We often hear the terms “praise” and “encouragement” in a wide variety of school settings. Praise is typically defined as expressing approval or admiration whereas encouragement is a more supportive action that points out facts without tying them to an evaluation of one’s work. In a Montessori classroom setting, we provide encouragement by noticing. This may be as simple as “You spent the whole morning on your cursive handwriting,” or something more complex such as, “It felt helpful when you cared for our community by setting the lunch table.” Maria Montessori recognized observation as a tool to know and understand the child. By using an observational approach to encouragement in the classroom, we are able to provide an unbiased report of the work a child does.
Children in a Montessori classroom setting build their independence as they grow in each multi-age classroom. Not only are they able to practice skills, they are able to meet their own needs independently. These opportunities help a child build self-confidence and intrinsic motivation to complete tasks or care for themselves without adult intervention. By providing opportunities for success such as child-sized furniture and accessible resources, the adult is able to help build into this motivation for independence. In nurturing a child’s spontaneous development and innate interest to become independent, we are helping children to build skills of self-confidence that will serve them for a lifetime. Maria Montessori said, “The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object, is certainly not to "learn;" they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be organized and developed by its means. In this manner they imitate and carry on their “growth”.” (Spontaneous Activity in Education).
Encouragement is a beautiful tool in a mixed age classroom. It becomes important as each child is practicing different skills and bringing a variety of abilities to the community. By providing support and sharing observations, the component of comparison is removed. Rather than hearing “You’re a good reader!” about a peer and automatically reverting to a low level of confidence in their own reading abilities, children understand and have support to confidently improve themselves. Hearing encouragement such as, “You really practiced reading today. Practice makes challenging books feel easier.” can provide a directly supportive fact without tying the child’s ability to a positive or negative connotation. This may aid children who are resistant to difficult materials or skills and allow grace in the process of learning. When a child is offered praise, they may be conditioned to then seek this approval in future work to deem it “successful”. When we offer sincere and specific observations about a child’s work, we are able to offer encouragement that may help them to build skills.
Creating an environment of encouragement rather than “praise” goes hand in hand with the Montessori philosophy. In a classroom setting, you may hear your child’s guide talk about the process of work over the product. Montessori knew that children learn best by using concrete manipulative materials, so the process and work completed during the work cycle are of utmost importance. A child may paint daily only to spend the majority of their time cleaning the paint palette and easel or choose to carefully peel and chop a carrot without the intention of eating it. This interest in the process and the opportunity to encourage a child’s effort become paramount in helping to form a child’s abilities. Children may not always bring home physical manifestations of their work each day, but the formation of this process is the most important part of their work. When we offer children praise, we attach a need for external response in order for a child to deem their work successful. When offering encouragement, one is able to provide sincere feedback and focus on the effort rather than the final product. Without providing external evaluation of work quality, children are able to notice their own interests, abilities, and merit.
What language can we use to provide encouragement to children? Here are some examples:
“How do you feel?”
“You’re almost finished!”
“You did _________ all by yourself.”
“It felt really helpful when you…”
“You put your jacket on!”
When we use the language of encouragement, we can sit back and observe, ask open-ended questions for opportunities for reflection, model a task, or simply describe effort, materials, and action. The confidence that we can help each child achieve when they feel supported and encouraged rather than evaluated is an incredible gift that Montessori recognized and integrated at each level of development.