The key to homeschooling with toddlers, teaching multiple grades, keeping the house clean and raising mature, capable, happy adults.
By Judith Jolma
Commotion ruled the day but Miss Brenda was calm and composed. She had survived many first days over the years and was confident that soon all the crawlers, walkers, scoochers, and cooers in her infant and toddler class would settle into a peaceful rhythm.
I, however, was miserable as I watched Mr. Brenda tirelessly attending to each child, instructing them to return things to the shelf when they were done, modeling how to use the blocks, intervening to stop them from biting one another, and so forth. She did not become flustered at story time, as the tots babbled louder than she, or when several wandered away from the group to climb the steps. She just kept sweetly reading. Then she did something more ridiculous than herding cats. She called all the children to a low table for a snack.
The table was set with a loose fitting tablecloth and a small vase with a single flower in the center. She set out child-sized porcelain plates and small, open-top, glass cups. Calmly she invited the children to scoop a serving of goldfish and sliced bananas onto their plates. Then she brought out a child-sized, glass pitcher, which she held with two hands, and poured a sip of water into each cup before setting the pitcher on the table beside the flower.
The toddlers, which ranged in age from 4 to 22 months, cared nothing for Miss Brenda’s grace and courtesy. Sitting on small chairs or cradled in their mother’s lap, they reached across the table, supporting themselves by the cloth. As they did, they would accidentally pull the cloth causing all the dishes to shuffle, upsetting the flower vase, and splashing water onto their goldfish. The babies cradled nearby were especially interested in the tablecloth as they attempted to pull it to their mouths. Each time the cloth moved, Miss Brenda simply placed her hand upon it moving it back into place and said, “The tablecloth stays here.” Nothing more. That is all she did. She did that a lot during snack time as she carefully wiped each spill and once again stood the vase upright.
At one point, I suggested that she secure the cloth to the table with some tape, but she firmly replied, “It is supposed to move. You will see.”
Over the next few weeks, the commotion settled down and a sense of calm grew among the children. About six weeks into the school year, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Toddlers sitting at the snack table, diligently scooping their own goldfish onto their plates, using two hands to pour a sip of water into their own open-top cups, and the tablecloth remaining firmly in place leaving the happy flower upright. What sorcery is this?
This is what Montessori instructors know as “Normalisation.” It is the point at which the children have become acclimated and know how to behave in the environment and feel that they are contributing members of their community. Children of all ages need time to reach normalisation in any new environment. The prepared adult must give her full and diligent attention to bringing her children to this point as quickly and thoroughly as possible because it is prerequisite to any meaningful learning.
According to Montessori Academy, Normalisation consists of a child’s ability to concentrate and work freely in the environment, using the materials to fully engage their interests, and exercising self-discipline and peace.
There are four characteristics that are commonly associated with normalisation:
1. Love of work: The ability to choose work freely and find joy in work
2. Concentration: The ability to work continuously following a progressive interest
3. Self-discipline: The ability to focus energies and mental capacities in the pursuit of self-mastery
4. Sociability: The ability to help, respect and have sympathy for others
Maria Montessori famously said that the highest achievement a teacher can arrive at is to be able to say, “The children are working as if I do not exist.” This happy independence is the fruit of normalisation. Getting to this point is, perhaps, the most labor intensive task for any Montessori instructor. I have seen classes that fail to reach this stage all school year. These are very sad students in an unrestful environment with a frustrated instructor, showing just how critical the task is.
What is true in the classroom is true in the home. Parents who invest regular effort to normalize new routines, disciplines and manners enjoy far more peace and rest in the home.
When parents ask how to homeschool multiple grades at once, or what to do with a toddler while they teach older children, the answer is always to strive for normalisation in the home before attempting anything else.
So how can a parent reach this blissful stage in the home? That was the question I asked when observing my son’s primary class. The children were all working and cooperating so beautifully. How can I achieve this environment at home?
One thing I noticed was the director in a classroom did not have a phone, or laundry to tend to, or other distractions. She remained fully present and devoted to the children in her class -- even when allowing them space for independence. She was absolutely intentional about every movement and word. This is an unrealistic scenario in the home -- at least, long term. But it can be realistic at certain times of day for short seasons.
For example, If I wish to teach a 3-year-old to work independently while I teach math to my 4th grader, I can train this deliberately at consistent times every day. I would begin at a time when the older student is not in need of my attention. I would place my phone on the other side of the house, and clear my thoughts of all other obligations. Then I’d offer the tot several activities that I know he enjoys, building blocks, drawing, puzzles, playing with trucks. (don’t offer too many options at first). When he chooses one, I show him something new about this activity. Then say, “You may continue to use this while I am sweeping the floor. Let me know when you are done and I will show you how to put it away.” Then, staying within sight, I pretend to busy myself with other activities. I do not speak to the child or interrupt him. When he is done, I can stoop down and show him how to put his work entirely away. “Now you are done with that. You may choose something else to work with or get this out again. What would you like to choose next?” This sort of conversation with the child lets him know that his work has a deliberate cycle (choosing, the work, working with it properly and putting it back away.) and that he has freedom about his activity so long as the material is being used in a non-destructive way. If this interaction is repeated consistently every day, the child’s independence, concentration and joy in the work will increase.
The next step is to introduce the older student into the environment. Now instead of sweeping, say to the tot, “Today, while you work here, I will be working with your sister at the table. Do not interrupt me until your work is complete.”
Now you can sit with the 4th grader and draw or read. Don’t do difficult school work with the older child yet, since this is still a training session for the toddler. If the tot grows jealous of the sibling and all the previous work seems lost, you don’t want to frustrate the older sister. Simply, remind the tot to complete his work and you will be available to him soon. Once this becomes normal, the tot learns that at this time every day you go to this particular room and work quietly. Expect about six weeks of deliberate training before normalization is achieved and you can begin actually homeschooling the 4th grader at this time.
The best part of all this is that you are doing so much more than occupying the toddler. You are actively homeschooling him. That is because the most important skill a preschool child can learn is concentration. This is what this exercise actively teaches. He is also learning to make choices, self regulate, complete a work cycle, not to mention the skill he is practicing with the actual work he is engaged in. When he begins working as if you do not exist, you can congratulate yourself!
Here is a good list of skills you can practice that help achieve normalisation. Additionally, a few tips I’ve learned over the years include:
Consistency of routine and clear expectations is key
Model and reinforce the desired behavior joyfully
Limit activities until proper work cycles are established
Do not interrupt the child’s concentration
Empower them to complete work without help
When starting a new routine, phase it in -- start small and expect disorder
Commit about six weeks to focused work on normalisation
Make adjustments as needed but not too fast.
Give the students language (this is my work, please walk away. I need help, please).
These same principles can be applied when teaching older children their chores, dinner prep, study habits and so much more.
I believe that teaching normilisation in the home is both the most difficult and the most rewarding task a parent can engage in.
It can feel frustrating because, as new routines are required, a whole new season of orientation is too. You can also expect setbacks after disruptions such as vacations, illness, teething, and developmental transitions. But the reward of seeing your home hum like a peaceful bee hive is one of the most thrilling accomplishments a parent can enjoy because it means that your children are truly maturing into, capable, happy adults as you watch.
I’ll never forget the day I saw this fruit in my children and understood how their skills would serve them their whole lives. An urgent text rattled my phone. A close friend was about to move away and a large group planned to gather that evening to wish her well. But the woman who planned to host had become ill and we needed a new gathering location. My day was packed full until evening and I would not have a moment to prepare the home in advance. No problem! Our home was enjoying a season of delightful normilisation. So without hesitation, I invited 15 ladies over that evening.
Then we went about our day. The children (raining in age from 6 to 11), prepared their breakfasts and lunches and cleaned the dishes behind themselves (a complete workcycle in everyday life). Each child was ready for his or her lessons at the set times of day and I was able to thoroughly teach each one. They completed their independent study, then played happily with each other while I ran my business and tended to meetings. At 3PM they set about their regular, afternoon house reset -- putting away toys and getting ready for dinner. The children helped cook, and clean up after the meal and everything was like any other day in our home.
Then, I asked for some help making some special foods for our guests, and the children happily helped make a cake and set out cheese -- a simple task that took us 20 minutes. Imagine being able to invite 15 women over and needing only 20 minutes to get ready!
The thing I noticed that night was not how easy it was to keep my house clean and host a ladies night out. I noticed how joyful and normal hospitality was to my children. They felt a real sense of contribution that they were able to bless the mothers of all their friends and welcome them into their home.
The children contributed to the community and gained a huge amount of respect and dignity along the way. And all they did was live a normal day.
I was sure to thank them for all their contribution, but I think they got more joy out of the work itself than from my thanks. This is the reward of noralisation in the home. It is a life-long work with many setbacks, but when you see your children grow into mature, capable, happy adults -- fully equipped to live out their callings -- you know how worthwhile the effort is.
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