At the beginning of the school year, I had a conversation with Ms. Rowley, one of The Springs amazing Elementary Teachers. Ms. Rowley has been teaching for decades and has had the joy of watching former students grow into college students and adults. We were discussing what makes children successful in school and life.
With many adults so focused on grades, test scores, ability evaluations, tutors, extracurricular activities, and much more, it seems many parents are looking for a magic recipe to ensure their child’s future success. But, Ms. Rowely, argues that it comes down to one major factor:
A child’s ability to persevere when the going gets tough!
She described how her most successful alumni were not the smartest, the wealthiest, the ones who went to the best schools, the most talented, the ones who spoke the most languages, or the ones who took the most classes, but rather the ones who continued to work through a challenge no matter how hard it was.
Not surprisingly, experts agree with Ms. Rowley. Some call it “grit,” “stick-to-itiveness,” or “perseverance,” but the bottom line is that if you Google ways to raise successful children this quality makes almost every list.
University of Pennsylvania (Go Quakers!) researcher, Angela Duckworth, wrote an entire book on the topic. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a New York Times bestseller and details how successful individuals have relied on sheer grit and worked through major obstacles to achieve their success. What’s even better? Her research has found that grit can grow! So, as parents we have the ability to help our children develop this useful characteristic.
How do we do it as parents? The good news is you are already doing this for your children because the Montessori philosophy inherently gives children the opportunity and encouragement to keep at it. Here are just a few ways that Montessori promote and support this important quality, ones that you can use at home too!
- Delayed Gratification: This is the ability to wait for satisfaction. You may have heard the of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment that found children who can delay gratification experienced better life outcomes. So, did you ever wonder why we only have one of each lesson in a Montessori classroom? It’s to support this idea. Children learn that not everything is immediately available to them and that they may have to wait and/or plan their time accordingly to have the lesson they want.
- Let Them Fail: Like grit, almost all lists for raising successful children say we have to let our children fail. Let the cup fall, let the glass break, let them forget their library bag, etc. This is at the heart of Montessori’s focus on independence. Mistakes are learning tools, so our teachers will let the Toddler drop their plate as they throw it in the trash or allow a Kindergartner to work all the way to the end of math problem they can see won’t work out. Even the Montessori materials are designed with a “control of error,” an indicator to the child that they have not successfully used the material so they have to try again. They figure all of this out on their own, without an adult’s feedback or intervention.
- Growth Mindset: Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that intelligence is not fixed, but can increase. The key is to have what she calls a “growth mindset.” And, once again, Montessorians have been doing this since 1907 focusing feedback to students on encouragement, rather than praise. “You worked so hard,” instead of “You are so smart.” “You finished your work,” instead of “Your work is good,” etc. We focus on effort, problem solving, and process instead of ability, quality, and product.
- Do Chores: Former Stanford Dean and author of How to Raise an Adult, Julia Lythcott-Haims argues that children should be doing chores. If they aren’t, someone else is doing it for them which she says leads to entitlement and inability to be self-sufficient. You can watch her TED talk here. Of course, Montessori education is famous for this as children wash tables and windows, prepare their snacks and lunch, set up and clean up meals, etc. Care of self, care of others, and care of environment is the entire basis of the Practical Life curriculum and this is very easy to do at home too!
- Let Children Take Risks: Experts, including Lythcott-Haims, also argue that children should feel comfortable taking risks. This one can be very difficult for parents, but we also know that children innately will only take risks they feel confident they can manage. So, as parents we have to make sure children have the opportunity to take these risks. This is why visitors to our classrooms are often surprised to see preschoolers using real knives or infants climbing up ramps and mini ladder like structures called Pikler Triangles. This is the child testing his or her abilities and the confidence they gain from their success is immeasurable.
- Conflict Resolution: Another quality of a successful adult is that ability to navigate relationships with others, particularly when a disagreement persists. Learning to accept other’s differences and to engage and recover from disagreements successfully is a major factor in becoming a successful adult. Through these processes we grow in empathy and improve the overall quality of our social-emotional well-being. Montessori dedicated an entire portion of the curriculum to Peace Education firmly believing that “the child is both a promise and hope for mankind.” Therefore, we have peace tables where children work out their conflicts and learn appropriate interpersonal skills.
- Sense of Community: Individuals who understand that they are part of a larger whole are also more successful according to the research of Lythcott-Haims. Again, Montessori tailors the entire methodology to this concept through our approach to Cosmic Education, the idea that the universe is interconnected and interdependent. It is the basis of community in every classroom where children are expected to be contributing members of their classroom environment helping others, preparing work for the next student, and taking care of their materials. Similarly, it is how we academically approach science, geography, and culture beginning globally and working locally to show how we are all part of a large whole.
When coupled with the research, it is hard not to take Ms. Rowley’s observations to heart. I find her words echoing in the back of my mind frequently as I model my own behaviors for my children and in selecting the words I use to give them feedback. Sure, we’ll still worry and hope our children get good grades and score well on their SATs, but I’ve realized it’s more important to teach them the skills to make the effort to be successful and the mechanisms to cope when they are not. Maria Montessori clearly got this! Not only did she design an education system that many experts, like Stephen Hughes, President of the American Academy of Pediatric Neurology, believe is optimal for children, but she put it so eloquently into words when she wrote, “the education of even a small child, therefore, does not aim at preparing him for school, but for life.” So, when we are overwhelmed with the responsibilities of life and parenthood, take comfort in knowing you selected an education for your child that is not only teaching them to read and write, but also the skills they need to succeed for the rest of their lives.
By Maureen Clifford, Executive Director of NOVA Montessori