Thursday, April 3, 2014

Potty Training

The internet is abuzz lately with advice about potty training, and most of it advocates waiting until your child is “ready” - then list “signs of readiness” that a child won't show until 2 ½ or 3. I thought, in light of these recent posts, that it was time to put out some information about the Montessori perspective and why we “potty train” at the age we do.
Let's start at birth – when the child begins to eliminate waste independently of the mother's body.
Montessori professionals advocate for cloth diapers. They are all natural and help children retain knowledge of their bodily functions, because they don't “wick away moisture” like disposables do. This provides a cause and effect scenario for the infants – when my body releases waste, it is uncomfortable, and should be removed. This facilitates understanding of the toileting process later on. There are even all-in-one cloth diapers that are used just like disposables, except you wash and reuse them. Likewise, we advocate for cloth wipes and water or other natural wipe solutions. Soiled diapers are stored in a bin or wet bag until laundered (the link is to a tutorial but they can also be purchased).
During the diaper changing process we talk simply to the child about what we are doing: “I'm taking off the dirty diaper, now, so I can clean your bottom. I'm wiping your skin clean so gently, so I can put a fresh clean diaper on you.” Just as experts in all childcare methods recommend, we wash the child's hands after a diaper change.
When the child becomes more mobile (around 6 months) a Montessori infant room (called the Nido) will dress children in cloth training underwear. This is not because we expect a six-month old to use the toilet, but because diapers can hinder movement and we want these babies to be able to use their bodies! Continuing (or starting) to use cloth maintains the child's connection to his bodily functions, and helps childcare workers change wet children immediately. To reduce the amount of laundry that must be done, children often wear legwarmers with knee grips instead of pants, or just diapers and shirts if the space is warm.
As children become increasingly mobile, there is an inner function called myelinization. This is the body's process of coating the nerves with a fatty substance (myelin) which then allows the child voluntary control over those body parts. This process moves from center to extremity, and head to toe, so that by the time a child can walk he also has control over his sphincters.
An AMI Infant Community (sometimes called the toddler class, or IC for short) typically accepts children at 12 months or older, as long as they are walking proficiently. Since it is developmentally appropriate for a child to walk anytime between 8 months and 18 months, some children may remain in the Nido until they are older than 12 months.
The children in the IC continue to wear cloth training underwear, and are shown how to use the little toilets in the classroom. They are encouraged to do so as part of a natural progression of learning how to control their own bodies, because children from birth are fascinated by acquiring new control of movement. It also helps them take control over waste removal so they (eventually) don't have to wait for an adult to change them. In this room children are no longer brought to a changing table to have soiled clothes removed, but instead change in the bathroom and learn how to dress and undress themselves. Soiled clothing is stored in a wet bag just as diapers were, previously.
You can see that this process moves smoothly and naturally along, with each step following in a logical movement from the last. By treating it as the natural process that it is, children are never subject to the distress that many older toddlers feel about giving up their diapers; there is no disconnect between the child's actions and his bodily functions, because he is never taught to ignore them.
It also makes sense historically and anthropologically, because disposable diapers have only been available to a widespread market since 1961. For all the years prior to that, human babies used cloth diapers or elimination communication (EC) exclusively, and relied on diapers for a much shorter period of time. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, hardly had time for numerous diaper changes. They listened to a baby's cues (certain specific facial expressions or noises) and held him away from their bodies when elimination was immanent. Even today, in countries such as India, three years old seems ancient for mastery of toileting, because they use those same methods of cloth diapering and EC.
If you didn't use cloth diapers (and let's face it, in the U.S. these days very few people do!) you aren't totally out of this loop – just jump into the cycle as soon as you can and be patient with your little one as he learns.
Use cloth as much as you can, to help maintain or reinstate his bodily awareness, and offer the toilet upon waking up and about 30 minutes after eating. Your child will probably have a lot of success with that “schedule” even if you both forget the rest of the time. If you see signs that he is about to go (such as hiding or fidgeting), encourage your child to use the toilet, but let him make the final decision, and don't interrupt if he is really concentrating on something.
Whatever you do, don't make your child sit if he doesn't want to! Forcing the issue and getting frustrated only cause grief on all sides, and can slow down the process, too. You never want to diminish your child's trust in you by taking away control of his body unnecessarily (obviously if he's about to be hit by a truck or something, it's different). Learning to use the toilet is something he will do his own way and on his own schedule – your job is to provide the environment and encouragement, not to push for an arbitrary deadline. If you are relaxed about it, he will push himself by his own internal clock and the accomplishment will be his own, personal achievement that you can celebrate together.
To read the toileting policy we used in my toddler communty, click here:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Too Young to Read?

I've written about this before, but I keep finding people (who usually support play-based learning) who seem to believe that young children aren't capable of academic learning. While I wholeheartedly agree that the vast majority of preschoolers aren't ready to learn the way traditional schools teach, I find it frustrating that many people assume that is the only way academic subjects can be taught. It also seems to be a common assumption that if academics matter at all to a teacher, (s)he must be undervaluing other areas of development. I find it frustratingly ironic that many of the same people who advocate for letting children develop at their own pace also advocate for restricting what we offer them.
The subject most commonly treated this way is reading. There is a huge segment of people – parents and educators – who believe that kindergartners should not be taught reading. And the research supports them to a certain extent, but it also only looks at children who are taught in traditional ways. It acknowledges the children who learn to read at four years old, but only as outliers. I haven't seen any research outside of the Montessori sphere that considers any methods of developing pre-reading skills that vary too much from the norm, so it's no surprise that they all conclude the same thing. I read another article about this topic today here. The author touches on some interesting and important research, but I believe she draws the wrong conclusions from it. Below is a comment I left on her post:
Have you looked into Montessori? It’s based on observation of the children and following them developmentally. In the early days, and to a slightly lesser extent now that we have a set of materials that work for most children, materials were brought in and removed based on the children’s interest. My knowledge of Montessori education leads to me to believe that most children CAN and SHOULD learn to read around age 4.5… but note that I did NOT say they should be taught. See, Montessori schools have teachers who are trained to demonstrate the use of materials, based on the child’s interest, and then back off and just observe unobtrusively. The children are free to explore as long as they are not doing anything dangerous, damaging the materials, or disturbing another child. The only “reading” material they had in the original schools was a set of sandpaper letters on small wooden boards. Children who wanted to learn them were offered instruction, but if they didn't that was okay, too. It was just tracing the letter and making its sound. Montessori herself believed 3-6 year olds were too young for anything more than that, and that they would learn even that much later, in formal schooling. So it wasn't urgent, and in any case she looked at these classes as experiments anyway. Her concern was not in making the children learn, but in finding out *how* they learned when no one was imposing a specific curriculum on them. But the children surprised her, and their teachers. In each class, there inevitably came a day when a four year old would make a letter with the chalk that had been provided for drawing. (S)he would write words, and then exclaim something along the lines of “I've done it! I've written!” The other children would crowd around and try it for themselves and suddenly all the older children were writing. This same scenario happened in classes across the world. Montessori wrote about children writing on everything, even the crusts of their bread, because they were so excited about it. And then, as if their teachers weren't astonished enough, about six months later some child would look back on something (s)he had written and read it, and tell everyone something along the lines of, “I can read!” Again, the other children would try it and find that they, too, could read. And when adults asked them who taught them to write and read, the children looked puzzled and replied, “Why, no one. We taught ourselves.” And at that point, most of the students were the children of illiterate day workers. They got no academic instruction at home.
So I firmly believe the issue is not teaching reading and writing at young ages, but in *how* we teach it. I find that most people who are against early academics (at least vocally so) assume that young children couldn't possibly be interested in reading or math or history. It’s the other side of the coin – legislators believe that all children *must* learn it (now), and detractors believe that all/most children *can’t* learn it (yet)… but Montessori schools have found the opposite. And the reason is that Montessori schools actually ask what the children are interested in and let them demonstrate what they’re capable of. They have all concrete materials. There are no worksheets and no homework. There are art supplies and free movement and building materials and basic activities to care for oneself and one’s environment. Academics are “taught” by the materials themselves, through the child’s interest, and in an environment where social and motor development are just as highly valued as academic learning. There are other benefits of it, but I've already written a book so I will just hope people look into it on their own. Suffice it to say that Dr Montessori consistently found that whatever age she developed materials for, it was children just younger who were enthralled by them.
So I hope not to offend you by this statement, but I think articles like this miss the point. The focus shouldn't be on what children learn when, but on *how* we teach them. When teachers believe children are too young, they usually don’t provide opportunities for the child to prove them wrong, and I think that is just as much of a disservice as pushing them to do things for which they aren't yet ready. The key is having an environment that includes materials we don’t think they can handle yet, all the way down to materials we think they have outgrown, and then let them tell us what they need by observing what they use and how they use it.