Parenting in a pandemic: helping children starts with helping parents
An op-ed by MMS Director Jennifer Carriger highlights the ways our school is working to support the entire family during the COVID-19 epidemic. It appears in the May 3, 2020, edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. You can read it here.
Helping children in a pandemic starts with helping parents
Mountaineer Montessori, as with schools around the world, has faced the unprecedented challenge of shifting from classroom to remote learning within days of mandated closures. As our teachers and staff re-engineered our curriculum for distance education, it became quickly apparent that it was not only students who would need support in the weeks ahead. The parents were going to need our help, too.
The coronavirus uprooted life as we know it. Parents are now often juggling full-time jobs, educating their children and running a household–all while confined to their homes and without the usual social supports and access to resources.
One of first steps we took was to create a remote education handbook to help parents set up home learning environments, manage digital engagement and offer curriculum-aligned activities to support the lessons provided remotely by teachers. The handbook, “Learning Together,” offers tips and guidance that any family could find useful and is available at no charge on the home page of our website: www.mountaineermontessori.org.
But academic lessons are only one part of the successful home education equation. Maria Montessori understood that children cannot learn if their physical, social and emotional needs are not met. Giving parents the tools to nurture their children and themselves and cultivate a peaceful home environment is also a part our mission as educators.
To support our families during these new challenges, national consultants and our own staff have offered ongoing “Parent University” Zoom sessions to provide best practices for managing work, family and school in the home and to create a supportive space for parents to express, share and sometimes laugh.
These conversations are rooted in the practice of “Positive Discipline,” a parenting method that cultivates respectful relationships and helps children develop self-discipline, cooperation and problem-solving skills. The focus of Positive Discipline is on the intellectual and moral development of the child, giving him or her the tools to do the right thing for its own sake–and not in relationship to a reward or punishment.
Our parents are already seeing results using the information provided in these programs. In the spirit of service to all children, we’d like to share a few of these simple, yet powerful, ideas with the larger community:
- “And,” not “but”: Be kind and firm in communicating with children. Validate their feelings and offer a choice to cooperate through “and” not “but” statements. For example, “I know you want to keep playing video games AND it’s time to do your lessons. You can turn it off now OR I can put your phone in my closet for the rest of the day.”
- Ask, not tell. No one of any age likes being ordered to do something. If a child is reluctant to do homework, couch your direction in an inquiry: “What is your plan for doing your schoolwork today?” Depending on the age of the child, he or she could respond verbally, write out a plan or create a chart or artwork of their work plan. This approach shows respect for your child and reinforces that they are ultimately responsible for their education.
- Show, not tell. Find ways to make schoolwork tangible and trackable. When one of our first grade students had trouble accepting the concept of doing his lessons at home, his parents began posting his assignments on a corkboard next to his desk each morning. As the lessons were completed, the student re-posted the work on a second corkboard, creating visual record of his progress. Now, instead of arguing all day about schoolwork, the child eagerly runs down the stairs each morning to see what he needs to do, completes his work and proudly posts it on the “done” board.
- Harness housework. In Montessori, there is a great emphasis on “practical life” for students at all levels. Practical life activities develop focus, mastery and independence, building the foundation for academic learning and success in the real world. Engaging children in tasks such a cleaning, cooking and gardening can re-center their attention at this unsettling time as well as develop important skills. Cooking, for example, incorporates many math and language concepts. One teacher’s child writes out each recipe as it is prepared, creating her own cookbook journal while practicing her handwriting.
- Empower problem-solving: One kindergarten parent invites her son to create a daily list of three activities he can do instead of disrupting her time for professional work. Now, when he comes to her during worktime, they get out the list, and he chooses what to do, buying her at least 15 minutes of time to focus on her job. Every little bit counts!
- Be explicit. Children’s lives and schedules have been turned upside down. One of our families created a colorful chart to illustrate where mom and dad would be at different parts of the day (both are essential workers) and when a grandparent would be in the home to watch the children. Now, the children look at the chart to see who is where and what will happen next.
- Model professionalism. During a pandemic, every day is bring your child to work day. As challenging as it is, working from home gives children a window into the adult world and the types of skills used in a business environment.
- Family meetings. Family meetings can help create a new “normal” in the home. These can be simple 15-minute gatherings where all family members share what is going well, what challenges they are experiencing and what fun activity they would like to do together. The feeling that their issues will be addressed is very empowering to children. Family meetings should be planned and scheduled, with an agenda that everyone can contribute to as ideas or issues arise. A side benefit is that many of these concerns actually work themselves out before the meeting.
“I thought family meetings were for people who had it all together,” said one of our parents. “But we tried it, and now we are problem solving in ways I thought was impossible.
- Let’s talk. Research shows that the biggest determinant of how well a child emerges from traumatic event is the presence of a caring adult in their life. Let children lead conversations about the pandemic, and let the conversations happen again and again. You don’t need to have all the answers, just be there.
- Socialize creatively. All children, and especially only children, are experiencing social isolation. Our families are connecting children with their friends with drive through playdates and walk and waves through their neighborhoods, among other activities.
- Embrace the opportunity. We now have time to do many things we always wanted to do, said one of our parents.
This is a powerful moment in history and a seminal event in the lives of our children. There is no blueprint for how to parent during a pandemic, but there is a way through: look to the child. They will show us the way, today and tomorrow, if we let them.
“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.” Maria Montessori
Jennifer S. Carriger, M.A.
Mountaineer Montessori School