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Beginning Montessori: Normalization

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So you've found Montessori.  Perhaps you were captivated by the beautiful work spaces.  Or maybe it was the strong focus and calm demeanor of the proverbial "Montessori child".  And who doesn't love the engaging activities that can be found on Pinterest?

Regardless of you initial intentions, you are here; ready to dive in with both feet.  You've read up on the basics, set aside a small area and created some engaging work trays.  The big moment draws near.  You introduce your children to this new venture.  You watch in anticipation as they select a scooping activity and begin transferring items from one bowl to another.  And then...  both bowls are dumped and half the contents end up on the floor.  While you're trying to encourage them to help clean up, another tray has been taken and the results are similar.  In less than 10 minutes you're frazzled and the area is a mess.

So what went wrong?

Often times when we discuss beginning Montessori we miss an important concept called normalization.  Essentially, it is the process by which children learn to focus.  In other words, it generally does not come naturally nor will it be there on the first day.  Montessori educations are well aware of this process that needs to occur when a new student enters the classroom.  They also know the process takes time.  In all likelihood, it will take time for you in the home environment as well.  The length of the process will vary based on the disposition of the child, the age they are first introduced to Montessori and the manner of life they are already accustomed to.  If you'd like to delve deeper into normalization, NAMC has a good article on the topic.

Hopefully, one of the biggest helps when facing normalization is knowing it exists.  It's easy to become discouraged and assume that perhaps Montessori doesn't work for you or your child.  Give it time.  In fact, I would encourage you to devote a solid four to six weeks.  I hope you'll be amazed at how much things can change.

Here are a few practical tips for assisting with normalization:

Engage Your Patience
Your patience will be one of the largest factors in how the process goes.  Trust me, I know it's easier said than done some times.  Keep your expectations as level and realistic as possible.  It may be seem like a long journey at points but it is one worth walking.  Try not to focus so much on what others are doing that you lose sight of your unique path.

Define Your Environment
No matter how small your work area is, ensure that your children understand that it is special and different.  It is designed for the work of children.  It can be as simple as one small book shelf with a rug/mat to define the work area.  Also, ensure your work times are relatively consistent and have a definite start and end to the work period.  We always begin by going over the calendar.  We usually end with a song.  Montessori taught that a three hour work period is best for allowing concentration to develop.  However, it is probably best to work up to this goal.  You will need to be a careful observer of your child's work.  If it seems like things are becoming unproductive, it's time to stop.

Explain the Expectations
Your children do not understand how to work in your environment.  Even if you told them what to do, they will not understand until you show them every detail.  Grace and courtesy lessons are a wonderful place to start.  These are lessons in basic classroom behaviors such as:  how to carry a tray, how to roll/unroll a mat and how to turn the pages in a book.  Montessori Primary Guide has a great list of grace and courtesy lessons.

Keep It Simple
We see pictures of wonderful, traditional classrooms with shelves full of beautiful work.  What you don't see is that often these shelves are nearly bare at the beginning of a school year.  While choices are wonderful, many children benefit when options are kept to a minimum until they are comfortable navigating the environment.  Yes, it really is acceptable and even best in some situations to start with a solitary work on the shelves!

Find Your Calm Voice
One thing I noticed from observing classes and attending in-person training is that many Montessori teachers have a teaching voice.  The voice is low in volume, rich in tone and direct.  It is immediately calming.  The part I find most challenging is keeping my calm voice even in the event the situation is not.  Of course, there is a change in the voice if something serious must be addressed such as hurting someone or one of the materials.  Even then, there is no yelling involved.  The voice gets firmer and more direct.

Choose Your Words Carefully
Be careful not to over complicate your verbal instructions to your child.  In fact, the less words you use, the better.  Be as direct as possible.  Also keep in mind that toddlers will often focus on the subject of your words, which is why telling them not to do something often prompts them to engage in that behavior immediately.  Try to focus on the behavior you want instead.  In other words, "Do not knock the pink tower down" can become "Can you help me arrange the blocks?"

Reinforce the Expectations Gracefully
Do you best to stay "matter of fact", especially when reinforcing expectations.  It is easy to allow those moments to become power struggles.  Yes, it is frustrating when a child has forgotten to put away their work for the fifth time that day but remember, it isn't personal.  Simply point out the misstep,  "I see you forgot to put your work away."  Remind them of the expectation "It is important that we put away our work so the classroom stays clean."  You can offer to help, "Let me help you put the work away."  And if all else fails put the work away yourself and try again the next time the situation occurs.  This can also work in situations where a work is not being treated appropriately.  In those instances you can offer to give them another lesson on the work or even ask them to put it away until they are ready to use it correctly.  

Wash, Rinse, Repeat
While things will improve over time, there will also be points where the progress slides.  I've noticed that I often have to be a bit more watchful after breaks and holidays.  Sometimes, one of us will have an off day as well.  Montessori is a journey and normalization is process.

I hope that you feel encouraged that some of the surprise behavior you encounter is, in fact, normal for all of us.  Keep pursuing what you know is right and eventually, you will reap the reward.
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