Dr. Celeste Miller's Desk

Celeste Miller Ph.D. is Alexander's grandmother. She has many years of experience with early education and has even published great books. We are very excited to have her share her wealth of wisdom and generosity with our staff and now with all of you families at MMMS. Celeste has offered to write a section in the newsletter. We have called it From the Desk of Celeste. You will find it very educational.

1-Thoughts on the Montessori Method

Thoughts on the Montessori Method by Dr. Celeste Miller, retired early childhood professor with Montessori experience, and proud grandmother of Alexander in the Quail Classroom and Elena, a former graduate of Mis Manos. 

Learning to write numbers and letters is a physically demanding task for children as well as a cognitive one. Often, when children begin to actually write out words and numbers, their hands tire and it is not necessarily an easy or fun task. For some children, writing becomes something to avoid due to the physical discomforts. An  understanding of the need to gradually prepare the hand for writing was a foresight of Maria Montessori and so she deliberately created any number of opportunities for a child to manipulate objects in ways that would strengthen and flex the fingers and hands. These activities that strengthen the wrist and fingers help to prepare the child to write with less physical strain. 

Besides having a direct instructional purpose, Montessori materials often have an indirect purpose as well.  Take for example the tracing of the geometric shapes. You’ll see a square paper with a tracing of a geometric shape on it starting to come home with your child at some point. Learning the names and internalizing aspects of the geometric shape is the direct purpose of this activity, but an indirect purpose is the preparation of the hand for writing. This activity of tracing strengthens the fingers and hand many months and even years before the child will write words and sentences. Building the “pink tower” and arranging the “brown stairs” requires the child to carry heavy blocks for some distance, likewise strengthening the arms and hands. These are two other examples of Montessori materials with an indirect purpose of preparing the body to write. The teachers could point out many more to you. 

You can think like Maria Montessori and examine the types of activities your child is doing in your home that might also contribute to strengthening fingers and hands. Generally speaking, handling objects with a little extra weight are helpful as are activities that turn the wrists.  Kneading dough (not that many of us bake our own bread anymore) is an example of a useful activity. Sewing cards would be another example. Toys that require pushing one button over and over probably aren’t that helpful. 

Because writing usually precedes reading in a developmental process, if writing is fun and easy to do because the hand is strengthened and ready, then reading has a better emotional foreshadowing as well. Food for thought. I find the Montessori approach is all so logical and so profound. And could there be a better name to call this school than Mis Manos!!

Dr. Celeste Miller

2-Thoughts on Montessori - On Order

A place for everything and everything in its place is a maxim of the Montessori Method that probably influenced you in selecting Mis Manos. Order has been called the first law of the universe. In the early 1900’s scientists were excited to realize that everything in the universe went along in an orderly fashion, no doubt influencing Maria Montessori as well, who was truly a scientist at heart. Today, scientists explore chaos theory which challenges this idea, but perhaps only because our minds can’t expand far enough to see the order in the chaos. Montessori found that a sensitive period for the “need for order” emerged in a child at the age of two. To give Montessori credit where credit should be due, modern psychologists like Howard Gardner, have also identified a point in brain development for the emergence of a sense of order, and guess what, it’s also at age two!

You are probably thinking, “My 2-year old sure isn’t (wasn’t) orderly.” What does this research mean? It means the brains of two year olds are counting on things being a certain way over and over again because their brains are now able to sequence. Think of it this way. When the meltdowns occur at this age, it is often because the child’s sense of order has been rearranged by an adult for a number of good reasons (to the adult’s way of thinking). This can be disruptive to the child’s schema of what is supposed to happen first, second and then third. The term, the terrible two’s, is often used to describe this stage of development and I guess toddlers can be pretty terrible if the adults don’t understand about schemas. That’s why it’s important to introduce some predictable order into a two year olds' life.

You can create some of this order by having bed time rituals, morning get up times, naptime, etc. happen with the same routine each day. In fact, any time of the day that you can organize with some sameness is helpful. If your days aren’t that predictable then settle on the going to bed and getting up rituals as basic ones to follow.

Why would nature time the development of needing a schema/order/ritual/sameness in the child at this age? As I have thought on this over the years and learned something about brain development, I wonder, perhaps, if it isn’t nature’s way of controlling (damping down) the powerful stimuli from the environment that bombard the brain at this time in development. If part of your daily experience can be orderly, predictable, with few surprises because there is order in your life, maybe this frees up the brain to concentrate more fully on the new stimuli flooding in. Infants sleep to dumb down the stimuli, but 2 year olds are awake for longer stretches of time and so perhaps the need for order provides the same effect to the brain as needing frequent naps does for infants. Maybe it is nature’s way of protecting and focusing the brain on what is “new and different” while allowing for “sameness” in other areas, improving the efficiency of learning.

In any case, in an authentic Montessori classroom, you will find the beautiful order to the material arranged on the shelves in systematic ways which comforts the child with the sameness. Maria said the environment was the 4th teacher and I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling of “wholeness” whenever I step into a Montessori classroom. Just the layout itself is “teaching” order. Trying to set up a child’s environment at home to honor this principle is more challenging as usually there are more toys to display than you have shelves for them to go on. Dumping toys into bins, boxes, chests and the like hardly reinforces the order of the classroom. No easy answers there. Parents always ask, "Why isn’t my child neat at home?” Perhaps we should be satisfied that the brain is developing “neatness” and leave it at that. I know my grown children are good housekeepers and whether that is because they went to Montessori schools or not, I’ll never know. They sure weren’t that neat as children!

As we understand the importance of repetition and order in development, we can examine what concepts are being reinforced that will become good habits of mind and heart in the lives of our children. Montessori-based experiences are reinforcing good habits in so many ways.

Dr. Celeste Miller

3-Thoughts on Montessori - Character Building

Recently, I shared some information with the faculty about discipline. One of the greatest challenges we face as parents and educators is teaching our children right from wrong and emotional control. Children become what they see and hear. So, “monkey see, monkey do” is an expression often used to describe this process. Therefore, we want to model what we hope our children will imitate.

I like to help children differentiate between the Big Me (their best self) and the little me (their misbehaving self). So when you see a child displaying what you consider “right” behavior, you can quickly say, “Oh, I see your Big Me doing such and such. Wow! I’m impressed! “And vice versa, “Oh, I am sorry to see your little me is doing such and such.” Little, by little, children learn what you consider praise worthy behavior and disappointing behavior. I find children can relate to the concept that they have potential for “bad choices and good choices” and that their Big Me makes the right choices and their little me, the poorer ones.

Another layer for adults to consider is whether an infraction or breach of etiquette is a head problem or a heart problem. A head problem is a mistake based on ignorance. In this instance, a child doesn’t know any better and they need teaching (to the mind). In the Montessori classroom this means the teacher gives the lesson again and again until the child has cognitively mastered the concept and can work independently.

A heart problem is very different from a head problem. It is a deliberate, intentional breaking of a rule when the child knows better. These are moral problems by nature involving the heart in willful denial of what is the right thing to do and need to be nipped in the bud. They are more serious than the head problems because will is involved and not merely ignorance. For the heart problem, a logical consequence for the misdeed is needed for the child to make amends.

At Mis Manos, the teachers are working to differentiate reasons for misbehavior. The classroom material often corrects for the head problem. The teacher can monitor whether the child seems to know better or not, and intervene with a lesson, a story, or another way to teach the missing concept. If possible, they let the classroom material teach to the head problems.

Heart problems can also surface. Typical moral violations in the classroom occur when children do not follow through with their work to completion, are destructive with the materials, disturb other children at work or harm another child in some way. These types of deliberate acts are counter-productive to the classroom dynamics of harmony and cooperation. Often group discussions of whether certain behaviors are appropriate or not help children realize other children have a moral sense too. They realize it is not just the adults in their lives, but their classmates who understand morality as well. Even babies have been found to have empathy for others, so it is not premature to expect two year olds to act empathically with their peers. Again, in the case of morality issues it is appropriate to use stories, games or other means of conveying the “right” thing to do. There may not be a piece of classroom equipment designed to teach an important heart lesson so the teacher needs to bring in other ways to illustrate the solution. A time out chair or “meditation” cushion may help the child to recenter.

Children’s behavior often deteriorates when they are tired, hungry or stressed. We don’t overlook the problems they have created, but we make sure they return to stasis which means rested, fed and de-stressed before we help them to follow through with the logical consequence of their actions. You may not agree with me on this, but the brain studies tell us the brain is operating under the control of the limbic system (emotional brain) in these cases and no information is getting to the neo-cortex (rational, thinking part of brain) until the emotions have subsided. So, getting the child calmed down needs to come first.

Self-control is another area of development for people of every age. I often witness children having “meltdowns” at drop off and pick up times – stressful moments of transitions. Verbally preparing a child ahead of time for what is to come can help, but emotional maturity is a slow process and not to be confused with morality. Even adults sometimes struggle with emotional control even though we know the “right” thing to do. So, we shouldn’t be too hard on children. Maintaining a loving feeling for your child regardless of their infractions is key. Losing your harmony gives children an excuse to lose theirs too. Montessori teachers are trained to remain calm. It becomes a choice that parents can choose to make as well.

Dr. Celeste Miller