Sunday, November 29, 2009


Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.
Thich Naht Hanh

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

If you can't beat 'em...

Movement games we have been playing to secretly drive home the points I keep trying to make with grace and courtesy lessons (insert maniacal fake evil laughter here):

- I roll out all the classroom rugs in different parts of the classroom. I play music on the cd player and the children walk #1 always walking #2 without touching any of the rugs. When the music stops, they must freeze. As they get better at it, I put rugs closer and closer together and limit the space where the children may walk. (This is to help with walking in the room, and with rugs with or without materials on them that become jumping challenges.)

- Walking around the room with the bead cabinet chains. I invite the children to each take a square or cube chain. I do the same as above with music. They must #1 only walk #2 the chain is held correctly. (This is to help with walking in the room and with the occasional chain that becomes double dutch.)

- Walking around the room with different materials in your hands. I invite the children to pick a material to walk with. I do as above with music, but I play it very softly. They must #1 only walk #2 their material may not make any sounds as they walk. (This is to help with walking in the room, and with materials that become maracas on their way back to the shelf.)

I challenge them further, push them to their limits, by choosing Harry Belafonte as the background music for the games. Oh to be able to resist "Jump in the line, rock your body in time, OK I believe you!"

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Conscious Discipline

This Saturday I attended a seminar for teachers and parents about the "Conscious Discipline" method, based on the work of Dr. Becky Bailey. It was presented by a child development expert on the Island, Helen Guda, who gave a really excellent and well timed workshop.

Since I've been fretting about the ideas of freedom and limits in the classroom so much lately, the seminar came as a opportune blessing. A lot of what was said was familiar from the bits about classroom management given to me in training, or from the parenting books I've read, but it's always good to be reminded of why certain things work better than others. And that when faced with a frustrated tantrumy child there are ways of handing things respectfully without helping the situation escalate.

Here are some notes on the lecture:

If we always do what we've always done, it would be crazy to expect a different outcome. Most adults (me sometimes) use fear based discipline techniques when managing conflicts with children because that's how most of us were raised. We do it institutionally.

Fear based discipline involves:

- motivating a child through fear/punishments/threats (ex: "If you do that again I'm going to...")
- focusing on the behavior that you DON'T want (ex: "don't throw pencils...if you throw the pencil... why did you throw the pencil?"- all child is hearing is THROW THE PENCIL!)
- manipulating or trying to control the child with rewards/punishments
- believing that a child must feel pain in order to learn, usually through some kind of repentance based method (like time out or other equally inefficate punishments)
- believing that we can change or make another person behave a certain way (ex: If I keep reminding him, he will eventually learn to do it...)

Positive/Conscious discipline involves:

- motivating the child through connecting with him
- focuses on the behavior that we DO want
- focuses on respecting the child and connecting with him to create cooperation
- stimulates self regulation in the child
- the child does things out of internal motivation
- believing that mistakes are necessary in order to learn (friendliness with error!)
- believing that the only person we can make change is ourselves

Conscious Discipline is based on research of the development of the brain. It uses knowledge about how the brain works to offer a way to connect with children at moments of conflict so that both parties may be enriched in the process of finding a solution.

It is based on the idea of helping the child work through the different natural reactions until they are at the point where they can register what you say, think, and find a solution to the conflict. The child moves from the survival mode (fight or flee), to a place where they can empathize or at least understand the situation. In order to carry out the process the adult has to want to connect with the child and be fully present.

When a child experiences fear or stress their primal response is to fight or flee. This is the body's natural defense mechanism. The responses of the body are triggered from the stem of the brain which is basically in charge of survival. The child under stress (very angry, having a tantrum) is operating under conditions that allow him only to choose between fighting or running away. It's not very effective to use reasoning with the child at this point. When approaching a child in this state the adult can calmly state what they see in the child (be a reflection of the child). Ex: "You are so angry, look at your brow, and you are red and stomping your feet..." You can even, the instructor suggested, imitate the child- this will either distract him or (my guess) drive him totally bonkers.

It is important at this point (when the child could be yelling and possibly cussing at you) to remember that no on can make you angry without your permission. We choose or not to get crazy and frustrated. The point here is to show the child a way out of their emotional mayhem into a more peaceful state. We have to be calm ourselves to do this. In the course they said that using affirmations such as "I am safe", "I am calm", or "I can handle this" is useful along with being aware of our breath.

Ok, so not judging the child, or getting into it with him about his tantrum is supposed to already help alleviate the situation a little. The child feels a little safer, you are not towering over him or yelling at him, so he moves up to the place where the limbic system (responsible for feelings) can be active. At this point you can talk to the child about how he feels: "You got so angry when Fred took your pencil and threw it, you were furious, it made you feel hurt." This is where a connection can be made with the child, he feels that you understand and trusts you.

Once out of that stage, the child is calmer and clearly ready to listen, you can approach him for problem solving. This is where the prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where we make decisions based on choices (the CEO of the brain if you will), comes in. At this point you can talk to the child about finding a solution to the problem: "You got angry with Fred because he took something from you. What could you say to Fred so that he knows that you didn't like that?" It is only at this stage that the child is capable of reasoning with you and learning by making better choices.

With children who you have difficulty connecting to the following things are also helpful:

-build rapport with the child during positive moments by showing affection, conversing, showing interest and giving attention to the child

-it is possible to encourage the child by noticing out loud when he does things the correct way (a SUPER book about how to use praise effectively is "The Kazdin Method" by Alan E. Kazdin)

-creating a "safe place" or "quiet place" in the classroom gives the child the option of knowing where to go when he is angry or sad. (More on creating these spaces in "Nurturing the Spirit in Non-Sectarian Classrooms" by Aline Wolf)

-being assertive in our own communications with the children especially when it comes to limits (More on this in "Non Violent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wild things.

So much of my after school time has been dedicated these weeks to thoughts about limits, and how to become more consistent in the environment that I've been looking at the classroom through a focus perhaps a little narrow. What a break I had today, when I sat back more, observed more, tried to influence things less, enjoyed myself, listened, and appreciated all the minor/major things that so easily go unnoticed when you work with little children. I enjoyed myself with the children so much today.

I have to say that the change in perspective has to do with having watched "Where the Wild Things Are" last night. What an excellent reminder of what it's like to be a child going through difficult times at home. The producers and director were bold enough to try to present the story from the point of view of a 9 year old (it could have easily been a 5-6 year old) without having to filter the experience into a completely coherent adult viewpoint. I recognized so much of the raw emotion that I see in some of the children at school. The abundance of emotion and at the same time confusion, the trying to make sense of things that you can't possibly understand yet... I cried and cried thinking of what some of my own wild things in the classroom are going through in their little lives, and of my own experience as a child from a divorced home- what a difference it can make if someone just listens and connects without judging.

I sit at child's eye level all day long in the classroom on my little stool, I see what the children see, but I forget every so often that they are new, overwhelmed, abundantly emotional, intensely creative (each in their own unique way), and longing to be understood.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shark Tooth Mountain

We went on a little field trip to a mysterious ancient shark tooth deposit on the island, and then to the rock formations to have a short hike and picnic. A parent took some beautiful pictures and I wanted to share.

Exercises of the will

In my quest for better understanding of freedom and limits I came across lots of passages in the Montessori literature about the path to discipline, or the stages of obedience in children. It's fascinating to me that I can read a part of a Montessori book I've read before but feel it in a different light ever time. It is like the Czech saying that you can never bathe in the same river twice...

Montessori is clear in her writings that talking with children of this age about limits or rules is completely ineffective. This is also what I read in contemporary parenting books; children of this age need to learn by doing.

“Such discipline could never be obtained by commands, exhortations, or by any of the ordinary means used for keeping order. Actually it is useless to depend upon scoldings and entreaties for the maintenance of discipline. These may at first give the illusion of being somewhat effective; but very soon, when real discipline makes its appearance, all this collapses as a wretched illusion in the face of reality: “the night gives way to day.”

from The Discovery of the Child

Montessori insists, as did the trainers who pounded this into my brain, that normalization only comes about through WORK. But I think about the child that's out of control, that shows no interest in materials, that hits and would rather roll on the floor, or fling cylinders across the room. Hm... and then comes the part about limits:

-You are free to move about / as long as you don't disturb others who are working.

This is a good start.

Perhaps that child needs an assigned table. Or a quiet place to be when they can't control themselves.

Montessori talked about stabilizing the experience of the group, or of a child, through gradual exercises of the will. She linked normalization to control of movement. I love this excerpt:

“Children who are disorderly in their movements are not simply children who have not learned how to move about. They are rather children whose minds have not been properly nourished and are suffering from mental starvation.”

“We must teach him how to coordinate his movements so that he can carry them out in a harmonious fashion, analyzing them as far as we can and perfecting each of them individually.” both from the Discovery of the Child

Then I think about all the small problems we encounter in the classroom during the day, and how through practice masked as games (grace and courtesy lessons basically) we can tackle the issues:

- Walking across the room (we can set all the chairs on one side of the room and just practice walking back and forth)

- Walking around rugs

- Walking around rugs or through the room carrying materials without making a sound

- Walking around the line holding the square chains (or perhaps I could borrow one and put it on the "Line Exercises" tray so that they can then practice on their own. I can imagine the end of the swinging chain phenomenon we've been seeing lately)

- So much silence game.

This is all basic stuff, and I do it at the beginning of the year a lot, but often forget why it is so important. Why it is the MOST important. If the children can move about respectfully that is the platform for respect towards materials, and eventually concentrated work.

Here I interrupt to tell a little story about what happened in my car on the way back to school from our field trip this week. The children who get to ride in my car on the field trips are not coincidentally the children who are probably the least willing to cooperate during the silence game in the classroom.

As I drove, one of these children said "Let's see who can be quiet from here until we reach the school!" I jumped at this impromptu invitation for a silence game in the car! And would you believe it, that out of the three children, just one squirmed, for a slight second, during the last 7 minutes of the drive to school. It was beautiful! Here were the children that reject the silence game and sabotage it regularly in the classroom, capable of carrying it out for much longer than we do it in the classroom, and their proud faces when I parked the car outside of our gate.

There is so much hope.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


The past couple of weeks in my life, both private and at school, have been revolving around the theme of "limits". The importance of knowing where to draw the line is critical, I realize, in cultivating relationships of respect.

As a teacher, I've felt throughout the years that my understanding of the freedoms and limits of a classroom has been deficient. I think that by nature I am a very tolerant person, but this works to my disadvantage if I am unclear about where the limits are. For the children, knowing where the lines have been drawn helps them enjoy the freedoms granted in the environment. This is especially true when it comes to aggressive behavior, and abuse of materials.

"Montessori felt that physically abusive behavior in children was destructive. Far from making the child feel better about himself, she observed that it left him more dissatisfied than ever. She did not permit such behavior in the classroom, feeling it was not part of real freedom. She emphasized in its place the child's ability to discover himself, and his capacities for a positive response to his environment through the joy of discovery and creative work. She believed a lowering of standards of conduct of intellectual development would only lead to an inferior education and society.

If education is to be an aid to civilization, it cannot be carried out by emptying the schools of knowledge, of character, of discipline, of social harmony, and, above all, of freedom."

"The first idea that the child must acquire, in order to be actively disciplined, is that of the difference between good and evil." To achieve this distinction, the adult must set firm limits against destructive asocial actions."

"In striving to develop this freedom, it should be clearly established that ony the destructive acts of the child are to be limited. "All the rest- every manifestation having a useful scope- whatever it be, and under whatever form it expresses itself, must not only be permitted but must be observed by the teacher."

Quotes from Paula Polk Lillard, Montessori a Modern Approach

As an administrator, if I can be clear with parents from the onset about what the boundaries are regarding their children, both entities can work together to help the child on a better path. Or it can eventually save both the school and the families from painful realizations later on.

As a partner in a relationship, realizing when I've reached a limit and being able to communicate it bravely and clearly can save my relationship or it can help create the direction of where I am moving towards.

I have been reading everything I can get my hands on about "limits" in all forms and environments- and a reminder that struck me deeply was from a simple article on

"Steps for setting limits: Honor your feelings. Remember they are neither right nor wrong. They just are."