When searching for your child’s first school, independence should be top of your list

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Academics and social-emotional skills may be top of mind when searching for a preschool, but finding a program that specifically builds your child’s independence will be key for future learning.

Why? In order to be effective, education must work with the ways a child naturally develops. Independence is a developmental need, and fostering it is essential to build confidence, intrinsic motivation and curiosity. 

Compare it to the adult workforce — it’s hard to be successful if you’re not confident in your surroundings, your capabilities, or if you are in a top-down environment that does not empower individual contributions. 

What is functional independence, and why does it matter for preschool?

In Montessori, we empower each child as a unique, capable individual and we do so from the start.

Infants, toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners all experience a universal drive to gain “functional independence,” which refers to physically caring for oneself and navigating activities of daily life. If you’ve reached the toddler stage, then you’re likely familiar with how this surfaces. One day, you help them put on their jacket, but they insist on zipping it up all by themselves. “Help me do it myself!” 

If children are not given time and space to do more physical, practical work, then this becomes an unmet need. When this unmet need is persistently blocked, whether at home, daycare, or school, it often leads to undesirable behaviors like power struggles and tantrums. Joyful play and learning are activated when children are purposefully connected to work that satisfies their developmental needs.

What are common blockers to a young child’s independence?

  1. Excessive interventions in their  movements, including “hand over hand” teaching methods. 
  2. Assuming that young children should be relegated to a world of toys and pretend when they are in a heightened time for factual, real-world discovery.
  3. An environment that has not been prepared for the child’s capabilities and requires the child to wait for an adult.
  4. A teaching approach that asks children to learn the same thing at the same time, minimizing the opportunity for children to go deeper in their own skill-building.

How your child gains independence in Montessori school

• The curriculum emphasizes self-discovery

• Children experience freedom of choice

The shelves, furniture, activities are all placed within the child’s reach as part of the Montessori Prepared Environment. Children choose, prepare, and clean up their own work within a multi-hour work period that protects free movement, mastery of skills, and individualized learning.

• The role of the teacher is to empower

Called “the guide,” a Montessori educator spends significant time preparing the environment before the children arrive, ensuring it is safe and filled with robust, developmentally-appropriate activities. When the children arrive, she observes, guides, and supports the children. Since children learn directly from their own experiences, they internalize that they are capable and respected.

• Age-appropriate limits further support independence

The child’s freedom in a Montessori classroom is balanced by predictable, grounding limits, described as “freedom within limits.” Since the guide’s role is to observe, she is trained to offer support and redirection that does not overreach.

To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.

Maria Montessori

It’s important to note that this sense of agency does not counter connection, responsiveness, or nurturing care. Independence comes from connection. Therefore, a child who shows great capabilities and self-confidence is also a child with secure, loving attachments to their caregivers and surroundings. 

In sum, a child who experiences school with age-appropriate independence is a child who will go on to unlock their full potential. They will not have merely learned what to think, but how to think. 

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