Montessori Basics: Following the Child
“When a child is given a little leeway, he will at once shout, ’I want to do it!’ But in our schools, which have an environment adapted to children’s needs, they say, ‘Help me to do it alone.’” -Maria Montessori in The Secret of Childhood
Montessorians are often heard saying, “Follow the child.” It’s a statement that guides us each day and drives our work in very particular ways. We believe the child has innate qualities that lead them to learning, and it is our job to prepare the path and then get out of the way.
Following the child is applicable to every environment in the child’s life, including home, school, and elsewhere. Dr. Maria Montessori spoke often about this very topic, and there are practical ways we apply her ideas even today.
Pause, and resist interruptions
“Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity…. The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.” -Maria Montessori in The Absorbent Mind
As adults, we tend to feel obligated to frequently engage with the children in our lives. We sometimes feel duty-bound to dispense our knowledge, to verbally guide, and to provide frequent feedback. This is usually a result of our own upbringing and education, but that doesn’t make it the ideal approach.
The most important thing we can do when approaching a child is to pause. Is the child focused? Already engaged? Enjoying their work? If you can answer ‘yes’ to these questions, it may be best not to interfere. When a child is concentrating, they are not seeking out approval or direction. Even if they are not engaging in an activity in the way we had envisioned, as long as they are being safe and careful with a material, they may be getting something out of the experience that we had not anticipated.
And when they are done, they aren’t looking for our feedback. We don’t need to praise. If you would like to acknowledge, make note of what you noticed. Comment on the action, not your judgement of it. “I noticed you were very focused on that. How did it make you feel?” is a much better approach than, “Great job!”
Trust the child’s internal drive
“The child looks for his independence first, not because he does not desire to be dependent on the adult. But because he has in himself some fire, some urge, to do certain things and not other things.” -Maria Montessori in The Theosophist
As we mentioned above, our children do not inherently seek out external praise, or any type of rewards for that matter. When we give empty praise or prizes, we teach children to do their work to meet the approval of others. When we trust that they want to learn for the sake of learning, and for the sheer joy of the experience, that is exactly what happens.
Sometimes, when our children are young, they show signs of independence that we may miss. When they want to help you mop the floor, slow down and give them a chance to try. We know it can be hard with busy schedules and lots to do, but these tiny moments will encourage independence in the long run. Our children want to work. They want to do things for themselves. They just need us to let them.
Acknowledge the value of the environment
“Children acquire knowledge through experience in the environment.” -Maria Montessori in The 1946 London Lectures
"Now the adult himself is part of the child's environment; the adult must adjust him