Minimizing Adult Assistance to Maximize Learning, the Montessori Way

Introduction

Gordon is four years old, and this morning he's chosen to make a craft. He starts out well, wrapping his yarn carefully around his popsicle sticks, but after a while, things take a turn. Somehow he's gotten the yarn not only wrapped around the sticks, but around his arm, his body, and half of his chair! Gordon seems perplexed by his situation, tugging tentatively on different sections of the yarn. Surely he needs some adult help, right?


Not so fast! Adults are often tempted to rush in and help children the second they see them having any difficulty whatsoever, but this is not always what children need. Indeed, one of the first things Montessori teachers in training realize is how much of the desire to help children is actually about the adult's needs. We tend to help children because it makes us feel good, or because we want things to get done faster, or because it satisfies our own internal desire for organization and efficiency. Watching Gordon in the midst of his tangle, the guide is apt to feel almost an "itch" to solve this problem, not because Gordon has asked for it, but because it is viscerally irritating to the adult mind to see such a jumble and not solve it.


But, as Maria Montessori observed, children often resent this unsolicited assistance. And no wonder! When we interrupt a child's activity to offer help, we are actually disrupting their learning in several major ways.



“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed."

-Maria Montessori



Unsolicited help... 

... breaks concentration.

Psychological research has confirmed Montessori's observation that concentration is a precious mental state, not just for children but for all human beings. When we are concentrating, especially on self-chosen activities that are meaningful to us, we are calm yet energized, simultaneously focused and spontaneous. We make breakthroughs in our understanding and abilities naturally. When our work comes to its natural ending point, we feel satisfied and fulfilled.


Children deserve to have this profound experience as often as possible. If a child is engaged in deep concentration on something, it doesn't necessarily matter if they're doing it the best possible way. The concentration is more important. If adult help breaks a child's concentration, they may not get it back. Before offering help, ask yourself which is more important: that this work get done quickly, or that the child experience the intellectual and emotional benefits of concentration?

... interrupts the development of mind-body coordination.

Especially for younger children, their self-chosen activity is usually something that engages the senses and develops their motor skills. As Gordon wraps the yarn, he is experiencing not only the visual impression of the bright colors, but the tactile sensations of the yarn running through his fingers. He is working out the complex series of hand and arm movements needed to sustain the wrapping rhythm. Even after he gets tangled, he is using his eyes and fingers to explore the path of the yarn, figure out what happened, and develop some ideas about what to do next. Beneath the surface, what's happening in Gordon's brain is an incredibly sophisticated integration of sensory input, conscious thought, and physical actions. He is learning to coordinate his mind and his body.


Now, consider what happens if a teacher comes by and quickly untangles things for him. The teacher uses their own hands and senses to fix everything, while Gordon is reduced to a passive object of help rather than an active problem-solver. Instead of integrating his perceptions, choices, and actions, he is just watching-- and as we know, "just watching" is not the best way for a young child to learn!


... fosters dependency.

When children are constantly given unsolicited help, they eventually learn to expect it. The message they receive is that they can't do things for themselves, either because it's not allowed or because they'll do a bad job. They may come to believe that they are inherently incapable of certain skills, or that making mistakes is unacceptable. They become passive and dependent on adult assistance.


Unfortunately, adults sometimes mistake this dependence in young children for "being good"-- after all, a passive child is unlikely to make messes or disrupt adult routines. However, while this behavior may seem angelic in a preschooler, as the child grows up, the charm fades, and adults begin to complain about the child's lack of independent initiative and need for constant support and reassurance. If we want older children to be confident learners, they need to know from a young age that we see them as intelligent, capable human beings. One of the most important ways we do this is by not helping when it isn't needed.

However, as you've probably thought more than once while reading this article, sometimes help is needed! Children can't be left to figure things out for themselves all the time. As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to support children as they develop, and sometimes that means helping. How can we tell when we should help and when we shouldn't?


Obviously every child is different, but by following a few simple steps, any adult can learn to distinguish unnecessary help from the valuable kind in most situations. 



Helping Better in Three Simple Steps


1. STOP

When you feel the instinct to rush in and help, stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Don't intervene impulsively or automatically; take a moment to make sure you're responding to the child's needs and not your own.


2. OBSERVE

Look for these three things, in order:


a) Safety: Is the child doing something dangerous or destructive? Always help a child if they are doing something that is going to endanger themselves or someone else.

b) Concentration: Is the child deeply focused on what they're doing? If so, sit back and observe! If you're keeping an eye on the situation, you can always jump in if it becomes necessary, and in the meantime, you'll be surprised how much you can learn about a student from how they manage their independent activities.

c) Frustration: At some point, if a task is becoming way too difficult, a child will begin to experience frustration. A little frustration is a natural part of problem-solving, but if it keeps building up, they'll begin to get stressed out and emotionally agitated-- not a great state for learning. Before you know a child well, it can be hard to tell when they're crossing that line between healthy and unhealthy frustration, but once you do, it's appropriate to offer help when you see them reaching that tipping point. Often, older children will make this clear for you by asking for help. However, younger ones may not have the self-awareness to recognize their own building frustration.


3. HELP... A LITTLE

When responding to a child's need for help, try to offer the exact help that is necessary and no more. Don't just sweep in and take over. Take a moment to look for where the challenge is, or listen to the child's description of their problem. Often, all it takes is a thinking question ("What if you tried doing [X] instead of [Y]?") or even a simple gesture (pointing to the next step, or to where something is out of place). Some children won't even need any active help: they just need someone to bounce ideas off of, and will solve the problem on their own with little more than active listening on the adult's part. When the adult help is minimal, the child's active engagement with the task remains strong, and they are more likely to stick with the project rather than shift into passivity. 

Let's go back to Gordon. As his teacher observes him, she notices that he's still very much focused on his yarn situation. He's not in any danger, he hasn't asked for any help, and he seems curious about the situation rather than frustrated by it. So rather than intervening, she sits back and observes.


And sure enough, after a few false starts, Gordon figures it out. He gets out of the chair, pulling his body out of the yarn loops, then carefully unwraps it from the chair and re-rolls it onto the spool. To the guide, his process feels painfully slow, and there's more than one moment where she wants to jump up and do just a little bit for him. But as she watches, she notices all the skills he's developing. The logical thinking and creative experimentation required to get himself out of the tangle. The spatial skills involved in unraveling yarn from the chair. The wrist and shoulder rotations developing as he wraps the yarn back on the spool. And the sense of quiet satisfaction he radiates as he sits back down at the end and finishes his project.


If you have questions, comments, or if you’d like to suggest future topics, please leave a note in the comments section below.


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