With additional reporting by Cassandra Stone.
Montessori can be hard to sum up in just a few words—it is a philosophy on education and child development that runs deep. It's a way of seeing the world. I think one of the easiest ways to get an idea for what Montessori means is to listen to the language that Montessori teachers use.
Montessori teachers use language that respects the child and provides consistent expectations. Words are chosen carefully to encourage children to be independent, intrinsically motivated critical thinkers.
Here are seven common phrases you'd probably hear in any Montessori classroom, and how to incorporate them into your home life.
1. “I saw you working hard."
The focus on process over product is a key tenet of Montessori. We avoid telling the children "good work" or "your work is beautiful" and instead comment on how they concentrated for a long time, or how they wrote so carefully and their work could be easily read by anyone.
Praising your child's hard work, rather than his results, helps instill a growth mindset where he believes he can improve through his own efforts.
Instead of telling your child, "You're a good boy," tell him "I noticed you being kind to your little brother yesterday when you shared your truck." This shows him you see his good behavior, without placing judgments on him. Instead of telling him, "You're such a good artist," try, "I noticed you kept working on your picture until you got it just how you wanted it."
2. “What do you think about your work?"
In Montessori, the child is his own teacher. The teachers are there as guides to give him lessons and help him but he discovers things for himself through the carefully prepared environment and materials.
Self-analysis is a big part of that discovery.
When your child asks you, "Do you like my picture?" try asking her about it instead of just saying you love it. Ask her what she thinks about it, how she decided what colors to use, and what her favorite part is. Help her start to evaluate her work for herself, rather than looking for your approval.
3. “Where could you look for that?"
Independence is another key value in any Montessori classroom or home. Our goal as teachers is to help the children do things for themselves. So while it's sometimes easier to simply answer a child's question about where something is or how to do something, we often answer questions with another question such as, "Where could you look for that?" or "Which friend could you ask for help?"
If your son loses his shoe and you see it peeking out from under the bed, try asking leading questions, rather than just handing it to him.
"Where were you when you took your shoes off? Have you checked your room?" This may take a little more time, but it will be worth it when he starts taking more initiative and coming to you less.
4. “Which part would you like my help with?"
In a Montessori classroom, children are responsible for many things, including taking care of their environment. Children often take great pride in this responsibility, spending time arranging flowers to put on tables, watering the garden, and happily washing the windows and tables.
Sometimes though, a job is just too big and overwhelming. In these cases, we ask the child how we can help. We don't want to swoop in and "save the day," sending the message that the child is not capable, but we also don't want to leave the child overwhelmed.
For example: If your child is tired, but needs to put her Legos away before bed, all of those pieces can be overwhelming. It doesn't have to be all or nothing though. Try "which color would you like me to put away" or "I'll put away the yellow pieces and you put away the blue" to show that you're in it together.
5. “In our class, we …." (Or at home— “In our home, we…")
This little phrase is used to remind the children of any number of classroom rules and desired behaviors. Phrasing reminders as objective statements about how the community works, rather than barking commands, is much more likely to elicit cooperation from a child.
"In our class, we sit while we eat" is less likely to incite a power struggle than "Sit down."
Like all of us, children want to be a part of the community, and we simply remind them of how the community works.
If you have a rule about walking in the house, instead of "stop running," try saying "we walk inside our house" and see if you get fewer arguments.
6. “Don't disturb him, he's concentrating."
Protecting children's concentration is a fundamental part of the Montessori philosophy. Montessori classes give children big blocks of uninterrupted work time, usually three hours. This allows children to develop deep concentration, without being disturbed because the schedule says it's time to move on to learning something else.
It can be tempting to compliment a child who is working beautifully, but sometimes even making eye contact is enough to break their concentration.
Next time you walk by your child while he's focused on drawing a picture or building a tower, try just walking by instead of telling him how great it is. You can make a mental note and tell him later that you noticed him concentrating so hard on his creation.
7. “Follow the Child."
This last one is an important one. It's something Montessori teachers say to each other and to parents—not to the child. We often remind each other to "follow the child," to trust that each child is on his or her own internal developmental timeline, that he is doing something for a reason.
This reminds us to search for the reason behind the behavior. It reminds us that not all children will be walking by one or reading by four—they haven't read the books and couldn't care less about the milestones they are "supposed to" reach.
Following the child means remembering that each child is unique and has his own individual needs, passions, and gifts, and he should be taught and guided accordingly.
If you can't get your child interested in reading, try watching what he does love—if he loves being silly, it may be that a joke book is what piques his interest, not the children's classic you had in mind. Remembering to "follow your child" can help you see him in a different way and work with him instead of against him.
One of beautiful things about Montessori is that it is so much more than a type of education—it is a way of seeing and being with children. Even if your child does not go to Montessori school, you can easily bring the ideas into your home and watch your child's independence and concentration grow.