There’s one question that we often hear from parents interested in Montessori education: How do teachers deal with children avoiding work they don’t want to do? This is a valid concern, and something that many parents consider as their children move into their Elementary years. Most families know that Montessori philosophy and practice centers on student choice, but it can be hard to envision that value working in conjunction with accountability. The good news? Accountability is something we take very seriously. In fact, our entire approach is based on the idea that we must teach children to develop strong work habits and encourage them to be driven by internal motivation rather than reacting to external factors.
This is something that we’ve all struggled with over the last few months as most of our students’ self-directed learning has been happening at home. Our guides consistently met with children to support them during Distance Learning, but it can still be challenging to encourage your child to focus on work. In this article, we’ll provide four critical ways in which guides (and parents!) encourage their children to tackle the work they’d rather avoid and grow in their work ethic.
Give Them Choice
Though it may seem counterintuitive, having choice is a powerful tool in combating avoidance. When children (or people of any age) have freedom to make their own decisions, it’s empowering. Knowing that others trust in us to do the right thing is often all it takes to do it. Therefore, we offer freedom to choose within limitations. For example, guides allow their students to choose the order of their work; some like to start the day reading, while others prefer math. They can also often choose where to work and, for older children, with whom they’d like to start a project. We also let children have autonomy in other ways. They get to decide when they need to use the toilet, have a snack, and move their bodies. There are, of course, procedures to follow in order to keep everyone safe, but we don’t believe children should have to ask permission to address their basic needs, nor should they have to do so on a schedule that is based on convenience for adults.
In short? Children who feel comfortable, respected, and trusted in their work environment are much more likely to work hard and meet expectations.
If there is one statement that can help us reframe our perspectives with empathy, it’s this: Children operate with purpose. There is a reason a child is avoiding something. As adults, it’s our task to discover what that reason is and find gentle ways to address it. Our practice teaches us to use observation to make informed decisions about supporting a child in her work. Some questions we may ask ourselves as we observe a child who is struggling:
- Is the work too challenging?
- Is the work too easy? Is the child bored?
- Is the child experiencing emotional upheaval in their life?
- Are the child’s basic needs being met?
- Is the physical classroom environment supportive of the child’s work?
In Montessori teacher training, guides learn a pattern of searching for the source of an issue: first, look to the environment, then examine themselves and their own actions. Only after considering the first two possibilities does a guide look to the child as a potential source of the issue.
Appeal to Their Interests
Sometimes all children need is a ‘hook’. Although Montessori materials in the classroom are meant to be used in a very specific way, and deviation from this use can distract from its authenticity and efficacy, there is some room for flexibility. This can be very helpful in modifying work so that it will best meet an individual child’s needs. A guide may consider a child’s favorite color when selecting pouring or scooping materials, his favorite animals when presenting zoology lessons, or a fascination with vehicles when gathering reading materials. The key is to consider what a child is avoiding, then find a way to make it more enticing.
Hold the Child Accountable
While Montessori doesn’t utilize punitive measures, that doesn’t mean we don’t hold children accountable. If we expect children to complete a task, it’s our job to support them with follow through. The following are critical in making this happen:
- Clearly explain the expectations.
- Provide an environment and an appropriate amount of time that allows for expectations to be met.
- Observe children to ensure they meet expectations.
- Guide when necessary. This may include redirection, suggestions, or collaborating to create a plan.
As children get older and academics become more of a focus, completing work becomes much more important. Beginning in the child’s last year of Primary or Lower Elementary, Montessori guides typically begin to utilize work plans. These can take on a variety of forms, but they are generally a visual schedule, created in collaboration between the guide and the child, of what must be done. Students can typically choose the order in which tasks are completed, but adults check in to make sure there is follow through. In the event the child is not meeting the expectations, a guide will typically meet with the child to discuss new strategies. They may help the child consider what might be getting in the way: time management, seating arrangements, or even the time of day when the child tries this work. The child leaves the meeting with concrete strategies to try, and the adult and child reconnect at some point to evaluate her progress.
It helps to remember that learning to work is part of the child’s work. Rather than forcing children to do what we want when we want them to, we take a more long-term approach. Our goal is not just to share information, but to help children become joyful learners. We want them to walk into the real world confident in their abilities and ready to take on challenges.
We all want to avoid certain tasks from time to time. Our job is to teach children how to manage their time well and accomplish whatever it is they need to get done. We hope these strategies provide insight into the support we offer in a Montessori environment and inspire ideas for ways to encourage your child’s independence and motivation at home.