Thursday, September 4, 2014

Characters for the Preschoolers

Many people ask why we have a strict no character policy at school, or why I don't allow my own children to have items with characters on them. The reason is found in child development.

Dr. Montessori found four planes of development:

The first plane is the Absorbent Mind, which occurs from birth through age 6. This is when children are taking in everything through their senses and integrating that into their knowledge-base.

The second plane is the Reasoning Mind, and this occurs ages 6 through 12. Children are able to start sorting through concepts and ideas using logic, they begin seeking out knowledge.

The third plane is the Social Mind, and this occurs ages 12 through 18. Children are developing moral and social values and working on creating the adult they will be.

The fourth plane is the Spiritual Mind, and this occurs ages 18-24. Young adults are making conscious choices about morality and spirituality, finding their place in the world.

Because the preschool aged child is not yet a reasoning child, their environment should be reality based. This lays the foundation for the second plane of development.

Our jobs as educators are almost as much about educating the parents as it is the child. With so much marketing and commercialization around, people just think it is "normal" to do characters. And I think people think, "Well, I had characters and I turned out just fine."

What people forget is the we played Barbies, GI Joe, Transformers, etc when we were in the SECOND plane of development, not the first (I'm sure most people actually have very few memories of the first plane).

Characters in the first plane are not developmentally appropriate, as children cannot decipher fantasy from reality. In fact, my 7 year old sometimes still has trouble with it. I know anecdotally that I see a huge difference in the work a child does in the classroom and behaviorally between children that do characters at home and those that do not.

Hopefully policies at school can translate into how people are parenting at home, or least have people stop to think about it, and make a conscious decision, rather than just mindlessly doing what the marketers want us to.

The hardest part is often times our families have difficulty even finding non character items. Thank goodness for the new Skip Hop backpack/lunchbox line!‎ And bonus, they are small enough that preschoolers can carry with ease.

If you want to join the fight against marketing to children, please visit Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood at

Monday, May 12, 2014

Differing Parenting Styles, Why Some Work Better

So, in putting this post together in my head, Maren Schmidt over at Kids Talk Blog ( just happened to post part of what I was going to write, about the three different levels to the brain (amygdala, limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex). She did a great job explaining in, so I have copied her post and put it here for you to read. A shortcut: the amygdala asks the question "Am I safe?", the limbic system asks "Am I loved", and the prefrontal cortex asks "Am I learning?". You cannot get to the higher levels of operation (limbic system, then prefrontal cortex) unless the lower levels (amygdala and limbic system) needs are being met. What I want to expand on is where parenting styles play into these three levels of the brain.

There are three basic parenting styles permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. From Psychology Today (

The Four Parenting Styles

  1. Authoritarian Parenting
    In this style of parenting, children are expected to follow the strict rules established by the parents. Failure to follow such rules usually results in punishment. Authoritarian parents fail to explain the reasoning behind these rules. If asked to explain, the parent might simply reply, "Because I said so." These parents have high demands, but are not responsive to their children. According to psychologist Diana Baumrind, who during the early 1960s,  conducted a study on more than 100 preschool-age children (Baumrind, 1967), these parents "are obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation" (1991).

  2. Authoritative Parenting
    Like authoritarian parents, those with an authoritative parenting style establish rules and guidelines that their children are expected to follow. However, this parenting style is much more democratic. Authoritative parents are responsive to their children and willing to listen to questions. When children fail to meet the expectations, these parents are more nurturing and forgiving rather than punishing. Baumrind suggests that these parents "monitor and impart clear standards for their children’s conduct. They are assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Their disciplinary methods are supportive, rather than punitive. They want their children to be assertive as well as socially responsible, and self-regulated as well as cooperative" (1991).

  3. Permissive Parenting
    Permissive parents, sometimes referred to as indulgent parents, have very few demands to make of their children. These parents rarely discipline their children because they have relatively low expectations of maturity and self-control. According to Baumrind, permissive parents "are more responsive than they are demanding. They are nontraditional and lenient, do not require mature behavior, allow considerable self-regulation, and avoid confrontation" (1991). Permissive parents are generally nurturing and communicative with their children, often taking on the status of a friend more than that of a parent.
So, what does parenting style have to do with levels of brain development? 

Well, it turns out that that the children of permissive parents are generally operating at the amygdala level of the brain. They are not sure of their safety and well-being, so they cannot move to higher levels of operation. Children of permissive parents often rank low self-regulation, have problems with authority and perform poorly in school. They also rank low in happiness, ironic when this parenting style often results from a parent's desire to keep the child always "happy". Dr. Montessori called this type of parenting "abandonment."

Children of authoritarian parents parents operate at the limbic system of the brain. While they know they are safe, they are not sure that they are loved. These children also rank low in happiness, as well as self-esteem and social competence. In Montessori this is the second level of obedience, “The second level is when the child can always obey, or rather, when there are no longer any obstacles deriving from his lack of control. His powers are now consolidated and can be directed not only by his own will, but by the will of another.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, 1964). This level is when a child operates based on another person's will.

Children of authoritative parents operate as the prefrontal cortex level. They are happy, capable, and successful. It turns out that children NEED firm boundaries to function at their best level. Otherwise, they just aren't sure if they are safe. On the other hand, they need those boundaries enforced in a respectful manner. Dr. Montessori called this the third level of obedience: when the child “responds promptly and with enthusiasm and as he perfects himself in the exercise, he finds happiness in being able to obey.” (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, 1967). The child responds this way because of the love, trust, and respect s/he has for the adult. They obey to make themselves happy, not to please the adult.

What type of parenting style do you have? If not authoritative, what changes can you make to make your style more authoritative?

Learning to control impulses is an important task for our children, and all of us, to learn.  Until our children learn to control urges to hit, kick, punch, pinch, bite, spit, name call and more, we’ll see all those behaviors emerge when life becomes overwhelming.

How is self-control established?  Let’s look at the young child’s brain.  Our brains are perhaps best viewed as three brains in one.

Our reptilian brain (cerebellum) takes in all sensory information and handles issue of basic survival, instincts and nonverbal communication, as well as autonomous body functions.  If the reptilian brain senses a threat to our safety, instinct for fight or flight takes over our thinking.

The next brain is the old-mammalian or limbic system, referred to also as our emotional brain. If the reptilian brain senses a threat, the limbic system is flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone, and the ability to tap into the thinking part of our brains, the neo-cortex (or new mammalian brain), is short circuited.  The amygdala, the part of the limbic system that regulates emotional and allows us to reach into our memory and previous learning, shuts down. 

When the reptilian brain senses that life is safe and calm, the limbic system is flooded with a different kind of neurotransmitter, GABA (gamma-aminobutrylic acid) which allows the limbic system to connect with the neo-cortex, allowing the connection to the prefrontal lobes, the place where the executive functions of planning, decision making and understanding consequences happen. 

In order to learn effectively and control our impulses, the reptilian, the old-mammalian, the new mammalian and the prefrontal cortex need to be in a state of calm.

For a two-year-old the reptilian and old mammalian brain are the most active, with the new mammalian brain getting more function as language and experience develops.

The three-year-old with good language skills begins to be able to tap into the prefrontal cortex and to begin thinking ahead and planning.

The two-year-old is happily playing with some blocks when three-year-old big sister comes and knocks them down.  Since the neo-cortex is not highly active in the two-year-old, the emotional and reptilian brain reacts instinctually.  A hit.  A push.  A scream.  The two-year-old body is awash with stress hormones that shut off the possibility of logical thought, or learning from the situation.

It is the adult who must act as the neo-cortex and the prefrontal cortex for the child by removing the child from the situation in a calm way until the stress hormones can calm and the reptilian brain senses safety again.

As language become stronger in the older child we can use language to help calm the different brain functions and help develop the prefrontal cortex.  After the children involved in an incident have calmed down we can discuss what happened.

To gather details we can ask what happened. We can name the feelings.  We can offer alternatives.  We can offer a dress rehearsal with role-playing. 

Let’s take our block-building incident.  After allowing some time to calm down, we ask what happened.  For the two-year-old we ask yes /no questions that can be answered nonverbally with a nod or shake of the head.

Tell the story. As we gather details we tell the story.  “Sam was playing with the blocks and had built a tower.  Brett came over and knocked down the tower.  Sam got hit in the head with a block.  That hurt.   Sam bit Brett.  That hurt.  Brett hit Sam.  That hurt.  I took Sam to sit with me in the rocking chair.”

Give the feelings a name.  To help connect the emotional brain with the neo-cortex, name the emotions.  “I feel sad that Sam and Brett got hurt.  Sam, you look sad.  Brett, you look sad.”

Come up with alternatives. “What could we do differently? We need to be kind to each other and not bother other people’s things or activities. If Brett wanted to knock down a tower, he should build his own. If Brett bothers your things or activity, instead of biting or hitting you could say, stop.  Can you say, stop, please?  Doing your own activity is a better choice than bothering others. Saying stop is a better choice than hurting someone.”

Practice.  “Let’s practice.  I’m building a tower and Brett wants to knock it down.  Brett what could you do instead?  Sam, what could I say to Brett?  Yes. Stop, please.  Using our words is a better choice that hurting each other.”

Until our children’s brains and bodies calm, the amygdala makes them do it.  Until calm arrives, be your child’s prefrontal cortex.

Additional Resources:

Conscious Discipline:
Jill Vetstein's Nurturing Parents and Teachers:

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Trust in the Child

Here is the fundamental question in education, one that Dr. Maria Montessori was completely sure about, but that most people struggle with. When it comes down to it, do you have 100% trust the child? Do you think that the child has everything within itself for maximum growth?

According to Montessori and the "triangle", if you have a properly prepared environment, a properly trained adult, and the child, s/he will learn what they need, when they need without any direct instruction or prodding from the adult. Now, this might not be according to the government, or even society, mandated list of when and how things need to be learned. However, it IS within the realm of what THAT child at THAT time needs to learn.

Of course, if you take away any of the two things the adult has control over (the environment and trained adult), you wouldn't necessarily see these results.

This is why I feel like, if we were to put Dr. Montessori in a political party in today's America she would be a Libertarian. So, that each individual needs what each individual needs when they need it, without a top down government agenda that needs to be fulfilled by the child. Also, Ayn Rand stated that the only education method/philosophy she could endorse was Montessori (if you haven't read her manifesto on education "The Comprachicos," I highly recommend it. She discusses Montessori at length.)

I hear the arguments that people give about getting students to comply to an outside "authority" so that they know how to. The other side of that coin is why should they? Why are we presuming that this authority knows more about where the child should be going than the child him/herself knows? Why aren't we wanting to have that student that is forging the new world outside of the chains of authority? I think when Dr. Montessori spoke of learning societal norms and whatnot, she meant it more in terms of grace and courtesy, rather than academic norms and authority (with the exception of religion, for her). Do we not trust the child to reach their potential on their own? If not, aren't we actually thwarting that potential by enforcing what WE think they should know upon them at a time they aren't interested in it, when they could be going down the path that they truly should have been on if we hadn't gotten in their way? Why are we setting them up to be in a position where they have to comply to authority, rather than setting them up to BECOME the authority (of themselves)? If the child NEEDS to, say s/he decides to be a doctor and must go to medical school, they will comply to that authority to get to THEIR goal. But that is a means to their end, not being forced upon them by the adult "who knows better". They don't need to be trained in that.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Crying Game?

Crying is something that all humans, and many other mammals do naturally. It is something that for babies is a way to communicate needs, for older children and adults crying is a way to communicate big emotions. Sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, happiness, and almost every other other big emotion will result in crying.

For adults, we are sometimes either uncomfortable with a child's crying or feel like crying is an indicator of something that needs to be fixed. In both cases, adults will try to stop a child's crying or even worse, make the child feel bad for crying. Both of these actions, though, do not help a child. So, what does help a child when he or she is crying?

1) Validate the child and their feelings. Use language like "I see that you are crying. If I can help you to feel better with a hug or something else, please let me know what I can do." If you think you know more specifically what is causing the crying, you can address that more specifically. "I see that you are upset because you wanted to run inside. I understand that can be frustrating when you don't get what you would like. But I can't let you run inside because that would not be safe."

2) After you have validated the child's feelings, give the child choices. Ask if the child might like to go to a very comfortable space to have crying time, or the child can cry beside you if that is preferred.

Things NOT to do with a crying child:

1) Tell them they are OK, or it is OK, or they are going to be OK. In their head, no matter how small you think the problem is, they are not OK and to tell them otherwise is condescending.

2) Shush them or tell them to stop crying. It is OK; however, to ask them to be quieter if they are disturbing others, or take them to a place where they are less of a distraction and to tell them why you are doing it.

3) Solve their problem for them. Children need the ability to be able to work through these big emotions in their own time and space. They also need coping mechanisms that are not adult dependent, so that they can learn how to do this in the future (an important executive function that needs development).

4) Allow the crying to sidetrack what truly needs to happen. For instance, if the child is crying because you needed to leave the house at a certain time to arrive somewhere, then you still MUST leave at that time, whether or not the child is crying. You can use words like, "I see that you are upset because we are leaving in a rush. Next time we will work on giving you more time to get ready, but for today we must leave now to arrive on time. Either you can walk to the car, or I will carry you." Then follow through, if the child isn't moving towards the car on their own, you must take them to the car.

5) Lose your temper or become frustrated with them. They need to feel safe in that you can handle their emotions, if not, who can they depend on? Stay very calm and matter-of-fact when dealing with the child.

After the child has stopped crying:

1) Ask the child what solutions they have to fix that problem in the future, what would better meet their needs/desires? If it is possible, work that into your life. If it is not possible, let them know that you appreciate their suggestion but it won't work because of X, Y, Z. Together brainstorm other possibilities and reach a compromise.

2) Evaluate your own responsibility for the situation. Did you let the child become overtired/overstimulated/hungry? Where you inconsiderate of the child's feelings/needs? If so, acknowledge that to the child and APOLOGIZE. This is how the child will learn to do the same, and it lets the child know that adults aren't perfect and everyone makes mistakes. Then, work on yourself to try and not repeat the situation again. Maybe that means giving time warnings before a transition ("We are going to need to leave in 10 minutes, please wrap up what you are doing."), earlier nap/bed times, or having a healthy snack available in the car on busy days.Maybe it means making days less busy if possible, or having some down time between errands.

Our goal needs to shift from not letting a child become upset ever, to guidance in teaching a child how to get through an upset. Building these executive functions are proving to be some of the most valuable tools we can give children.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting Your Child to Eat Healthy Foods

I hear from parents so often that they cannot get their children to eat anything healthy. "He won't eat anything but chicken nuggets and french fries." "She only eats buttered noodles." The problem in these scenarios is not the child, why do they have these unhealthy choices to begin with? This is more about a family's lifestyle change, than it is about getting your child to eat their vegetables. To start, families must model healthy eating habits for their child. When your child is only surrounded by healthy choices, they WILL start making them for themselves. Ideally, it is best to start this from birth, actually prenatally, but the sooner this change can be made, the better for the entire family.

As in all things, your child is more likely to follow if s/he is an active participant instead of it being forced upon her/him. You can open the conversation with a family meeting about how worried you are about your families' nutrition. This should not be about weight, or getting "fat." While coming to a healthy weight is a side benefit to a healthy lifestyle change, it should not be the goal, and not be why children are taught that eating healthy food is important. At the meeting, try offering that s/he can plan your menu and then help shop for it and help prepare it. Give her/him a guide like:



    Afterschool Snack:

        Starch Vegetable:
        Green Vegetable:

Let him/her fill it in with what s/he'll eat, and after s/he has been successfully at it for about a month or so you can start encouraging her/him to try new even healthier foods. At first, allow your child to choose whatever food properly fits that category, and while at the store get the most healthy version of that food. So, while Macaroni and Cheese isn't the best choice for the rest of your life, but while tastebuds are adjusting you can choose whole wheat mac and cheese (like Similarly, hot dogs aren't the healthiest choice, but you can choose fat-free all white meat turkey franks while weaning off of unhealthy, processed foods.
Main guidelines for the start:
Any grain chosen should have a minimum of 5 grams dietary fiber. 
Any dairy should be fat free (as cancer causing toxins accumulate in the fat of dairy).
Any meat chosen should be the leanest cuts possible, and should be organic and grass-fed. Try to keep meats to a minimum of two servings per week, as most carcinogens are found in animal products.
No refined sugars/high fructose corn sugar. Date sugar and agave are great to sweeten foods and low on the glycemic index.
No oils, butters, margarines, etc. Fat should come from nuts, seeds, avacados, olives, and other natural unprocessed sources (oils are highly processed and removes the healthiest parts of the plants they are sourced from!).
Add very little salt to foods, and buy no salt added foods when possible.
When you talk about why a food choice isn't acceptable (say s/he picks a cookie for a grain) instead of saying anything about weight, say "That doesn't give your body the nutrition it needs go be healthy, and it will give your teeth cavities. When your body doesn't get proper nutrition it can become sick. Mommy/Daddy loves you and as a parent it is my job to help you make good choices for your body. I know sometimes that is frustrating and difficult for you to understand when you really want something." Maybe even get some books on those topics for her/him to read.
And keep in mind, it is physically impossible for a child to starve themselves (except in rare cases where food aversions exist, and those should be treated at a feeding clinic that specializes in food disorders). If they refuse the healthy foods you offer give other healthy choices, but do not introduce any of the unhealthy choices just so they will eat something. Empty calories do nothing for the body but hurt it. You do your child no good by giving her/him food that does not benefit the body.
A must-read for parents is Dr. Joel Furhman's "Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right" ( It is an eye opening book about how the root of nearly every problem a child has is the food the child eats. It contains recipes and stories of how parents even avoid doctor recommended surgeries (like ear tubes) by changing nutrition, which most current medical practices do not even bring up the subject of nutrition!

Good luck!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Freedom with Limits...Essential in Montessori AND Parenting

One of the key parts of Montessori is that is freedom with limits (responsibilities, boundaries). This is a Montessori quote I came across:

"Do not apply the rule of non-interference when the children are still the prey of all their different naughtinesses. Don't let them climb on the windows, the furniture, etc. You must interfere at this stage. At this stage the teacher (parent) must be a policeman. The policeman has to defend the honest citizens against the disturbers." (The Absorbent Mind)

Children must never be permitted to misuse materials, be physical with each other, or be disrespectful. Broken objects due to misuse is unacceptable.

Boundaries are important, not only to teach responsibility and respect. While that is important, it is also crucial for showing them that someone cares enough to care about their safety and the safety of others around them. It is the #1 way children process love.

Children should be using materials properly or in a manner that will not break the materials or hurt anyone. Sometimes this takes a judgement call. For instance, while in our grassy field at my school the students began making mudpies with the materials set out for water painting the fence. While this was not the intended use of that material, it did not hurt the materials and they were diligently using them. I allowed that to continue, with the caveat that the dishes must be cleaned and put away properly at the end of their use. However, if they would like to dig with the rainbow streamers (used in dancing), this would most certainly break the plastic. This I would not permit.

Some things, that could be dangerous if misused I would never allow creative use. For example, gardening tools can only be used for their intended use AND used in a very precise manner (never raised above the head, for instance).

Breaking any item on purpose, even if it was already broken and on the way to the trash can can never permitted.

From Smithsonian magazine (September 2002 issue, article "Madam Montessori"):

"The Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, opened January 6, 1907. At first, Montessori just observed. She noticed that the children came to prefer her teaching materials to toys and would spend hours putting wooden cylinders into holes or arranging cubes to build a tower. As they worked, they became calmer and happier. As the months passed, Montessori modified materials and added new activities, including gardening, gymnastics, making and serving lunch, and caring for pets and plants. Children who misbehaved were given nothing to do."
Let me repeat: children who misbehaved were given nothing to do. Getting to work in the classroom/at home and outside with the materials you provide them is a privilege. If they cannot handle doing so with manners, and they know how to, then they do not get to use them. If they do not know how to use the materials, then they need to be given a demonstration on how to use the materials.

I know it is becoming very popular in our culture to never tell a child no, to never hear them cry or allow disappointment. What does this teach them about life? Rules are important in every walk of life, no matter what position you hold. It does children a disservice to not prepare them for how to cope with this, and research shows that if children do not learn how to cope with this as a child (ages birth through age 6) they have far more difficulty learning this later. The brain connections change by this point and much of their wiring is set. Executive functions (coping with disappointment is one of these) are established primarily before age 6.

As educators and parents we are searching for that perfect balance between freedom and limits, between authoritarian and permissive (this middle ground is called authoritative). Research shows that children of authoritative parents/education become the most successful adults and exhibit the most happiness in life. And isn't that what we all want for our children?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Our Family Needs Martial Law!

A question by a parent was asked:

My children, ages 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1, have absolutely no sense of how to work together. I'll have the older two work on dishes/cleaning the kitchen together, and all they do is argue and sometimes it gets so bad that one of them starts kicking things, stomping around the house, etc. Each of my children are only concerned with what they want, when they want it, and how they think it should be. We can't run a family this way and my husband and I are at a loss as to how to fix it other than instituting "martial law" which only works for as long as it's in effect and then they go right back to the original problems.

For example, as I was writing this my 2 year old threw a 2x4 scrap of wood at her 4 year old brother because they were arguing about who got to play with a toy car (we're in the middle of a huge house project, which I know has just increased the intensity of the problems, but we already had these problems -- daily! -- before the project).
The only way to fix these problems is either "martial law" or I have to be entirely focused on nothing but the kids, literally every second. The second my attention is taken away from them (even to load the dishwasher) everything starts up again. What can I do????
A little background:We homeschool all of them. We live in a working-poor neighborhood with a crime problem so if they're outside they have to stay within the confines of our yard. My sister-in-law's children are very self-sufficient, to the point that she can be upstairs for hours working and they will watch each other, follow the rules, etc. With my children, if they are not under
constant supervision they steal candy, fight about toys, refuse to do their chores, refuse to play, but constantly say they're bored, etc. We have tried to give them more latitude with what they can do...if my oldest wants to paint, I say "okay" rather than "not now". So, we've gotten better with that, but I don't feel I can say "okay" if he's refused to do his chores first.If it's not what they want to do, they don't do it without a fight :(

Here was my answer:

I'd see where the current fights are happening. Fighting over candy? Remove candy from the house. Fighting over a toy? That toy gets thrown away (or donated, but I wouldn't tell them that, so they do not see donation as a bad thing). Basically, if they do not respect something they cannot have it.

It also sounds like there is a big concern over chores. I am personally very anti-chores. I feel like it is fair for everyone to take responsibility for there own mess, but it is unfair to make people clean up after others. Of course, there are things that must be done by only one person (like taking out the family's trash, mowing, etc), but you can make a list of these in a family meeting and see who volunteers for which task, or if no one does you can make a schedule to rotate those. But as far as dishes, laundry, etc they can be responsible for their own. And-in my opinion, their room is their private space. If they want it messy, that is their business. If they cannot make you clean your room-you can't make them clean theirs. It is a good basic rule- any rules the children must abide by, the adults must abide by as well.

I'd probably start with a big family meeting and let them know that the house has not been peaceful and things need to change. Ask for their opinions on how they think it should change, and of course you and your partner give your opinions as well. No one is permitted to poo-poo anyone's ideas (this includes you-you are not permitted to shoot down ideas during the brainstorming phase, if they say go to DisneyWorld everyday, you write it down seriously). Then you can talk, as a family, about what ideas will work for your family and which will not. Then make a family plan. Meet every week thereafter to tweak the plan as things work out or don't, and to discuss any new problems that have come up.

In addition, when children are feeling squirrelly, it is generally because some need that is not being met. It will take a lot of observation, but try to see what that is for each of your children. When are they working together nicely and cooperatively? When are they fighting? Try to make more space in your lives where the cooperative work is occurring, and less of the times when the fighting is occurring. Put yourself in their shoes. If you didn't feel like doing XYZ and were being made to you'd be in a bad mood. Then have someone push against you (even accidentally), it is going to lead to a volatile situation.

I'd also advise just getting them outside for unstructured time. Dishes can wait, laundry can wait. Meeting there current physical and emotional needs (which many studies show that being in nature fills that need) will cure many of these ills.

I hope this helps any of those out there struggling with the same problems!