Saturday, March 19, 2011


I've written before about what I perceive as a persistence problem with Samantha, and the issue is cropping up once again. I don't want to cover all that ground again, but here are two posts that describe my concern.  Rational Jenn just wrote a post about the same type of issue with her son, which is worth reading, and good background for some of the things I'll write about here.

Lately, I've been more comfortable with Sam's level of effort. She tries new things regularly, sometimes with hesitation or caution, but we have far fewer instances of outright refusal to try things that are just a little bit difficult or scary. She is taking dance class, and actually practicing moves that are difficult for her, and she just started swim lessons, which require her to put her face in the water and take other risks. Of course there are times when she just wants to be babied - I don't see those as a problem, but normal for this age. So overall, things are better.

But yesterday I got a shock when I picked up Sam from school. Her teacher is out for a couple of days, so the assistant is alone with the children in the classroom. When Sam ran up to me on the playground (where I pick her up) she sadly told me that she didn't listen to Miss R. that day. Then Miss R. came over and explained that there had been some crying. It took a long time for me to tease out of her exactly what the problem was because she was so concerned that I would flip out because Sam cried. These poor teachers are so defensive - I guess a lot of parents think children should never have their wills thwarted and if they cry it means the teacher was mean. But once I got through to her that I just wanted to know what happened, she told me. Sam had chosen a piece of work first thing in the morning, and then sat in front of it, not working at all, but just watching all of the other children, for an hour and a half! Miss R. prompted her to work or put it away several times, but Sam didn't do anything at all until she realized that she was going to miss circle time and not be ready to go outside to play. Then, she quickly did the work and put the material away, but not before having some kind of a meltdown about how she didn't want to do it. Miss R. noticed that when Sammy finally did the work, she did it correctly, so it wasn't that she didn't know how. She just wasn't choosing to do the work. I asked Miss R. if this happens often and she said yes, it does.

Now, this is playing into all of my fears. First, I have never been sure that Sam is actually working all day at school. When I ask her what she did at school, she usually mentions one or two activities, and they are usually the easy ones that she's been doing over and over since the first day of school. I've been assuming that she just can't remember everything she does. As I mentioned recently, she is making a great deal of progress through the materials recently, so I figured that she must be working. But, since Montessori children don't bring home a lot of work product and you can't really observe them in the classroom (if they know the parent is there, they don't behave normally), you have to rely on what the teacher tells you. And Sam's teacher, Mrs. L., is not a good communicator.

I think Mrs. L. is probably a good teacher. But it's really hard to tell what is going on in the classroom. When we have meetings or talk about Sam's work, I get that same sense of defensiveness from her as I did from the assistant (and which I've gotten from every teacher/caregiver I've ever worked with). Instead of giving me facts, she seems to have an agenda of soothing me. It's frustrating. But I've thought about it a lot and convinced myself that it's a communication issue, not a teaching issue.

But now, if it is true that Sam is sitting and staring into space half the day, I want to know why I haven't been told about this and what is being done to address it. Why did I find out about it only when Mrs. L. was absent? Does that mean that Mrs. L. handles it better or that she doesn't do anything about it at all? It's possible that it is not a regular occurrence, or that Sam doesn't do it any more than any other child - there is a bit of a language barrier with Miss R., so I'm taking her explanation with a grain of salt.  I plan to meet with Mrs. L. to see if I can get a straight answer. That will hopefully solve the concern I have about how the classroom is run.

But if it is true that Sam is still not putting forth effort at school, and if it is not developmentally normal, then I'm back to fearing for her moral development. My problem is that I have no standards by which to judge whether this is "normal" or not. Reading the comments on Jenn's post was somewhat helpful. There seem to be quite a few other parents out there with children with similar behaviors. But it's obviously not true of all children. Jenn herself has two others, and at least one of them definitely does not balk at effort and persistence. I am willing to accept that these are temperamental differences, but I am not willing to accept that they are value-neutral. Effort and persistence are virtues, and if they don't come naturally to Sam, I want to do everything I can to help her see how they will benefit her. So far in her life, this is the critical issue. (Well, there's also her anger issue, but I'll leave that for another day.)

I also want to be prepared for the challenges of homeschooling a child who is difficult to motivate. If I could understand what is going on psychologically with Sam, I could develop better ways of helping to motivate her. My biggest fear with homeschooling is that she simply won't want to do any work at all (and I don't believe in forcing "knowledge" down a child's throat).

Like Jenn, Adam and I have techniques that we use to deal with this aspect of Sam's personality, and I suppose that we should feel pretty good about what we've been doing since she is improving. But again, I see this as such a critical issue that I want to educate myself about it as much as possible.  I am considering asking Sam's pediatrician for a referral to a child psychologist to get an assessment, but I hate to open up that can of worms. I think kids are way over-diagnosed and labeled in every area these days, when most of the time, they are just the unique individuals that they are. At the same time, some diagnoses and assessments are extremely helpful. So I'm torn about that.

I haven't yet looked for any books on this subject. I suppose that is my next step. But first, I'll ask you, my dear readers, if you have any advice.


  1. You should go and observe the classroom to see for yourself what is going on. The best thing would be if there is a way for you to observe without being seen, like a one-way window. But if not, you should go and sit in the class anyway, and let Sam know that you're there just to watch (tell her you're watching everyone in the classroom), not to participate. You should go at several different times of day if possible. That's the only way you'll really get a true sense of what is happening.

  2. Hanah, I've observed the class a few times. Unfortunately, there is no one-way mirror, but I suggested that they install one for this purpose! Sam will not ignore me if I'm there. It doesn't work. I've spoken to the teachers about this and they have no suggestions. I was hoping they would help me by asking Sam to do her work and keeping her away from me, but they are too busy with lessons to do that, and it probably wouldn't work anyway.

    I did observe the class before choosing this school and did not see any problems like this. There was more purposeful activity in this school than in any of the others. This is why I've not been overly concerned up until now.

    I suppose I'll try again and see if Sam acts any differently. I haven't observed at all yet this year.

    I'm really looking for advice more about what I should do to figure out if Sam's psychology is ok, rather than the school part of it.

  3. I would think that you could set up a computer with a webcam to record the day (or maybe you can just do a stand-alone webcam of some kind?), then collect the computer later. The teacher would have to agree, but Sam wouldn't have to know.

  4. Diana, I suggested that to the teachers as well, but then I forgot until you mentioned it! God this pregnancy brain is really a problem. Actually, if I recall, they weren't completely negative about that idea. I'd be willing to donate a camera to the school for this purpose. I'll bring it up again when I meet with Sam's teacher. Thanks for reminding me!

  5. I think, from secondary sources, that the Montessori principles would indicate the teachers might want to make suggestions to kids who weren't engaged, but if the kid wanted to sit there and do nothing all day, that it was OK. She is still surrounded by all of the great Montessori lessons and seeing other kids putting forth effort. I chose a more hybrid Montessori-inspired environment rather than an AMI school. I wanted my school to take the public school curriculum into account and also more interventionist in that regard.

  6. If a child is not engaged, he is typically creating problems and wandering about interrupting the work of other children. I am curious why you think that Sam is not engaged. It sounds to me as though she is sitting there doing the very important work of observation.

    The easiest way to find out is to ask Sam what she was doing while she was sitting there and to make sure that she was not simply bored. I would ask the teachers to show me (after the school is out of session) which works Sam has been introduced to and to let Sam come along for that tour and voice her opinion about whether she enjoys those activities. Ask her why or why not and ask her if there are any works that she would like to use, but is not allowed. If so, ask her teachers why she is not allowed. If they give you a good reason having to do with the need for Sam to show mastery of some other work first, then strike a deal with Sam to focus on that work, so that she may use the more advanced material.
    I would not be suprised if it turns out that Sam is busy watching other children because they are working on something that she finds more interesting. Just a guess.

  7. I am feeling so sad for children these days. Even in preschool, they are expected to "work" and "succeed." I am also an Objectivist, but I believe that young children need to be able to play and be free do what they want to do a lot of the day.

    With very little formal instruction, both of my children are excellent at reading, math, and most subjects; they have successful relationships; and most important of all, they LOVE LIFE. I don't want someone forcing me to do things I hate, so I seldom force my children to do things they hate. We do occasional formal "school work" and worksheets to show that we are meeting our state standards, but most of our days are spent together, learning new things, playing games and sports, and simply enjoying ourselves. We are always learning.

    Would you want someone to tell you to draw a bird, do calculus problems, read socialist literature, etc.? I know I wouldn't. I think many adults do not respect children or understand they are all innately motivated. You just need to find what motivates them. I'm highly internally driven to perform well and to produce. I'm not driven or motivated to do what some almighty authority figure tells me I must do.

    I would strongly suggest completely pulling back. Stop pressuring Sam and see what happens. Find out what she enjoys and excels at. Let her spend her time the way she wants to, as long as she's not hurting people, pets, or property. She is always learning and thinking, even if she looks like she's staring into space. Stop expecting such a young child to WORK. Let her enjoy her life and play and be free. She will have plenty of years to work, and if you let her discover what she enjoys now, hopefully she will find a job she enjoys later. I think you will look back when she is older and wonder why you worried so much about such a young child's moral development. She has you as a role model and she has your genes. She will most likely be highly successful (i.e., happy, self-sufficient, self-confident) with those two things alone.

    That's just my opinion. :)

  8. Thanks, Heike. Those are all great ideas, especially the suggestion to go in to observe more often. I've fallen down on that this year, probably because I was frustrated that it didn't do me much good last year. I was thinking more about the web cam idea and realized that would never happen, but that they might agree to a closed circuit TV setup. Sam's teacher is back in town now, so I'm going to set up a meeting tomorrow about the other thing and I'll suggest it.

    I also love the idea of tying these activities to her values. I've tried to do that, but never in a very strategic way. Now, I'll put more focus on it, since motivation seems to be something we're going to struggle with. I already have one idea: she seems interested in "place" right now so I've been excited to make a map of the neighborhood with her. But when I suggested it, she said "no"...just like K. probably would have! (Gotta give them props for independence.) So I was stumped, because I thought she'd be interested just in the idea of a map. But I'm going to suggest we make a map of the route to the playground so that the next time a new friend comes to visit we can show him/her the way (we have a few new visitors coming soon). We'll see how she reacts to that!


  9. Jeremy fits Heike's description of her child as well. He can be very motivated, but if he is overwhelmed or pushed, forget it. I was wondering if partly what you are seeing is just temperament. Is Sam introverted? I think introverted kids can often be very independent and strong-willed as well as cautious and thoughtful. If you think this applies, I found the book "The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child" to be really interesting and it addresses this type of behavior. I imagine that if Jeremy was in a Montessori classroom, he would spend half his time doing and half his time sitting and thinking. I really think he needs that time to process his thoughts and feelings.

    With Jeremy, the answer to "Do you want to do [something new] with me?" is almost always no. I try not to ask it because it just frustrates me. If I thought he was interested in maps, I would make one and put it on the wall, or on the kitchen table before he came to breakfast. Then when he saw something new he would probably say, "What's this?" "It's a map of the neighborhood!" What I've found is that once he is interested in something then he really runs with it. If he liked the map, then he would say, "Why don't we draw one of the trip to Grammie's too? How about our trip to the city?" It's just the initial introduction to something that I often do in an indirect way (by putting it in our environment and letting him discover it and ask questions about it).

  10. Kim (the second one)March 22, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    Hi, Amy. Like you, I’m sure I would have been vehemently opposed to unschooling if I had heard of it when my oldest child was four years old. When my son was in kindergarten, we decided to homeschool him with the help of a charter school program. I thought I could keep his love of learning alive and simultaneously follow the adult-developed curriculum. To make a long story short, we lasted one semester. My expectations of both of us were too high. I thought he should be able to focus, be motivated, and put forth effort, just as you wish for you daughter. It took us a while to decompress from our overly ambitious expectations.

    Now my children are 9 and 7, and we are somewhat eclectic in our learning style. We generally follow an unschooling approach, but mix it in with some “work.” Each school year, we read “What Your (Fill in the Blank) Grader Needs to Know,” which provides us with some basics about each subject so we can learn more in certain areas if we’d like to. We also do some formal math, writing, and reading exercises here and there, but the rest is very informal and customized for each child. The interesting part is that most unschoolers I know are very knowledgeable in many areas, and I think they would perform wonderfully on any standardized test they were given. Those I know who have taken achievement tests have performed well. I know that is anecdotal evidence, but I thought I'd share my observations.

    I have read a bunch of interesting interviews and articles about unschooling. Here are some of them:;;; I like this quote: “Unschooling is not unparenting; freedom to learn is not license to do whatever you want. People find different ways and means to get comfortable with John Holt’s ideas about children and learning and no one style of unschooling or parenting defines unschooling.” –Pat Farenga.

    I know homeschooling, especially unschooling, isn’t for everyone. I wasn’t advocating a full unschooling approach for you. I just thought it might be good for you to relax a little bit, especially since your daughter is only four years old. I have been there. I have been worried about my child’s behavior and apparent laziness. But now we are all much happier and learning even more than we were before, with much less stress.

    You are right that I don’t recall a lot about Montessori education. I read the link you posted, and from what I know, it sounds like the best classroom option for many children. I have advanced degrees in human development and psychology, and I have been interested in child development and behavior all of my adult life. I enjoy reading about different approaches to learning and parenting, so thank you for the article describing your views.

  11. Jean - we so do the same thing, just putting things "in the environment", and letting K. discover. It works wonders - it's then her idea, and just like your son, she'll run with it. But it must not be an introverted/extroverted thing: K is about as extroverted as you can imagine, and I can totally get her with the letting her discover something, and make it her idea approach! Thanks for reminding me of that - it motivates me to find an opportunity to do that again really soon...

    BTW - I think that is also one of the strong points of Montessori: the children get to observe older children work with materials, which interest them. The teachers observe, and see what activities children are interested in, and then, when appropriate, introduce just those activities that already are fascinating to the child...

  12. Jean, I've never connected introversion (which does't seem to describe Sam because she is a talker and super-social in most situations--maybe like Heike's K.) with caution, independence, thoughtfulness, and being strong-willed. Those four traits definitely describe Sam, so this is very interesting to me. Maybe introversion doesn't mean what I think it means. I've read that book on "the spirited child" which talks about temperamental differences and Sam didn't seem to fit neatly into any of the categories, but I'll try the book you recommended. In fact, I just placed it on hold at my library. Thank you so much!

  13. [...] I only have a moment, but I wanted to quickly relate what I’ve learned and figured out about my concerns over Sammy’s effort. [...]