Grit is a small word that encompasses a powerful mix of character traits. It involves tenacity, perseverance and a can-do attitude.
The aim of Montessori education is to cultivate confidence in one’s abilities using the child-sized, prepared environment as a tool that offers children the chance to build their strengths and to realize their capabilities. Taking it one step further is encouraging that drive to continue when things don’t go just so, and to keep going.
Where does that drive come from? How do we build that kind of determination?
Paul Tough addresses Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character in his book, How Children Succeed. He speaks about his own experiences with his son, Ellington.
“What he needed more than anything was child-sized adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own without help. It came less naturally for us than the hugging and comforting – and I know that it is just the beginning of the long struggle we will face, as all parents do, between our urge to provide everything for our child, to protect him from all harm, and our, knowledge that if we really want him to succeed, we need to first let him fail. Or more precisely, we need to help him learn to manage failure.”
Grit develops over time. Children need to be given opportunities to try. It’s not about false empowerment but about real-life chances to keep going; to try and to fail and to get up and to try again.
Practical Life exercises give children the chance to practice self-help skills. It’s about building the muscles in the hands and fingers and the familiarity to grip a bowl and to pour from it. It’s about developing the fine motor movements and coordinating the hand with the eye and the precision of lifting the bowl just so, and tilting it so its contents fall into the corresponding one.
As a child works on zipping up her coat, there is the natural inclination to step in and to help – to do the zip up for her. It’s our role as guiding adults, as caregivers and nurturers to offer help in this way. As Montessori guides, we count to ten, we observe and stifle this tendency to step in. We watch, hands in our laps, and do not offer any guidance with our hands nor with our words. This is empowering for both the guide and the child. Without movement or words, it gives the message and comfort that we are right there and that we believe that the child is capable. In turn, there is a greater opportunity to try and to try again.
There is always struggle in grit. It’s not about success and getting it right the first time. It’s about the process of joining the base of the zipper, which can be so trying and requires a whole lot of small, key skills to come together in that single motion. It’s about patience in that minor but key movement that needs just the right movement of the small hand muscles to happen. The child practices this on the zipper frame, then on a coat on a flat surface then on their own coat.
Gaining the skills of perseverance and “stick-with-it-ness” in the early years of a child’s Montessori Primary journey will continue to serve him or her well into their future. As a child progresses through the Montessori materials in subjects such as math and language, the degree of difficulty increases, as does the number of steps required to complete a task.
Children who have learned to use their natural grit to work through challenging tasks independently are far less likely to abandon their task, or to see difficulty as a deterrent. In fact, in my observation it is quite the opposite: those that have learned to work through a challenge love the sense of accomplishment that comes when they achieve their goal – the process of mastery becomes part of their natural love of learning.
Richard Rende, PhD and Jen Prosek give great advice in their book Raising Can Do Kids, in allowing children to utilize their drive towards independence: “Let your child lead the way, and ask questions rather than provide answers or critiques. Keep in mind that critiquing your child during play – telling them what to do, or directly instructing them – undermines their cognitive development because you, rather than your child, are doing the counterfactual reasoning.”
The gifts endowed on a young child through Montessori education are meaningful in so many ways. Learning to enjoy the process of mastering a challenge and using inner determination and grit to persevere is perhaps one of the most significant because these skills will benefit the child throughout their lives.
How wonderful to have the opportunity to develop this inner drive at such a young age. As teachers, our classrooms are enriched by this determination in our students; how amazing to think that these lasting gifts come from even the smallest of beginnings such as mastering the art of zipping up one’s coat!
About the Author
Bettina Tioseco is the dynamic head of school at Westside Montessori School in Vancouver, BC. 🇨🇦
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