By Letty Rising
There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.” –Mr. Rogers
I’ve come across this quote a few times in recent weeks, and it makes me smile every time. Mr. Rogers is one of my heroes, and for him to say something so similar to what Maria Montessori herself would say (or at least would most certainly agree with!) causes me to take pause and recognize just how similar they were in their respectful approach to childhood. They both have made a transformational impact on the lives of children, parents, and educators alike. Using my imagination, I can visualize them sitting on a bench together and having a lively and mutually enjoyable conversation had they been able to meet each other.
I think of the “atmosphere” that Mr. Rogers speaks of as analogous to the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. And, even in Montessori classrooms, the adults can fall prey to the temptation of insisting on children “doing” certain things rather than pursuing the route of igniting their interest. This is particularly noticeable when an undercurrent of fear is present… the fear that a child might “fall behind,” the educator’s fear of not being able to please parents, fear of children underperforming on standardized tests or other social values metrics. Ultimately I believe that this fear stems from the worry of not being in alignment with what society believes a child “should” be doing rather than observing the child and moving forward in a way that meets the child’s individual needs.
Sometimes when a teacher is beginning this incredibly important work of guiding children, it takes time to learn how to inspire rather than to demand. Seasoned teachers learn over time that setting up an environment where work is engaging and freely chosen will spark interest, which will, in turn, result in deeper concentration, increased productivity, and greater retention of skills and concepts. Mr. Rogers was spot on: insisting that a child “do” something is far less effective than orchestrating a physical, intellectual, and social-emotional environment that ignites the child’s inner flame that causes them to want to do something.
What are some strategies that teachers can use to help children “grow into wanting to do it?”
- Allow children to wander a bit and observe others. Our environments are set up so that children are engaged in a variety of different activities throughout the day, and children who are reluctant or disinterested in a material have many chances over days, weeks, and months, to watch other children enjoy working with the material. I think this opportunity for children to observe others working in a Montessori environment can help even the most uncertain child develop a sense of familiarity with work they might be hesitant to engage in, and that familiarity, in many instances, becomes the stimulus for interest. Being surrounded by others who demonstrate a fascination with all of the wonders of the environment will most likely, over time, result in a child who develops an intrinsic motivation to work.
- Connect with the child. Children don’t like to be ordered around (nor does anyone, for that matter!), and developing a relationship with the child creates fertile soil from where inspiration and excitement can grow. If a relationship isn’t formed between an adult and a child, the adult then tends to fall into using commanding language and an authoritarian style of interaction as methods for inciting action from the child. It’s hard to get a child to want to do something when there is a history of them being given work assignments and mandates without their input. The Montessori approach is based upon a partnership model, with collaborative interactions being the heartbeat of the prepared environment.
Connecting with a child also involves taking the time to build trust. Adults sometimes express a yearning for children to first do the work to earn their trust. However, it is much more effective to approach this from the other way around. We, as adults and educators, need to work on earning their trust, and from this foundation of trust springs forth a child’s desire to collaborate with their teachers and peers. Ask children about their hobbies and passions, show curiosity and interest in things that they enjoy! Speak to them using an abundance of positive statements, noticings, and questions, while minimizing directives and commands.
- Model enthusiasm and excitement. If you as the adult feel an enlivened energy regarding the lessons you present to the children, the reluctant child will witness your enthusiasm and likely come to the conclusion that there must be something to be excited about. You might want to bring out a classroom material and start working with it by yourself. Or maybe you have a project or undertaking you are eager to tackle and want to model interest and engagement by working alongside the children. Before you know it, you’ll have a cluster of curious children by your side, interested in finding out what you are doing, and some will likely want to jump in and join you. Even your language can model excitement or drudgery. How many times do you find yourself saying something like “You have to come to the lesson now,” or “You have to do a follow-up to the lesson,” instead of, “I would like to invite you to a lesson,” or “You get to do some follow-up work to the lesson.” When it comes to “have to,” vs. “get to,” “get to” will result in greater cooperation and interest and will set the foundation of “wanting” to do things.
- Offer ample opportunities for group work. It is often the case that elementary children feel more inclined to want to do things with their peers than with their teacher. Pair the reluctant child with a few eager learners in the class, and watch them all take off into their projects! A big part of the atmosphere in the elementary environment has to do with the social aspect, and helping children learn how to collaborate with one another will create an environment where cooperation is valued and expected. Through engagement in group work with peers, children will naturally be immersed in the right conditions for wanting to work…chosen workmates, and work that everyone else is excited about doing with one another. Peer relationships are equitable relationships, which means that elementary children are inclined to make requests of one another as their default, which involves negotiation and collaboration rather than telling each other what to do.
Like Maria Montessori, Mr. Rogers had the gift of observing children, and through his observations, he developed a keen understanding of their needs. He and Maria Montessori were influencers during the course of their lives and beyond, and each is still creating an impact with their messages to this day. One of the most important ideas they both shared, each in their own way, was that they were aware that creating the right conditions for children would result in a shift from forcing children to do something, to creating a prepared environment where children want to be active agents in their lives.
Letty Rising is an international Montessori consultant. She holds an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as Montessori Elementary Teacher, Education Coordinator, and Head of School with several different Montessori communities over the years. See More