image from toolstogrowot.com
When working with toddlers in a Montessori classroom, there is a necessity of getting down to a child’s eye level during presentations and other interactions where you are speaking to them. We believe it is both respectful and more effective to speak to them face-to-face as often as possible.
How do you know when you’re getting down low enough to be at the child’s level? When a child unexpectedly paints on your face instead of the easel during their first painting presentation, you’re sufficiently down at the child’s level. 😂 True story.
We have to be mindful about when and how to get “down to the child’s level” in this job because:
~ The children will mimic everything they see. So if you’re assuming absurd “down at their level” postures or practices, the children will try to copy what they see assuming that is what they’re supposed to do. Mirror neurons. Google it.
~ Everything in the classroom including the children is between one to about two feet tall; and if you’re not protecting your own body (knees and back) you’re not gonna last long in this field. Or you’re going to go home with aches and pains, or tired from poor energy economy. I’ll tell you right now I work out as often as I possibly can, which on a good week is almost every day. Energy economy is a thing every toddler teacher ought to consider. The more you can relax, the more energy you will have at the end of your work day. And our environment is crazy demanding and crazy active. I’m hard pressed to think of any other professionals who have to move up and down from the floor to standing or from low chairs to standing as much as we do.
~ If you are older in age and still hanging in there, you especially need to take care of how you are moving your body in the classroom. I have absolutely have had assistants in my toddler classroom, and substitutes, who are about to hit retirement age or are past it and still working. I’ve had an assistant throw her back out, and she was a year from retirement age. It put me in an awkward position of questioning whether she was physically fit enough to still be working in a toddler classroom.
I didn’t want to be inadvertently ageist, obviously, and I had to give her the benefit of the doubt. But I was honestly concerned for her wellbeing because I have never thrown my back out before and I don’t even know what that means, let alone feels like. I didn’t see it happen, but she reported to me the following day that it happened while changing a child’s diaper. What ensued down the road was that the particular child whose diaper she was changing ended up having HORRIBLE rapport with her. It got so bad after I left the position that his parents told me they ended up pulling him from the program. I don’t really know what happened in the bathroom that day when she threw her back out. But I do know that young children are sensitive to what goes on around them.
OK. So what does it look like, practically, to get “down to the child’s level”, in my opinion? Oh! P.S. everyone I’m shorter than 5’5″. Which is a major asset in assistants to infancy Montessori work. The shorter you are while working in a toddler classroom, the better.
~ The Montessorian’s “chair pose”. When I give presentations that require a child to stand, I basically am in a yoga-like chair pose with my hands on my thighs when I’m speaking to the child so that we are as close to face-to-face as possible. When in this squat, I’m consciously making sure my femurs are rotating outward and my knees are apart, never caving in. I actually did some physical therapy sessions for knee pain and weakness, and the PTs advised that I practice this “mini squat” as much as possible, especially at work, in attempts to re-train my hips and knees from wanting to rotate inward and cave in. It has been a game changer to train my femurs to rotate correctly during daily functional movement.
If the child is expected to stand to work, I do not kneel down or squat down just because the tables are so low, or the easel is lower, or whatever the case may be. I know that the child is watching me in order to know what to do. So if they are expected to stand, I don’t kneel or squat down just because I’m five feet tall and they are two feet tall. . I chair pose. Even when squeegeeing a window, I do not squat all the way down deeply to reach the bottom of the window, I chair pose. Arms are made long for a reason– arms can do the reaching.
~ The teacher’s stool. If the child is sitting at the table, ideally I will grab the teacher’s stool and sit, too. If I’m helping them dress, or change a diaper, it’s ideal to have the teacher’s stool nearby and take a seat. I recommend this stool from bed bath and beyond
~ Tall kneel. (see photo below) This is a great counter-stretch for the hip flexors and good for the glutes). It can be rough on the knees if done excessively, but on occasion this can be a helpful posture for a super brief presentation at a table while the child is seated.
~ Take a knee/ One-half kneel. (see photo below) If it is superior to help the child while down low for a moment, but I know I don’t need to be down there for long, I think it is optimal to avoid a deep squat (knees bent to maximum range of motion, while balancing on the balls of your feet) which, trust me, as a former competitive and professional dancer, will jack your knees up over time. So I “take a knee” instead. I borrowed this posture from my soccer player soccer coach ex-boyfriend of “taking a knee”, which is what he made all the kids do if there was a potential injury on the field.
~ Sit on the ground. If I’m going to be down a while, I just take a seat on the ground. I will sit cross legged as often as possible while sitting on the ground because I personally feel this is the best for my knees, hips, and back. If I can’t grab my teacher’s stool for a presentation where a child is seated at the table, I will just sit down on the ground next to them, which puts the table at a functional level for me since I’m an adult.
~ Low/deep kneel. Kneel, not squat. There’s a difference. I will use this seated deep kneel posture sparingly during language presentations if it allows me to gain better reach while laying out the materials. Too much of this will cause sore knees and for some people, the tops of your feet can hurt. The deep kneel is also going to be utilized for rolling working rugs and our class yoga mat anyhow; so it’s impossible to avoid it.
~ When the children want to be picked up, I kneel down and hug or hold them. And I will say “I’m not going to pick you up, but I can hold you or give you a hug”. I try not to make picking children up a habit or every day/ all-the-time occurrence. I also have no qualms with letting them hug me around my legs, and I bend over and hug back. I’d rather have mucous and tears on my apron then on my shoulder or shirt, to be honest.
~ Letting them sit on my lap. The children LOVE sitting on my lap; and it’s like, a vied for experience. If I need to stand up I tell them before I’m about to get up “I’m going to stand up now”, and they happily get up too. If my lap is not available I tell the “My lap is not available right now because…”. I don’t say “I want to be free right now” or “I don’t want my body touched” because I think that wording sounds harsh and I don’t like “Montessori-ism” phrases that regular people don’t say.
Some guides and assistants already have a manner that makes them uninviting. You might be a wonderful guide or assistant practically speaking, in terms of how beautiful you can organize a space, or how well you deliver presentations. But if you’re not loving enough, inviting to the children, or have this air that makes other people feel like you’re an awkward person to hug and you must not be very affectionate in general, it totally shows. I know there is also a double-standard for men in our field; and men have to be very careful about the way they convey warmth to children while working with them professionally.
I feel letting children sit in my lap fosters emotional connectedness, and closeness, and is a great way to provide them with human touch, which is important for people to receive. The amount of touch we deliver and receive tends to drop as people get older. In America and particularly in Montessori classrooms, the teachers can have this air or come across as cold, stern, and what I like to call “Mary Poppins”-like. Did we ever see Mary Poppins just hug those kids or cuddle? I’m leaning towards no, even though I will say it’s been a while since I watched Mary Poppins in full.
So if you reject children who want to sit on your lap and be close to you, it’s not going to help you build a strong rapport with them, in my opinion. Let the children sit in your lap, for goodness’ sake. They’re toddlers. If you’re a male, let them sit on your lap while you sit in a chair and it should look totally fine to the mistrustful parents out there (and yes, they are sadly out there). I also like to let a child who is “struggling to connect” to work sit on my lap while I deliver language presentations to someone else; or sit on my lap while I help another child practice turning book pages. This keeps the child’s behavior managed while my hands remain free to present, and it encourages the “disconnected” child to establish a renewed interested in work.
My kiddos LOVE me. I attribute it to letting them sit in my lap. I will even let up to three children sit on my lap while I sit cross legged — one on each leg and one in the middle. It helps stretch out my tight inner thighs.
Last tip, I do NOT squat down deeply, or kneel when I am serving food around the table. This is not necessary in my opinion. Do waiters or waitresses squat down deeply to take your order or bring you your food? Nope. Because that’s not what people generally do. There’s a fine line between being courteous, and being overboard or absurd by squatting and kneeling down when it’s not conventionally necessary. Remember, we’re preparing these toddlers for real life. A gentle squat is sufficient when serving food.
Since you might be serving food to an upwards of 18 children in some classrooms, don’t torture yourself. I also try hard not to get into the habit of leaving my seat when serving food because it encourages the children to not stay seated. Instead, order the proper furniture for your environment, like this half-moon wooden table. Then you won’t even need to get up from your seat. I can use this table with eight toddlers at a time.