“Help me to Help Myself”

By Tara Israelson –Nikau Teacher, Preschool

During our recent MANZ conference, Montessori kaiako (teachers) from all over Aotearoa were welcomed by tamariki (children) from Montessori schools around Wellington.  Wā Ora was represented by both preschool and primary children and it was lovely listening to their sweet voices.  The song that the preschoolers sang was “Help me to Help Myself”, a song written by Mary Coffey, a local teacher.   I thought I would elaborate on its message here with you.

Dr. Montessori, through her years of tireless observation, came to the conclusion that children are innately driven towards work that helps to develop their bodies and minds.  They are constantly observing and absorbing the world around them and are eager to act in and on their environments without interference.

Parents of Montessori children will often hear kaiako (teachers)  talk about “work” in our learning stories and our informal chats about your child’s day at school.  As adults we may resist that word, as to us, “work” is a kind of toil – something we would rather get out of.  According to Dr. Montessori adults have two laws governing their relationship with work:  division of labour and maximum gain with minimal effort.  Basically we want to be efficient and share our load so we aren’t working so hard.

The child has a vastly different approach, because a child’s “work” is, of course, to construct him or herself.  For this reason children do not wish to “divide their labour.”  You may have experienced this as a parent when you reach out to help and they angrily say, “No!  I can do it!”  These young children also do not strive for efficiency, as their need to develop their body and their character outweighs getting the job done.

They cannot however, in all reality, do everything for themselves.  We, the adults in their world, have a minor role to play.  We are responsible for providing children with the tools to act in, and on, their environments independently, with as much time for repetition as needed.  This is the message in the song “Help me to Help Myself”.  We must be there to give the little lessons:  how to dress, how to wash, how to tidy, but we must refrain from doing the work of dressing, washing and tidying.  Dr. Montessori said, “every useless aid arrests development,” meaning that we need to think twice before rescuing a child when we perceive a need for assistance.

During the day in our Montessori classrooms there are many moments when the kaiako (teachers) could step in and help, but we resist!  We watch as water is spilled and then cleaned up, or a child struggles to put his shirt on, but keeps at it until he’s dressed.  We sit and wait for many minutes for a child to put on her own shoes before heading outside to work.

As the adults in their world, we must remember that our role is to offer the tools and our patience, so that the child is free to do the important work of creating him or herself.