more dramatic when they begin to "get it". I like your tactic of saying "I really need some time to think about it, that's a tough one." I'll have to use it next time I have the same situation. Right now I'm trying to break the children of the (me-generated) rote recitation, "I don't like it when you..." especially since it often devolves into "I don't like it when you are mean to me." -- it takes a lot of time, sometimes, to dig down to what the other child's ACTIONS were that were upsetting. I think I also need to focus more on emphasizing expressing how the child FELT when the action went down. It sounds like you are making real progress with your after-schoolers, and they will have a valuable toolbox of problem-solving tactics to take into adulthood, thanks to Miss Renee.

  2. Lovely! Thanks so much for these last few posts, and especially this one. The advice is so wonderful, and I will use it, and have in the past few days. You asked for more details about my situation, and I can give them as well. I am an assistant to a wonderful lead teacher, and we have a class of 26 (27 was October) 5 and 6 year old students.

    My lead teacher is not Montessori certified. She has experience with a younger set though and introduces art projects every day. Our children are all from public schools around Houston, and most are unfamiliar with a Montessori setting. My classroom has a library, art center, tables and shelves of games and manipulatives. I work from 2-6. We pick the kids up after school, go to our school, free play, snack, work on homework, read a story, discuss in circle, work on art, play outside or in the gym, art/free play until 6.

    I am not trained, and the most I can say about our after school program is that there are some elements of Montessori built in. Montessori-like? Our pre-school, as far as I know, is completely Montessori. 1-5 is the age range, and I have walked into their classrooms and have been amazed at the detail and tools that they use. We do not have them, but again, we are not billed as a Montessori after school program, it just takes place at the school and is called ____________ After School.

    The real problems that I have are the correct way to discipline. We can already talk out not touching another person's work, how badly this makes them feel, apologies, promises and nice deeds to make it better have all been done. But it happens again and again, and I'm not sure how to proceed at that point. And also, when particular very sensitive students in my class hide or shut down during these confrontations, how can I handle that so that it can be resolved?

  3. Tara, I know exactly what you mean about trying EVERYTHING and the nonsense still happening! It is definitely trying of our patience and exhausting work, but it is important to remember (and I am pointing my finger right at myself in saying this) that they are in process... just like I am still working on the best way to communicate my own grievances when I face bad customer service or when I feel like my work is being overlooked (or whatever grown-up situation it may be), the children are learning and practicing being good friends and a caring community. I will definitely post about this... maybe right now, in fact!