That stubborn little girl!

How an effective teacher gets headstrong children to clean up after themselves

Mia, the 4-year-old girl discussed below, is what many parents and teachers would describe as an ideal child (but this wasn't always the case, as we'll see later). She happily participates in taking care of herself and of her surroundings, and she does so without argument.

A few quick examples:

  • When getting ready to go to school in the morning, Mia brushes her teeth and puts on her clothes and shoes without nagging from mom or dad.

  • First thing when Mia walks in her classroom, she helps prepare for the day by taking down chairs, without being asked.

  • For lunch, Mia volunteers to set out placemats and plates, without enticing rewards.

  • In the late afternoon, after the lunch plates have been cleaned and dried, Mia takes them from the drying rack and puts them away on the shelf — and joyfully, as if someone had done her a favor by leaving them there.

Mia is many a parent's and teacher’s dream. A seeming angel of a child.

But only a few months ago, things were different. Actually, Mia might have been considered a nightmare. A real brat.

Back then, Mia was generally reluctant to participate in any helpful activity. When asked to take part in basic chores for herself, such as buttoning her pants or buckling her own seatbelt, she would refuse, and often with a whiny, "No!". As for doing anything to aid others, she certainly wouldn't take initiative. Her attitude was basically, "I'm not gonna do it, and you're not gonna make me."

So what happened, why the turnaround in Mia?

According to her teacher, Miss A., it's a result of purposeful modeling, and of the adults in Mia's life not trying to force change:

Rather than pressuring Mia to do something — with sermons about how 'good girls' behave, or by using rewards for her following directions or punishments if she didn't — I would just actively participate in constructive activities with other children or by myself. (And I suggested to Mia's parents that they do the same at home, e.g. no lecturing Mia about how important it is to "Eat your vegetables" or to "Be nice to your little brother".) At school, I knew Mia saw everything, even if just from the corner of her eye, so I ensured that my actions could easily be copied should she decide to do them on her own. Each day Mia would see me and the children contentedly arranging the classroom or watering some plants or dusting a table. Gradually she became more open to the idea of taking care of the room, especially thanks to children who were already committed to morning preparation and tidying up in the afternoon.

Some of the girls and boys would occasionally say, "Mia, come on! we have to put the chairs down." At first Mia would refuse (sometimes passively and at other times with a, "NO! I don’t want to!"), but after a couple of weeks she was eager to participate when asked. And now, a few months later, no encouragement is needed. She enters the class in the morning and just starts taking down chairs, or later in the day just begins arranging plates — all on her own. She has become self-directed.

Mia changed because of what she saw. She absorbed grace and courtesy through observing her peers and me (and her parents at home), not through adult preaching or carrots and sticks.

And Miss A. notes that such change is not unique to Mia:

Over the years working with children, I’ve learned not to pressure them into ‘doing good’, but rather to participate myself in the tasks I’d like them to perform, and to surround them with other children who are also happily doing meaningful work.

For parents at home, this can mean ensuring children see mom and dad eating healthy meals for breakfast and dinner each day, brushing their teeth at specific times every morning and night, getting dressed for work and undressed before bed. And if there's an older sibling in the house or friendly children in the neighborhood, utilize them as role models.

Ultimately, if we want children to do a specific task then we should first do it ourselves, gladly, and make sure they're watching us in the process.

Now this doesn't necessarily eliminate frustration that can come with learning (nor is it a cure-all for every challenging issue parents and teachers face). At times I still feel myself getting heated when a child is complaining about not wanting to do this or that. But when griping occurs, a child's or my own, I remind myself: Don't pressure, just show. It helps every time.

For parents who might think, 'That sounds great, but NO WAY for my child — and who has the patience anyway!' Miss A. emphasizes that this approach really works, but it also requires real work. "Change is not miraculous," she says, "and I never get immediate results. An overnight solution is like the Tooth Fairy; it doesn’t exist. But with consistent and purposeful modeling instead of exhausting and nagging moralizing, every child, just like Mia, comes around in the end — without fail."

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*Mia attends a Montessori school with a diverse group of children ranging from 3 to 6 years old, so she is surrounded by older girls and boys whom she naturally wants to imitate. Also, generally in effective Montessori school and home environments, a child’s taking care of herself and of her surroundings is considered an essential part of early education, of growing up and becoming independent, so children learn to take pride in the tasks (‘chores’) they’re able to do “all by myself”.