Mornings, Screens and a Bit on Executive Functions…

Mornings are challenging for many of us. Having to wake sleepy children or being awakened by an early riser mixed with dressing, breakfasting and getting to school on time, can add up to a tough morning. There are many things that can be done to mitigate morning struggles; some are better choices than others. Tempting as they are, screens should not be the tool we turn to in order to make mornings easier.

Sometimes mornings are tricky…

There’s no judgment here. It’s easy to see why screens are appealing. They may seem to help your child stay at the table and finish breakfast or offer a distraction so you can shower and get ready for work. Perhaps the promise of a video on the car ride to school makes it easier to get into the car. Here’s our plea: please don’t offer a screen in the morning. Together let’s find another way. If you don’t need convincing about why to make the change and just want to know how to do it, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.

Why avoid screens in the morning? Remember those real-life skills otherwise knows as executive functions (EF) –  working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control – that are so important to our children’s success in life? Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson researched the effects of television on EF.  Their work published in Pediatrics concludes that “9 minutes of viewing a popular fast-paced fantastical television show immediately impaired 4-year-olds’ EF, a result about which parents of young children should be aware.”

The work they do is so very important!

Drawing parallels between studies and real life can be difficult, so here’s something else to consider. Guides ask us not to use screens before school. Let’s trust our guides about what contributes to the children having a more successful day at school.

There is so much good work to be done.

So, how are you going to make the change? The first step is to commit to the decision. Then, to be blunt, just do it, cold turkey. Tell your children that screen time will no longer be part of their mornings (and evenings? weekdays in general?). As a parent, you are in charge of this decision. Yes, your children might complain. Yes, they might fight it. They will also adjust and transition, and ultimately you will see the benefit of the choice you made.

This adjustment might require changes to your morning routine. Try to think about how and why you use the screens and make a plan to help alleviate these situations (think: adults showering at night, everyone sitting down to eat breakfast together, rearranging who gets ready when, etc.).

If you use screens on the drive to school here are some suggestions for your new screen-free ride to school – some of these can also be implemented in morning routines at home!

  • Audio books are wonderful and available for free downloading through St. Louis County Library and the Municipal Library Consortium.
  • Podcasts are available for children and are generally short in length – just right for the car ride!
  • Children’s music, classical music, your favorite music. All great choices.
  • There’s so much to look for and converse about with your children – the changing colors on the trees, holiday decorations, landmarks, etc.
  • As humans we like to know where we are in relation to things. Children are not excepted from this. They will enjoy learning the way to school (first we pass the library, then we pass the construction site…). Bonus – it’s a great opportunity to expand vocabulary!
  • Give the gift of silence. We sometimes assume children need something to listen to, something to be entertained by… in truth many will gratefully sit in silence.

You’re making the change for a reason, hold out until you see the fruits of your effort! You can do this!

Thank you, as always, for the beautiful photos Melinda!

Upper Elementary Camp Out…

“We need the tonic of wildness… At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

-Henry David Thoreau

While the Lower Elementary children were gearing up for their on campus overnight, Villa di Maria’s Upper Elementary class planned and executed an off campus camping trip. This year they returned to an area near Onondaga Cave State Park. Having chosen the destination and the activities they wanted to try this year, the class divided into committees to make their trip a reality. And what an adventure it was!

Photo Credit: Lauren Knight
Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley

Our perspective shifts every time our vantage point changes. Standing knee deep in water or sitting astride a horse offers the opportunity to see our world anew. The camping trip affords the children a multitude of experiences to expand their world. The shifts in perspective assist the children in placing themselves in the cosmos.

Photo Credit: Lauren Knight
Wildlife abounds at the farm the students visited while horseback riding. Photo Credit: Lauren Knight
Campfire entertainment is an opportunity to exercise so many skills. Yes, public speaking and performance, but think too of the thought that went into figuring out what would be diverting for the whole group!  Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley
The breakfast feast after a night of camping in the woods! Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley


Lower Elementary Overnight…

After weeks of thoughtful planning, last weekend the night finally arrived for the Lower Elementary Overnight.

The planning work for this event cannot be understated. The children took on every aspect of preparation. Based on self-identified interests, they were divided into committees: Communications, Games, Breakfast, Campfire, Music, Story Telling, Tent Assembly and Random Tent Distribution.

Music committee practiced songs to lead as part of the evening entertainment.
Breakfast committee planned and prepared a healthy breakfast for the morning after the Overnight.
Pumpkin muffins!

From Lower Elementary Guide Ms. Megan’s description of committee meetings, it’s easy to see how many social (read: life!) skills the children gain from this experience.  She shares, “If you were to sit and observe a committee meeting, you would see charts, maps, surveys and graphs. You would not only hear the children’s thoughts and ideas, but persuasive arguments, disputes, negotiations and compromises. You would get a sense of how deeply responsible the children feel about their individual tasks and how eager they are to contribute to their small society. Watching the community come together through this activity is inspiring!”

Planning the Overnight gives the children a greater sense of ownership over the entire event.  It is no wonder that the excitement was palpable as the children arrived for their adventure!
Children brought sleeping bags and backpacks (filled with the items from the packing list that the Communications committee sent home!).
Flashlight tag is a perennial favorite at the Overnight.
Time with friends, building community outside of the classroom, the conversations that only happen by the light of a lantern… This is the Overnight.
Magical, right?

Thank you Melinda for the photos!

Executive Functions… (Part 1: Introduction)

Montessori offers such a full and complete education to children. One prime example of what Montessori offers children can be seen in that the pedagogy naturally supports the development of executive functions. In this post, we’ll take a look at executive functions, touching lightly on some of the ways Montessori classrooms support their development. More to come on executive functions and the classroom as well as how you can bolster the development of executive functions at home.

Executive function is generally thought of as being comprised of three core functions: inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

Take a moment to notice the child on the left. This child is watching, waiting, not interrupting the classmate who is doing vegetable cutting. There is only one of (almost!) every material in the classroom. This intentional limiting supports the development of self-control.

Inhibitory control can be broken down into self-control and selective attention. Self-control is a person’s ability to intentionally refrain from doing something. Selective attention is the ability to choose to focus on one thing (e.g., talking to one person at a party without being distracted by the other conversations around you).

In a classroom where children are free to move and work either individually or in small groups, selective attention is inherently fostered. The children above are focusing on their work while their classmates are engaged in different work in other parts of the classroom.
Montessori classrooms are full of materials which are attractive to children. Working with materials that are attractive and interesting opens the door to repetition and concentration. Think: selective attention!

Working memory refers to holding information in your mind and doing something with it. This ability is vital for understanding change over time, following direction, reading and doing mental math.

In this child’s work with an Object Box, she reads the words on each slip of paper and matches it to the object it names. In order to read the child must know the sounds of the letters, match the symbol with the sound and remember each sound that came before. This extrapolates into reading sentences and whole stories as well. Reading both requires and builds working memory!

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch from task to task or to take in new information and reformulate your thinking based on the integration of new information (e.g., admit to making mistakes or to being mistaken!).  What a great skill to have as an adult! And how we long for our children to have this ability.

A lesson on the Snap Frame will translate into this child’s ability to care for himself. Most snaps he encounters will not be presented as the ones on this frame are. However, by isolating the task on the dressing frame, the child is given the basic skill of snapping. He will then adapt this skill to snapping a jacket, a bag, a friend’s bracelet. By providing the basic information, we allow for the opportunity of cognitive flexibility.
In an Elementary class meeting there is ample opportunity to listen to classmates and problem solve as a group. Yep, they’re exercising (and strengthening!) their cognitive flexibility.

From these three core functions grow the more complex functions of problem solving, reasoning and planning. It’s easy to see why executive functions are so important not just for success in school but also in life. More to come…

Bibliography: Diamond, Adele. (2014). Executive Functions: Insights into Ways to Help More Children Thrive. Zero to Three Journal, 35(2), 9-17.

Thanks as always to Melinda Smith for sharing her photographic brilliance.


If you haven’t already come up with your favorite way to answer those questions about what Montessori is and what makes Montessori unique, here’s a great way to answer: observation.

Dr. Montessori did not impose a method which happened to work. Rather, her pedagogy arose from her continued observation of children. She noticed which materials the children were drawn to and what type of work they wanted to do. The brilliance she gifted us with is a result of her skilled observation.

Observation remains the foundational piece of implementing Montessori in the classroom. Through observation the guide gets to know the child and determines how best to link them with the environment. Through purposeful and conscientious noticing, the guide is able to offer the right lesson at just the right time. This in turn leads to repetition, concentration, and true learning.

As the school year progresses and the children are settling into their environments, parents are invited to get in on the magic by observing in the classroom. This opportunity is an essential part of parent education and a great avenue toward understanding your child’s classroom experience. Observing is also the best way to prepare yourself for parent-teacher conferences!

Here are some things to look for and/or keep in mind when you observe:

  • Notice the class at large. How does it function? What is the noise level?
  • Are the children working together or separately? How do they interact with each other?
  • Sometimes to get a feel for how the classroom functions, it helps to spend part of your time observing a child other than your own.
  • Observe the role of the teacher, not as the focal point of the classroom, but as a link between the children and their environment with its carefully designed materials.
  • Bring a pen and take some notes. Guides are not available to talk during or immediately after observations, so jot down your thoughts and questions to share at a later point.
  • Take it with a grain of salt. Especially for younger children, having an extra person in the classroom (particularly their own parent!) can disrupt their normal morning flow. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t observe, just know that if something doesn’t look quite the right, there’s probably a reason. (We have all had guests over and wanted to say to them, “I’m so glad you came, but I want you to know that life isn’t exactly like the little snippet you just witnessed.”)

Observation is what allows Montessori to come alive. Please come and join us in the classroom!

(Isn’t Melinda Smith just amazing with her camera? Thank you Melinda!)