Do As I Do
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The original title of this post was “how to get your child to do anything.” Upon further reflection, this seemed like it could be interpreted as clickbait or manipulation, but, really, this is how you get your child to do anything.
We call it Grace & Courtesy.
Grace & Courtesy are the “what to do when” and “how to” lessons of the classroom. They’re direct instruction on rules, policy, how to be a human in this space and time. Children will learn anything as long as they’re provided with a clear model, reinforcement, and an opportunity to practice.
How do we develop a Grace & Courtesy lesson?
So much of the role of the Montessori adult is observation and preparation. Grace & Courtesy lessons typically emerge for two reasons — we want children to be successful with a process or routine we know they’ll encounter, or we observe a need and formulate a lesson in response.
Let’s take the first example: I want children to tuck in their chairs. Why? When you’re graceful with your movements, you’re more respectful of your work. When you’re respectful of your own work, you empathize and respect others. Something as simple as sitting the right way and tucking in your chair prior to picking up your work to put it away helps children to be their best selves in all their interactions.
I prepare a lesson — how to sit in a chair — and an accompanying lesson — how to get up from a chair. How can children be successful with this procedure? There might be more steps than I need as an adult, but it’s my responsibility to break a long sequence down into small manageable steps so a child can complete the task.
I find an opportunity. Sometimes this means a one-on-one lesson, sometimes it’s a small group. The time is NOT when a child is actively struggling with a routine or a procedure. In that moment they just need help, and we need to take the time to come up with a thoughtful response, rather than react.
I name what I’m going to do. “I’m going to show you how to sit on a chair.” I carefully slow my movements, take my time, even overexaggerate lifting the chair, putting it down a small distance from the table, walking all the way around, before sitting down and scooting in. All of this is silent! Children can see what I’m doing and will imitate, rather than listening to instructions and trying to recall.
I look up, make eye contact, and smile. In a tone that conveys mystery and camaraderie, I’ll softly say, “now I’m going to show you [slight pause] how to get UP from a chair.” Woah. Montessori is sometimes criticized for not having dramatic play, but Grace & Courtesy lessons are full of drama, anticipation, suspense!
I’ll carefully scoot back so my legs are clear of the table. I’ll stand up, walk all the way around to the back of my chair, lift the chair using both hands, and tuck it in.
“Now you know how to get up from a chair! Would you like to show us how to sit down and get up from a chair?!” That was a rhetorical question, EVERYONE wants to do this. We can’t wait to show off this skill for our friends.
This is the model.
Throughout the day I’ll notice children so cautiously emulating the model I set. They’ll start to get up, stop themselves, and in a careful manner repeat all the steps I set out precisely.
This is the practice.
Reinforcement, though, is the real key. This way of getting into and out of a chair is arguably no better than climbing over the top, or sitting sideways, or kicking your chair back in when you’re done. But when we don’t care about how we sit in a chair, we don’t focus on or respect our work, or ourselves, and it’s a slippery slope from kicking your chair back in to kicking your friend. When we set the bar high and help children to meet it, we’re helping them on the way to being the best version of themselves, even from their earliest days. We’re treating them with respect, and we expect them to treat others with respect in kind.
So, when someone scoots out of their chair and picks up their work while standing next to their table and “hip checking” their chair back in, we reinforce. “Here, it’s okay, you have time, you can leave your work on the table until you’ve tucked your chair in. There you go!” “I’m happy to help! This is where your work can go [indicating a spot on the table] until, ah, yes, you got it!” as the child tucks their chair in. It’s natural to test limits, to start to walk away from an untucked chair to see, will anyone say anything? Is this still the rule? Cool okay just checking thanks.
Grace & Courtesy lessons help children function in a world where seemingly everyone already knows the rules. We also come up with Grace & Courtesy lessons when there’s an observed need.
In the classrooms, children wait to use the bathroom. Children are patient and very empathetic — after all, they remember the not so distant past when they, too, had challenges with toileting! Sometimes, though, the light gets left on, or we wonder, “is everything okay in there?” and patiently waiting is, in fact, not the answer!
Opening the door to check doesn’t set children up for success long-term. As adults, we might look for feet under the stall in a public restroom, but a child putting their face by the door to try to peer in is too close to a potential black eye, as well as unsanitary.
One of the first questions to ask when preparing a Grace & Courtesy lesson is to evaluate what would be the real-world response to this challenge?
If someone were taking a long time in the bathroom, or if I were to wonder, “is anyone in there?” would I go find help? That wouldn’t be a necessary response, so I don’t want my lesson to be “come find an adult.” Every Grace & Courtesy lesson I give should apply beyond the walls of the classroom, so if a child encounters these conditions in everyday life, they’ll be prepared.
So I prepare my lesson. I’ll loop in an experienced helper, either an older child or sometimes an adult. This is one of those times when telling a true story is a dramatic moment that adds clarity. “Sometimes, I need to use the toilet, but I’m unsure if there’s anyone in there. Has that ever happened to you?” Enthusiastic nods all around. “I’m going to show you what to do if you need to use the toilet, and you’re not sure if anyone is in there or not. Sam is going to show you what to do if you’re in the bathroom.”
I’ll sit outside of a closed door with the bathroom light on, just like the child would be doing. Sam is inside with my surprise instructions. I’ll make a confused face, peer toward the door, stand, knock, and demonstrate careful listening. From inside a little voice pops up, “just a minute!” I demonstrate surprise and awareness, and model patient waiting.
This is definitely one of those Grace & Courtesy lessons that children want to practice again and again and again. We’ll practice being the person waiting, and practice being the person finishing using the toilet. It’s also one of those clear moments when a classroom necessity becomes a life skill, even for the very young.
“Children will learn anything as long as they’re provided with a clear model, reinforcement, and an opportunity to practice.”
It seems so clear and so easy, how can we possibly go wrong?! There are three general ways we set ourselves and our children up for failure, rather than success.
Sometimes we set expectations too high. “The children will figure it out,” only works if there is a clear model and reinforcement. Children will not learn to tuck in their chairs if we only hold this ideal in our minds, or if we only knock on bathroom doors when they’re not around, in the same way a child in a Spanish-speaking household will not learn Japanese simply because children somewhere speak Japanese. They will learn Japanese if they’re provided with a model (someone speaking Japanese around them), reinforcement (not just hearing Japanese once but again and again and again), and opportunities to practice (questions posed to them in Japanese, conversational opportunities in Japanese, invitations to play voiced in Japanese, you get the picture).
We also forget our role as models. Let’s say I’m learning a new skill, perhaps making crepes. I’ve only eaten a crepe at a restaurant, so I’m not sure how to do this, I’m not even sure of the tools involved. An experienced chef shows me how to do it once and now it’s my turn to take over the griddle. (Pancakes are cooked on a griddle, and I know how to make them, so I’m just assuming here.) Would anyone be surprised if I could not, in fact, make crepes on demand start to finish? Yet this is exactly what we expect of our children. We prepare a lesson about saying “thank you,” but we forget to say thank you each and every time something is handed to us or done for us, yet we’re embarrassed when a child doesn’t say thank you immediately when being handed a sticker at the grocery store. Or we’re flabbergasted when a child doesn’t clean with joy and enthusiasm when they’re done playing, when I’m the worst offender for leaving my knitting and my headphones right where I enjoyed using them, ready for the next night’s downtime. Can we really be surprised? Children will always do as we do, rather than do as we say.
Finally, we sabotage ourselves in not creating opportunities to practice. Let’s say we’ve thought ahead, preparing for winter colds by thinking of how to blow your nose. An invaluable lesson for young children, since who really enjoys having their face wiped? We sit down together, show a child how to use a tissue, then put the tissues out of reach since no one has a runny nose right now and for some strange reason my child keeps wiping their dry nose with a tissue. Children practice outside of the direct need for an action, specifically so the skill is ready when they need it. If this involves overuse of consumables that makes you uncomfortable, such as wiping a clean nose with tissues, consider recycled goods with a lower impact, or a reusable option, such as a hankie. Consider the use of grains or beans when a child learns pouring in a Montessori environment, rather than jumping straight to water, milk, or juice. We need to practice, so when the opportunity arises, the skill is ready.
If we want children to do something, for their own success and sometimes for our own sanity, such as using a tissue to clean their nose, this formula for model, practice, and reinforce, all with patience and kindness, is nearly foolproof. As always, the child is limitless potential, and it’s up to us to create the conditions for success.
Written by:Charlotte Snyder