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Zahra Kassam on Montessori education and raising an independent thinker

Zahra Kassam, internationally certified Montessori teacher and CEO and cofounder of Monti Kids, the only at home Montessori program for birth to age three, talks to Liz about the Montessori approach, how to facilitate independent play, her approach to temper tantrums and meltdowns⁠—and why kids are more self-sufficient than we often think. Zahra is also offering all our listeners $60 off Monti Kids boxes. New customers can go to Montikids.com and enter this code at checkout: MOTHERLY60.

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Liz: So my husband and I sent our oldest child to a Montessori school, and we didn't really know that much about the Montessori philosophy. But you know, the things that we'd read sounded interesting. And you know, this, this idea of freedom within limits and following the child, it sort of naturally appealed to us before we knew anything about even who Maria Montessori was.

But I remember one of the, one of the early moments that taught me that, like, something's going on here. Um, our son had woken up, you know, earlier than we had that morning. He was about four years old and we came downstairs and he had like a butcher knife deep in an Apple in the kitchen. Like, and, you know, maybe I hadn't made abundantly clear to him that like, those were not.

The knives for four-year-olds, but I was like, what are you doing at? I'm so glad that I had been there at that exact moment. He said, sweet little four-year-old [00:01:00] voice like, Oh mommy, I am making a fruit salad. And what I've learned since then is maybe not butcher knives are present in Montessori classrooms, but the idea of cutting your own fruits. But with a child safe, you know, age appropriate knife is very common in Montessori classrooms and it's always finding the limit of what a child can do safely and it kind of inching them along. That is at the heart of. What Montessori is trying to do is try -- it's believing that children are a little bit more capable, maybe a lot more capable than we give them credit for.

And fortunately, the great butcher knife incident of 2015 is behind us.

Liz: Hey mama, welcome to the motherly podcast. Honest [00:02:00] conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tennety. The co-founder of motherly, and today we're talking to Zahra Kassam, a mother of two and CEO and cofounder of Monti kids, the only at home Montessori program for birth to age three.

So Zahra Kassam, welcome to the motherly podcast.

Zahra: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here. Such a big fan, motherly.

Liz: So you had been interested in how children thrive for like a really long time. Even before you became a mom, you studied child psychology at Harvard and got your masters from the Harvard graduate school of education, and then you became an internationally certified Montessori teacher.

So. What drew you to child psychology and to Montessori even before you became a mother?

Zahra: I actually knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to do so. It's been a long time. [00:03:00] I had this experience where my mom and my dad transferred me to a French bilingual school and I had zero French background. So I started, um, at nine, uh, at the bottom of my class.

And I had this incredible teacher who helped me get to the top of my class by the end of the year. And she did it, and I mean, she would take us out in nature and just had the most unbelievable teaching style. And I remember thinking like, wow, I can get better at something that I was really bad at and I want to help other kids do.

Liz: So I think we know at motherly that our readers and listeners and viewers are super interested in Montessori. It's almost like a buzzword, but I think people don't really know much about Maria Montessori herself. And the more that you learn, this woman was such a pioneer, a woman before her time. So for those who don't know her story, can you tell us [00:04:00] about who Maria Montessori was.

Zahra: Ah, yes. Ah, it's so inspiring. She was one of the first female physicians in Italy. She thought her way into medical school at a time when women did not do that. So that was about 200 years ago. Um, she, uh, had a really, you know, it's not like they just let her in and then it was all, it was fine. She was not treated like the other students.

So there are these amazing stories about how, you know, they used to do cadaver work and it was inappropriate for a woman to see, you know, these naked cadavers in the presence of all these male students. And so they wouldn't allow her to do that. And she would go at night and kind of. Pay some money to the, you know, the groundskeeper who would let her in.

And she'd do it by candlelight. She was so driven, um, and ended up graduating from medical school, uh, working with children who were deemed, um. Mentally ill and she, she would go into these facilities where these children were being [00:05:00] kept and realized, you know, they didn't have any, any stimulation at all.

And she was really ahead of her time just realizing that. Um, and so she started providing what, and eventually she started working with, um, children in slums who were kind of. You know, the bad kids, um, who wouldn't go to school and she put together this program for them and it's all based on development.

So that's why Montessori has been around over a hundred years. Literally at every country around the world. The reason why it's worked so well for so long anywhere is because she developed it based on observing children, their developmental needs and how to respond to them in a child as a child. So, um, you know, it was a very scientific method of developing the program that she worked on, and eventually those children, um, who were kind of.

So everybody thought it was a, were lost causes did better on the state exams [00:06:00] than, you know, rich children. And her response was not like, Oh, how wonderful. And I, her response was, what is wrong with our education system? Um, that, you know, that that's happened. Um, that's allowed this to happen. And so. She just kind of went from there.

And she was invited to India by Gandhi, and she was invited to the U S by Alexander Graham bell. And she has this incredible story of, of being, you know, touring around the world, spreading her method. She was kicked out of Italy by Mussolini because Montessori is not just academically, you know, superior.

It's also, it creates independent thinkers. And she called it education for peace. That was. Pretty radical at the time. Um, and so, I mean, I could go on and on, but she's an amazing, amazing woman. So what are the basic principles that she developed by observing children and the conditions in which they thrive?

Liz: What are the basic principles of the Montessori philosophy?

Zahra: [00:07:00] So it starts, uh, first and foremost with developmental education. This is education that is. At every stage meeting a child's developmental needs. It starts at birth. It goes through high school. Um, so we're meeting a child's developmental needs and then stretching their skills, uh, with challenged, with appropriate level of challenge.

Um, the way children learn in a Montessori environment is do hands on interaction with. Toys. Um, and so from, you know, at a young age, this looks like mobiles and puzzles. And at older ages, I was having children, um, who were five and six years old in my preschool classroom, learning how to do long division.

And they're doing it by playing with, you know, little beads. And so that in the, in a Montessori classroom, there is not a Blackboard where a teacher stands up at the front. And, and. Tells children the knowledge that they need to know. They are really learning it for themselves [00:08:00] through interacting, interacting with the world and Montessori education.

You can think of as a triangle. Um, when the three points would be, um. The child, the environments and the adults. And it's the interaction between those three things that facilitates learning. So the environment is hugely, hugely important in how a child works.

Liz: This idea of Montessori parenting or training.Um, as you mentioned, there's, there's a rich science behind it. So what are we discovering about the science of how Montessori style approaches help children to thrive?

Zahra: Yeah. It's unbelievable. there's been so much research done on it, on something that was developed, like I said so long ago, over a hundred years, um, that now there's articles in the top scientific journals like science and nature, and.

So, you know, tons of others [00:09:00] showing that these, that, um, the Montessori method produces better outcomes both academically, social, emotionally. One of the big things people talk about is executive function. Um, which is a cluster of skills that helps children kind of make decisions, follow through with plans, meet their goals.

It's basically what makes us functioning adults. I'm highly functioning adults. The more the better executive executive function we have and Montessori, um, classrooms kind of. Produce this at at a much higher rate than other environments. And when I was studying in my masters, all different types of education, a lot of the progressive education that is working really well today is based on those same principles.

Liz: You know, my kids have gone to a few different Montessori schools and the different places that we've lived around the country. And one of the. Like interesting tensions within a Montessori [00:10:00] school or a Montessori philosophy is like freedom within limits. You are a parent yourself. So how do you with your two children, you know, balance the freedom to put their own shoes on, but needing to get somewhere on time.

Zahra: Yes. So it's a very good question. Freedom within limits is this beautiful concept because all the research shows that children. And adults really do well. You know, you get into a flow state with learning when you have freedom, when you have choices, but then obviously there needs to be structure around it, um, for everyone.

And so our job as adults is to really set up that structure and what those limits are. Um, and you know, the number of things they have to choose from. Um, but. You know, setting up that structure then allows for freedom within it. And when I have a two year old, and I have a seven year old, and especially with toddlers, but really with children of all ages, you can [00:11:00] eliminate the power struggles when the structure is all set up and then they can be free within it.

Liz: Yeah, no, I want to talk about that because I know our audiences. Super interested. Um, I spoke to one of our experts, editors at motherly before our conversation, and she shared how interested our audience is in using these Montessori approaches to deal with difficult moments in Parenthood, like meltdowns and tantrums.

So. Let's, let's say you're, you're a mom, um, you know, experience, even daily tantrums or difficult conversations or confrontations with our kids. How does the Montessori framework tell us to kind of deal with those situations.

Zahra: So it's really kind of about getting ahead of them, um, meaning once it's happening, of course there's things you can do, you know, and we've all read the articles.

You hear your child's out, you validate their feelings, you, you know, um, but what Montessori is mostly concerned with is getting ahead of them. So we ha, we don't have this [00:12:00] concept of terrible Tuesday Montessori, because if. The environment for them. In a way. Like I said, if you structure it so that they can then be free within it.

Um, for example, his children know it's my snack time at home and. Every time I have snack, there's three options laid out for me in small containers that I can access myself. That's a very different scenario than, okay, mom's going to open the fridge and I'm going to freak out cause I want that thing that I'm pointing to and she's not giving it to me.

And now we have a play circle. Um, and we can kind of apply that set up. Um, you know, kind of the structure to, to anything we do with choosing clothes. You know, if you, in a Montessori, um, scenario, you would put clothes out for your child that are appropriate for that day, and so they have choices. Um, but you're okay with any of the choices.

You know, you wouldn't put like shorts out when it's winter and then they grabbed [00:13:00] the shorts and now you're all citing. Yeah.

Liz: I think what I'm hearing you saying is. A lot of it is about respect for your child as a human being and imagining that. No human, whether they're two or 10 or 20, wants to be told what to do or have orders barked at them.

Zahra: Um, I don't like that. I know that for a fact. Um, and it's about creating safe choices, um, a consistent experience to the degree that you can so that your children feel the freedom. That is appropriate for them, and that they can exercise their freedom as a human being. Um, and so for us, that looks like my daughter, she's three.

She really wants to put on her own seatbelt buckle. I am not allowed to, you know, touch the tops that is mine. I can do it myself, but she can't do the bottom one. And she knows that. Right. So I don't try to put the top one on. I, I, you know, um, I'll go in and make sure [00:14:00] that, um. That it's, you know, buckled properly, but finding opportunities.

But I have found helpful is like finding opportunities to allow them to have freedom that, you know, might be a little bit of unexpected freedom, but it, it does help them feel empowered now that said it, can you get the moments where you're like, I feel like my child is too empowered right now and they're telling me how it's going to be.

Liz: Right. And that's where those conflicts come in of, of, of changing expectations or And they're just watching your child grow up into their own person and having very strong opinions and needing to respect it, even if you can't accommodate it.

Zahra: Right. And then, you know, you, you talked about putting on shoes like these, their own shoes and buckling their own car seats.

These things take a little bit of time. So Montessori, people who are practicing Montessori always try to build in extra time for that. And of course, you know, I'm really hesitant to tell parents to do anything extra cause everyone's doing too much already, including myself. And so it sounds like it might.

Take a lot of [00:15:00] time to set up three snack choices, you know, in little containers for your child, or put out two outfits or build an extra time for them to put on their shoes. But when you think about it, it actually prevents the tantrum that delay everybody and make everybody late. And so in the end, it actually just makes everything more peaceful and flow more smoothly and quickly.

Liz: I'm sure that you've heard the feedback that, you know, Montessori education is really expensive.

Like [00:17:00] it just is, period. You know, many places around the country and worlds, it's an expensive education. And even saying with Monte kids that the price point, like, how do I afford this? And you guys have developed some new initiatives to start to address that issue and really make access to Montessori programs.

Um. You know, more, uh, affordable or even free. So can you talk about, um, like the irony of Montessori being unaffordable in some cases, and what are we doing about it?

Zahra: Yeah. So Maria Montessori, like I said, she started this by working with very poor children. And you know, Gandhi invited her to set up two schools for the most, you know, underprivileged children, um, in India.

And so that's, that's where it has its roots. Um, you know, we live in a world where really high quality things costs money. Um, and so a lot of us are working hard on. Creative ways to, to bring access, um, to [00:18:00] Montessori. And there's now more than 500 public Montessori schools in the U S so you can definitely find it.

Um, at Monte kids, you know, we, we provide really, really high quality stuff and we provide a lot because there's a lot that goes into each Monte kids level. Um. So if you just look at kind of the sheer number of toys and the guidance we provide, it actually, um. It's really all you, all the toys you need for that, for birth to three.

But we have a program where we pass on, um, toys to children in need for free in the, some of the lowest income communities, uh, around the country. And, um, and that's something that we're very committed to because these toys will last generations.

Liz: Yeah. I think that's raises, another interesting point around high quality toys that we definitely see at motherly, which is more and more frankly like millennial oriented parents [00:19:00] or millennials, you know, of this generation, this new philosophy of parenting that we're seeing.

Um. People are not wanting tons of toys. They don't want the plastic and the sounds and the beeping, and um, they don't want the toys that do the work for their children and they don't want to deal with the sounds that these kinds of toys provide you. For example, some of our most popular content is around toy minimalism or going back to basics or asking, you're asking your family to give the gift of experiences over toys.

Those are really popular topics. Is there like a generational shift going back to, you know, fewer, better, high quality things in our homes. Um, and is that effecting like parenting philosophy that you're seeing as well?

Zahra: Absolutely. There's a generational shift. Um. With millennials not wanting to buy as much as, as, you know, their parents bought with not really caring about name brands as much.

Um, in terms of parenting, there's [00:20:00] a big generational shift around the value of independence, which is, you know, a big shift from kind of the attachment parenting days. Um, but we've seen kind of that snowball into it to snowplow parenting and helicopter parenting. And, um. And having these scenarios where children are being bought into college or sandals.

And I think parents today want children to grow up in a, in a way that they're exercising their independence. And that's very in line with Montessori. And that's why we're seeing a huge resurgence in Montessori. And why your Montessori content is so,

Liz: what does it mean to have an independent child? I mean, I, I have some, my children.

I have one in particular who is quite independent, um, and I, and it's wonderful. And you said you look at them and you think, someday this is going to be so awesome, but today, like, please, can we just get in the car? You know, [00:21:00] what's the balance as a, as a parent or like how do you deal with that as a parent, as, as they grow.

And there's those pain points of. Of both letting go and, um, the kids wanting more independence than really is appropriate at that age.

Zahra: I mean, w I, my kids are extremely independent. They were raring to go to preschool there. You know, I don't think I've ever been allowed to see either one of them. We did baby led weaning, so they were eating by themselves when they were six months old.

But, uh. I think, I think for me it's definitely a struggle. We have times when you know. Someone doesn't want to get in the car and it's really hard, but I try to just balance it out with as much, um, freedom and choice, um, that I as I can give them so that when there are those hard lines, okay, now it's time to do this thing.

They're few and far [00:22:00] between. It's not like an all day, you know, ordering them around because that's not how I would want to be treated

Liz: for sure. Totally. And with this goal of raising independent kids, like. How does the world look different if let's like rally the troops here, like how does the world look different if we raise these independent minded, you know, creatures

Zahra: Oh, Liz. That is my fantasy. That is why I do any of this. I think that if we can raise our children in this way, they will grow into. Best version of themselves, they will find the thing in the world that they are, you know, that is their purpose that they're meant to be doing. And they'll be so good at it because that's what they were, you know?

Then, um, and if we look around and every individual is. The best version of themselves, making their best contribution to the world. I think that naturally will bring about peace in our interactions because people will [00:23:00] just be happier. Um, and I think that that will, honestly, I think the work that we do that Montessori teachers do every single day.

Absolutely.

Liz: I love it. I agree. Um, and I, I hope these what feel like wild children now someday are building that world. Thank you. And thanks for joining us on the motherly podcast.

Zahra: Thank you for this and for all the work that you do. It's so, so cool.

Kids Segment:

[00:24:00] Liz: So what kind of foods do you like to make for yourself?

Yogurt cups?

Daughter: Yes. I get them out by myself.

Liz: And what do you like to put on top of them?

Daughter: berries Yeah. I like to put

Liz: And you make that for yourself?

Daughter: No, I guess I don't put the berries on the corner. Oh, grownups do that and I get cup out of the and I . And I eat it by myself and I have my, my knives out myself [00:25:00]

Liz: even knives by yourself But not the really sharp -- the really sharp ones. Yeah. Yeah. Do you like getting things for yourself. You leke being a big girl.

Daughter: I love you, mommy.

Juli Segment:

Juli: think people think that just because like you're introducing Montessori that everything goes like really smooth and the kids just do everything perfect. And it's actually the complete opposite. Um, they're kids, they're learning how to do things, and of course there's going to be messages, but I know, and I've learned that giving them that independence and [00:26:00] allowing them to do things on their own, um, has benefits in the long run.

Liz: That's Juli Williams. She is a Miami based mom of two. She edits photo and video for motherly, and she's a huge fan of the Montessori approach. Juli shared what a day of Montessori life looks like for her family.

Juli: Uh, so my kids are two and four, two and four years old. Usually a day today for us, looks pretty much exactly the same.

Um, as any parent would we, you know, wake up, do breakfast, get ready, and all that stuff. The only difference with Montessori. I would say it's that my kids are a lot more involved. So, um, for example, like, and during breakfast time, um, instead of like, just me making breakfast, they actually helped me with the peeling, with the chopping, with, uh, pouring, um, anything that.

Allows them to be, to be involved. We very much encourage that throughout our day. Um, [00:27:00] if it's getting dressed or, uh, brushing their teeth, anything that they, that we can allow them to do by themselves to encourage that independence. Um, that's basically the, the difference that we do. Um, introducing Montessori at home.

Initially it takes quite a bit of time. Like I knew that, for example, like I had the closet set up for me to choose the clothes for her before I knew anything about Montessori. So when I decided that I wanted things to be available for her, I had to basically rearrange the closet altogether. So that initially took a lot of time.

But then afterwards, just because it's already set up and it's already set up for them to be available to do things on their own, it's actually, it's, it doesn't take a lot of time. Another thing that I think helps, um, and something that I do with my kids is that it's, we don't have a lot of stuff for them, so we're, we're actually very minimal.

Um, and I think that that helps because if we had too much [00:28:00] stuff, it becomes. Too overwhelming and too many decisions and that, you know, makes the process so much longer. So giving them just a few choices that they can pick from helps in that things go a little bit smoother. We actually, we just have a routine that we follow every single day that has created, um.

A little bit more of a flow throughout our day because they know exactly like what's going to happen with my two year old. I do have like little flashcards to show him visually like what's going to happen next? A good Montessori school is, you know, takes quite a bit of of money to get them through. And the more kids you have, the more, um, of a commitment that is.

So we really are like either considering homeschooling or. Finding like maybe, I don't know, we're looking into like other options as well as like a Montessori school because we just, we do, we love that. The type of education. You can

Liz: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the motherly podcast, and don't forget. If you have a story that you'd like to share about motherhood, you can always send us a phone recording of your story to podcast at mother.ly.

Liz: thanks so much for listening.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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