Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.
–Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child
Many years ago I had a student who was an unintentional and most unlikely source of great inspiration. Where Anna is now, I couldn’t say. I suppose she is in the midst of a successful college career. When I first knew her, she was three years old, smart and strong-willed, the cherished daughter of older Russian parents. For the first year I knew her, Anna was completely silent.
Though her mother reported she spoke “like a storybook” at home, in both English and Russian, at school she said nothing. Anna was attentive, cooperative, and seemingly quite happy. She attended small and large group lessons, listened politely, and nodded at appropriate moments. We often noticed her lips moving when we sang, but her singing was without voice.
We never understood why Anna did not speak. Though she looked content, we wondered if this first separation from the Russian grandparents who had cared for her since infancy might have been traumatic for Anna. Anna’s mother seemed attuned and honest. She was neither critical nor concerned. “It will pass,” she said. “She is fine.”
I continued to worry.
In January, I asked an old friend to observe Anna in my class. “Tell me what to do,” I begged him. He was older than I, much more experienced and confident, on the brink of retirement but still successful in all his endeavors. The morning he came to observe, he stayed in my classroom less than 15 minutes.
“You know what you are going to do?” he said. “Nothing!” He pointed his index finger at me to emphasize his certainty. “This is a beautiful classroom, full of active, happy kids. The environment you prepared is calling Anna. Eventually, she will answer.”
He pointed at me again, smiling. “You wait,” he said, and left.
A month later, three five-year-old girls stood near Anna, talking about a weekend trip to a local ice rink. “I like to skate,” Anna said.
Five-year-old Samantha turned to Anna, smiling. “Do you skate with your friends or with your family?” she asked. “I like to skate with my big sister,” Anna replied.
Samantha extended her little hand for Anna, and the two girls walked off together to continue their conversation in a small group. There was no fanfare, no celebration, just a quiet, long-awaited conversation among friends.
After that first timid conversation with friends, Anna spoke freely, with animation and intelligence. The next morning, when she arrived at the door of our classroom, she shook my hand as she always had, then smiled and said, for the first time, “Good morning Mrs. Rogers. It’s good to see you.” Over the next few days, she demonstrated that she had memorized and could reproduce all the Sandpaper Letter sounds. She began working with the Moveable Alphabet with obvious delight.
It felt like a miracle. It still does.
More recently, a parent of one of the oldest children in my class came to the first conference of the year eager to tell me a story. She began describing the behavior of another student, our newest, tactfully avoiding his name. She related her daughter Amanda’s initial shock at the boy’s disorderly conduct and his most unfortunate word-choice. That boy blossomed into a fine member of our community, a good friend to many and an admired leader, but at the time of our first conferences that year, our situation was dire.
Panic rose within me as her stories drew to a close. The tales were true. There was no doubt in my mind whom she was talking about, but I was not sure how to reassure her or respond to her concerns.
As so often happened with this remarkable parent, I underestimated her.
“Here’s what I wanted to tell you,” she said. “I was upset when I listened to Amanda’s stories about this child. I asked Amanda if she had told you. You know what she said?” Here she paused, for dramatic effect.
“She said, ‘Oh mom. Why would I tell Mrs. Rogers? She already knows. It’s going to take a long time. But it will be OK. We can handle it.’”
Her eyes were full of tears. “Can you believe that? My five-year-old daughter is wiser and more patient than I am. I’ve never been so proud. Thank you. I am so grateful.”
Learning to Wait
A casual observer would miss much of the learning and growth the goes on in a Montessori classroom. Many of the experiences of greatest value to a growing child are not apparent they are so embedded in the routine that children and adults rarely notice their impact.
Montessori classrooms are unusually active, just two adults with a large group of children of mixed ages. With very few exceptions, classrooms are prepared with just one of each material available for use. These decisions – large communities of mixed ages of children, few adults, few materials – are deliberate choices intended to help children learn when and how to seek help, how to make independent decisions and, most importantly, how to wait.
Children in Montessori classroom are not expected to take turns or share. If a child is working with a material, she is free to work at her own pace, for as long as she desires. Other children who might like to work with the material are learning to wait. Additionally, when a child needs help, he might not have immediate access to the teacher or the assistant. When a teacher is giving a lesson, observing, or otherwise engaged, children can either seek help from another child, or wait.
Young children whose parents report regular tantrums and fits of rage at home demonstrate great patience in the school community. Why? At any given moment, in any well-prepared Montessori classroom, the same child who can be frighteningly impatient at home is surrounded by children who are actively waiting. Learning to wait is an inarticulated expectation. The prepared environment demands it.
Ideas for Parents
These are the joys which prepare a man for life and are the only ones that are really suitable for the education of children.
–Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child
The world our children are growing up in is so mechanized, efficiency-oriented, and virtual — helping children learn to wait requires parents make deliberate, conscientious choices about how they spend time with their children. Most of the experiences and entertainment for children offer immediate, constant feedback and demand very little attention. Waiting is a soft skill, but it is also the precursor to the virtues of perseverance. The ability to actively wait is the cornerstone of success in any arena.
- Gardens: For many years, my husband planted moon-flower seeds with our young children. There is nothing to compare with the just-before-bedtime delight when the first fragrant blossom opened outside our back door. I have also been the grateful recipient of flowers a child planted at home and picked before school. Vegetables in the ground . . .tomatoes in a barrel . . . geraniums in a can on the window sill. . .marigolds by the mailbox . . .every seed planted and cared for by a child is an opportunity to learn that growing things takes attention and time.
- Cooking/baking: The only experience more valuable than sharing a meal with a child is first preparing it. Waiting for bread to rise, or cookies to bake, or soup to boil fills a home with good smells and good feelings. Most families cannot manage a sit-down meal as often as we would like, but every meal prepared together and shared at a table is a gift and an investment in the health of a child and her family. Really.
- Road Trip: Infants and toddlers gain nothing from hours strapped in car seats and carriers. Older kids can, however, learn a great deal from trips with maps in their laps and a destination to explore. Too often, our children travel great distances so quickly and with such little thought or attention, they return home with no idea where they have been or how many miles they traveled.
- Read Aloud. Often. One of the simplest, most valuable joys of childhood is listening to a story. Even when a story is often repeated, children love waiting to hear what happens next. There are now so many beautifully illustrated books for children, waiting for the page to turn is a real source of joy for kids whose parents make time to sit down beside a child with a book in hand. As children grow older and can listen attentively to chapter books, they also spend a full day anticipating the next night’s reading.
We Never Stop Learning to Wait
Before anyone can assume a responsibility, he must be convinced that he is the master of his own actions and have confidence in himself.
–Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood
One of the first times I had a Montessori consultation, I was working in a classroom situated at the end of the hallway the children walked down as they entered the school. Eager to observe the morning greetings and, I suppose, to see the expressions of the children as they entered the school, our consultant began her day sitting in a chair just inside the door to my classroom.
That year I had a little boy in my class who was autistic. When he saw the smiling stranger seated within his classroom, he screamed in terror, turned and ran back down the hallway. Horrified, I made eye contact with my assistant and very quickly left the classroom, feeling certain the consultant must already be convinced I was incompetent and unworthy of my position.
My terrified young student stopped when he saw me and sat down to cry in the hallway. “It’s OK.,” I said, “She is my friend.” Then I stood waiting, until he took my hand and joined me as we returned together to a classroom that was by now in full swing.
I spent the day dreading my after-school conference with the consultant.
“Well, Jennifer,” she said as we sat alone together in my classroom. “Wonderful.” Then she paused, smiling, allowing her encouragement to sink in.
“First, I love how you left your classroom in the care of your assistant to follow the child who needed you most. Your classroom functions well when you are not present. That is as it should be.”
“Second, I love how you waited for him. That is what he needed. We teachers often want to swoop in and fix things, acting out our own fear and anxiety. You gave him the time he needed to recover, and you allowed him to feel in control of his situation once again. Well done.”
The conversation continued. I had much to learn from the consultant. I still do. Each of her comments was so accurate and so gracefully communicated, the entire conversation still resonates. She reminded me that we never stop learning how to wait, but each pause is significant. Real growth, she said, continues only when we act with an intelligence informed by a long vision of an unfolding life.
Disclaimer for Parents: If a trusted teacher or doctor has suggested an evaluation or therapeutic intervention for a speech, language processing, or other developmental delay, waiting is not a good strategy. Early intervention saves lives. A “wait and see” approach rarely helps a struggling child.