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Montessori and Failure - What does it look like in the home?

Otis climbing a tree in Into the Woods Clothing Brisbane at How we Montessori

"Every great cause is born from repeated failures and from imperfect achievements." - Maria Montessori

Last week I wrote about Teaching Natural Consequences. We know children learn from doing and from experiences and to allow children to learn from natural consequences we must give them the freedom to fail, to make mistakes, to get it wrong. Today I wanted to think about what this looks like in the home. How can we create a safe place, an environment, a family culture where our children are not afraid to give things a go, where they are comfortable with failure?

In the Montessori classroom, children use self-correcting materials with a control of error and they learn through their own errors, they persevere. What happens if you build the pink tower with the smallest cube at the bottom? It falls down and the child builds it again. What happens when the knobbed cylinder doesn't fit in the hole? The child tries another hole. In Montessori, we are focussed on the child not only getting the answer right but knowing why the answer is right. What the child learns in the process is important.

So here are a few things we do and try at home. 

  • Celebrate the process, not the outcome. 
  • Encourage your child to try new things. By trying new things we are teaching our child, you haven't done this before but give it ago. Children often prefer activities they know they are good at, provide opportunities for them to branch out. 
  • Try something new together. Allow your children see your attitude and approach to trying something for the first time. 
  • Don't hover. Give your child space. Often we can supervise our children from afar, we don't need to be watching over their shoulders, children can feel too self-conscious if they know you are watching so closely. 
  • Don't jump in too early. I know we want to protect our children but we must allow them to learn for themselves. Keep them safe but unless they are coming to harm, don't jump in to rescue them, they may work it out at the last minute or they may fail. 
  • Don't rush in to console your child after a failure, if possible step back, see how they handle it, see what do they do, it's possible they can get themselves back up and give it another go. 
  • Maintain the culture your child experiences at school, breakages are cleaned up without fuss, the teacher remains calm and work goes on. 
  • Definitely no punishment or reprimand for failure, this includes the looks you give them, the tone of your voice, the words you use. Be accepting, calm and gracious to their mistakes, keep a positive tone.  
  • Don't give praise or rewards but acknowledge their efforts and hard work. Children will become afraid of failure it there is too much riding on it and they may just give up. 
  • Promote honesty, children can turn to lying or hiding their mistakes if they are afraid of the reprimands. Create a family culture of honesty where children will admit to or share their mistakes, not cover them up. 
  • Manage expectations and be realistic, if you hype the situation the child may feel like they have failed when they don't achieve the expected results. 
  • Reduce competitiveness, don't make things a race, don't compare your child's work to another's or to their work previously.
  • Don't judge or fix their work. Judging or fixing your child's work sends them the message that the work is not good enough. Don't judge or criticise other people's work in front of your child. 
  • Create a home environment that physically supports your child, yes, allow them to use real ceramic plates but don't give them antique, expensive or irreplaceable items to use, put the potty in the bathroom where mistakes are ok.  
  • Support and challenge your child. Give them the skills they need and set them up for success. Provide challenges but give them the skills they need to complete the work. For example, if we asked the child to tie their own shoes laces but they have never been taught, they would feel frustrated and discouraged. If they have the skills to tie their shoe laces they can feel confident and give it a go. Some people refer to it as the 'sweet spot', work that is not too easy but not too hard. 
  • Don't be self-critical, accept your own failures and mistakes as learning opportunities, by believing this, by living this, your children will see it in you. Be a good role model. 

I'd love to know how you support and manage failures and mistakes at home. I remember the first time Otis dropped (and broke) a ceramic bowl, he was shocked but I knew right away not to fuss and just got on with the job of supporting him in the cleanup, previously I think I would have used negative language or even felt frustrated. Now I know it's was just a part of the process! 

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