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Montessori at Home: Patience

by Primary and Kindergarten Directress Nancy Wu

“Miss Nancy, Miss Nancy…”  As I give a lesson to a child, another child calls for help from the other side of the classroom.  Or, a student keeps tapping my shoulder to get my attention when I am working with another child.  The inquisitive child just can’t wait, they need the attention now!  This is not an unusual occurrence.  Similar situations happened for me at home, too.  After visiting the classroom, parents have often told me that they find teachers so patient with the children.  Indeed, patience is one of  the key elements of virtue when teaching or giving guidance to young children as a teacher or as a parent.

The society we are in today asks us to be efficient and complete tasks quickly.  We as adults are used to a fast paced environment, and unconsciously, we expect our children to be similarly fast at learning or finishing their tasks.  We lose our patience easily if our children’s actions don’t meet our expectations.  The problem is that we sometimes forget that it takes time for children to learn a skill or establish a good habit.  Consider shoelace-tying, for example: for some children, it may take just a few weeks of daily practice, but others may take months to get used to doing each motion in sequence until they have a properly tied shoelace.  When we adults lose our patience as our children learn a skill, the children easily pick up our emotions, and they may learn frustration or impatience from us.  

Creating an additional obstacle, the modern environment feeds our children more information than they can process; modern media present words and images too quickly for them to have meaning to very young children, and they rarely practice a slowed-down pace of observation.  When you ask them to be patient and wait, they can’t.  They like to have a response from you right away.  They don’t understand what patience or waiting mean.  It takes patience to teach the children to be patient.  

It is immensely hard for young children to conceptualize the need for or benefits of patience. Neither their concept of time nor their sense of delayed gratification is quite developed yet! There are a few strategies you can use to define and model patience with your child, shared by Claire Lerner, LCSW, a child development specialist at the nonprofit organization Zero to Three, and Roni Leiderman, Ph.D., associate dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University.

  • Use a timer to help your child visualize the wait. If they are begging for a story, but you need time to finish what you’re doing, set an egg timer for 5 minutes and tell them that when the bell rings, you’ll read the book, suggests Lerner. This strategy is used often in school: our students often want to know when it is time for us to go to the playground during the school day. I found it helpful to show them the clock and tell them when the hour hand points to 11 and the minute hand points to 4, it is 11:20 and we will get ready to go to the playground.  Once the children know what happens and when to expect, it becomes easier for them to wait, to do something to occupy their brains until the time is right.
  • Help them develop strategies for waiting. When you must wait, help your child figure out what they can do to pass the time. Ask, “What can we do while we’re waiting? Should we sing songs or read a book?” Try activities that don’t require a screen or other resources first – children can explore the resources they already have in their senses and words. This is a great time for “I Spy” or a counting game. Silent waiting can be taught incrementally, too: challenge a child who demands a snack to wait 30 seconds after asking on Monday, 45 seconds on Tuesday, one minute on Wednesday, and so on.

Use reflective listening. Young children don’t often have the words to clearly express what they’re feeling, but you can help verbalize the emotions they have when practicing patience. In the checkout line, you might say, “I know it’s hard to wait. This is taking a long time, but you’re doing a great job waiting.” Says Leiderman, “If you acknowledge your child’s struggle, he’ll naturally try harder.”

It is important for us to keep calm and positive when we teach our children to be patient. When a child in the classroom is trying to get my attention and interrupts my lesson with another child, I gently ask the child to please go back to their work area and wait for me, and I will go help when I am done with my current task – when I keep that promise, they see the benefits of patience in action.

Reading a story book is a great way to explore waiting and being patient. “Waiting is Not Easy!” by Mo Willems is a fun book to read and talk about with your child.

As the quote from Dr. Maria Montessori illustrates, it may seem that we need endless patience, but eventually it pays off in the shared enthusiasm and gladness when we see the success of our children.