Pre-primary Workshop: Preparing Your Child for the Primary Classroom

tncs-preprimary-workshopOn Wednesday, October 11th, The New Century School welcomed a very special guest to host a workshop on a topic she knows well, both professionally and personally: Johns Hopkins Child Clinical and Developmental Psychologist Carisa Perry-Parrish. Dr. Perry-Parrish may already be known to many among the TNCS community, as she has presented on other topics over the past few years (see Mindful Parenting: A TNCS Workshop that Could Change the World) and has also hosted workshops for TNCS staff professional development days (see TNCS Teachers Get Mindful!). She also just happens to be a TNCS parent. On this occasion, her focus was on milestones that the 2- to 3-year-old child should be approaching, a topic that has special significance at TNCS because, at age 3, children are eligible to enter the primary classroom.

For those of you who were unable to attend (and those of you who want a refresher), Dr. Perry-Parrish generously shared her presentation and slides with Immersed, which are reproduced here.

About Carisa Parry-Parrish

Originally from Georgia, Dr. Perry-Parrish has been in Baltimore for the last 10 years. She introduced herself to the large group of pre-primary parents in attendance by explaining a bit about her professional expertise. “I have a lot of training with normal children, but also kids that have anxiety,” she said. “I do a lot of work with parents, mostly on behavioral challenges, with medical conditions, medical stress, and traumatic stress. On the developmental side, I have a lot of training on normal development. I lead [JHU’s] post-doctoral training program for child psychologists, so I have a lot of experience and interest in teaching and training new psychologists. I work with primary care physicians and collaborate with Hopkins pediatricians. I like training, I like kids, I like working with people who work with kids.”

Specifically, her titles are Licensed Psychologist; Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Director of Behavior Medicine (Psychology) for the Pediatric Burn Program, Pediatric Dermatology, and the Center for Sweat Disorders; and Director of Training, Pediatric Psychology Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Her clinical service includes age ranges from birth through 20s, individual and parent therapy, behavioral medicine consultations, integration of behavioral health into primary care, and psychological testing.

She teaches psychology fellows and child psychiatry residents parent management training, mindfulness, and motivation enhancement.

Her current research areas include emotion regulation and psychosocial functioning across development, parental socialization of children’s emotional development, and parent and child adjustment to medical stress.

Milestones for the 2- to 3-Year Period

The changes that are happening in children at this stage are staggering in number and in scale. They are becoming people—becoming themselves—and a lot of work goes into that. This can be a difficult time for them and no less so for you, their parents. Therefore, you’ll be happy to hear that Dr. Perry-Parrish’s overriding message was that you have allies: your child’s teachers. Rather than viewing teachers as judges who determine if and when a child is ready to move up, or, worse, as the arbiter of a child’s entire scholastic career, she urges parents to embrace them as collaborators in a child’s development. They have the same goals as you do, that is, to guide children along their path, meeting milestones as they go. Although this makes perfect sense, until she said it, some of us had never thought of it in quite this way before. We’re in this together.

Dr. Perry-Parrish breaks milestones down into five categories; physical, cognitive, language, emotional, and social, as shown below, and they synergistically feed into each other. Her biggest priority, though, and the one she feels best serves children is emotional development:

There are a lot of things that are changing with kids. I feel as a parent, that once we’ve mastered one stage, they are on to another stage, so we’re always trying to keep up with them. Another interesting thing is that there are different aspects of development that influence the other ones. A big one for our kids at this age is language development. Language facilitates cognitive development, social development, and emotional development. They are all interwoven, so when you see new developments in one domain, they are anticipating development in another domain. One of the things I’m interested in my work is how parents socialize kids emotional development. I have a big interest in supporting kids’ social regulation and emotional regulation.


Physical Milestones

  • Climbs well
  • Runs easily
  • Pedals a tricycle (3-wheel bike)
  • Walks up and down stairs, one foot on each step 

Cognitive Milestones

  • Can work toys with buttons, levers, and moving parts
  • Plays make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
  • Does puzzles with three or four pieces
  • Understands what “two” means
  • Copies a circle with pencil or crayon
  • Turns book pages one at a time
  • Builds towers of more than six blocks
  • Screws and unscrews jar lids or turns door handle

Language Milestones

By 2 ½ years:

  • Understands a lot more than can articulate
  • Will attempt to use over 100 words but cannot produce all the sounds needed to pronounce words, so many of them will be unclear
  • Talks while plays
  • Relies more heavily on words, rather than gestures, to communicate

By 3 years:

  • Can follow multistep instructions
  • Can be understood by strangers most of the time when talking
  • Asks many questions in order to understand the world
  • Listens to stories and will have favorites that need reading regularly
  • Enjoys imaginative play and often has a running commentary during play

Emotional and Social Milestones

  • Expressive behavior
    • Limited differentiation…extensive specific affective states
  • Regulation/coping
    • Dyadic regulation….independent regulation
  • Relationship building
    • Primary attachment….multiple, varied, diverse relationships
  • Influence of socialization figures
  • Cognitive understanding

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Emotional Regulation

“Besides language immersion, another important aspect of coming to this school is facilitating your child’s emotional and social development,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish.

There is a shift from infancy to 2- to 3-years-old, moving from a dyadic regulation to more of an adult/independent regulation. Also, in the pre-primary level, the child is moving from the egocentric to now engaging in more of a social way. Their social world is expanding, which brings new opportunities for intimacy, friendship, and connections but also lots of opportunity for conflict, frustration, sadness, and jealousy.  So we’re trying to narrate that landscape for our kids to help it make sense. To me, this is one of the most important building blocks toward long-term development that we have. A popular book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, talks about children’s emotional regulation. It’s something that research suggests is predictive of long-term academic and social success.

For those of you who have never seen the Stanford marshmallow experiment, you’re in for a treat watching these children try to stave off their quite natural and intense desire to eat the apparently very fragrant marshmallow in favor of a potentially double reward.

Spoiler Alert: In general, fewer than half the kids “pass” the test. Most kids are unable to delay gratification and give into the marshmallow-y temptation. (Except, a recent study found, kids from the Nso tribe in Cameroon.) But this test has profound implications—researchers have followed the original participants for decades and discovered that those who did manage to wait were more likely to have better SAT scores and better jobs as adults.

Emotion Coaching Strategies

“There is so much that can be done right now, the shaping that you guys are doing right now is so critical and powerful and is going to shape the trajectory of your child in so many ways, in a good way,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish. But, for many parents in the room, the idea that their whirling dervish—that is, toddler—could self-regulate to the extent that he or she could pass up a marshmallow (let alone not throw tantrums, hit siblings, bite schoolmates, or refuse to dress) was sheer fantasy.

It might take a while and hundreds of repetitions, but they will begin to get it. Their reactions are completely natural and appropriate given all the enormous transformations that are going on within their bodies and minds. “We are sowing so many seeds right now that are going to yield a harvest of self-regulation and social successes,” Dr. Perry-Parrish assured the audience. That’s not to say that consequences of disruptive behavior are not warranted. The key there is to be consistent with your choice of limit-setting, whether that’s a time out or separation from a favorite toy or activity.

“When kids’ challenging behavior is most bothersome to us is often when it has an emotional intensity,” said Dr. Perry-Parrish; nevertheless, our job is to stay calm and help guide them through what they are experiencing. She next shared some specific emotion-coaching strategies as well as recommended reading John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

Rather than emotion dismissing, an all-too-common knee-jerk parental reaction (“there’s nothing to be afraid of”; “what are you crying for?”), it’s important to engage in emotion coaching.

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Different styles of emotion coaching/positive parenting exist, but the point is to validate what the child is feeling, by:

  1. Being aware of the child’s emotion
  2. Recognizing emotion as opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listening empathetically and validating the child’s feelings
  4. Helping the child verbally label emotions
  5. Setting limits while helping the child problem-solve
    1. Can include limit-setting around inappropriate behavior
    2. Setting limits on inappropriate behaviors associated with affect (hitting)


Collaborating with Teachers to Support Development

Finally, Dr. Perry-Parrish brought the two threads of her discussion together by explaining how young children benefit from a collaborative, two-way parent–teacher partnership that includes robust information exchange. Again, teachers are your allies in the effort to turn out nice human beings, and your child is your shared priority.

  • Parents help teachers learn about their child (e.g., temperament, preferences, expectations)
  • Teachers help parents learn about their child in a new social setting
  • Teachers and parents can support each other in their interactions with children
    • Sharing important information about your child
    • Receiving information about school and social behavior
    • Exchange strategies that work well in each setting

What can you specifically do to support preprimary teachers?

  • Learn about the routines at school
  • Observe your child in class—volunteer!
  • Identify shared goals of school and home
  • Attend parent–teacher conferences
  • Share concerns with teachers to support your child
  • Invite teachers to share observations to inform your understanding of your child at school

Inside the Montessori Classroom

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what Montessori education is about and that Maria Montessori was an expert in child development and education, but some of us—even parents of Montessori-educated kids—still have questions. Or, maybe you have tried to explain Montessori education to curious friends and family members and have been met with blank stares or frank puzzlement in return.

colorful materials and inviting tableaux comprise a TNCS class layout

The Montessori classroom invites and inspires

In this post, we’ll compare a Montessori classroom to a traditional one to characterize The New Century School educational experience and gain some insight into how the classroom works, why Montessori students love learning, and why the Montessori method is so wonderful for our kids. In fact, despite obstacles (e.g., budgetary, legislative), the U.S. public educational system has begun to show the Montessori influence here and there, as educators wake up to the fact that students graduate from school and are at loose ends for how to live enriched, fulfilling lives. The traditional model has certain shortcomings that the Montessori education inherently prevents. (However, this discussion is not intended to belittle traditional education, only to investigate how Montessori can enhance learning for many by virtue of a radically different approach.)

children work independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning primary Montessori classroom

Children working independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning Montessori classroom

At TNCS, pre-primary classes (ages 2–3 years) follow the classic Montessori model; primary and elementary classrooms (ages 3–5 years and 5 years and up, respectively) use a Montessori-based approach. Classes comprise mixed age groups quite deliberately, and this is the first big difference between Montessori and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in Montessori education is that older children assist younger ones and that younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element in Montessori education is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for 3 years, developing trusting, long-term bonds. The teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

practical life materials teach kids everything from proper handwashing to garment buttoning

Practical Life materials

Another difference an observer would note immediately on entering a Montessori classroom is the room itself. Students are not seated in rows facing a teacher who is lecturing at a chalkboard as in a traditional classroom. Rather, individuals or small groups either completely independently or with the aid of the teacher are each engaged in separate activities that they have voluntarily chosen. They might be seated at small work tables or kneeling on rugs as they go about their tasks, which vary from sensorial (such as tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers) and practical-life activities (such as practicing folding towels) in the pre-primary and primary classrooms to working at computer stations at the elementary level. The point here is that students be inspired to learn by engaging in what draws them instead of required to sit passively and be lectured to. Not only will the consequent learning be deeper and richer, but the student will look forward to learning as the natural extension of his or her innate curiosity. School should not be something our kids dread, after all!

having completed work with the number rods, this child surveys his work before putting away the materials

A child in the Primary classroom works intently on the number rods

More importantly, this room for individual concentration and focus is the hallmark of Montessori education. It fulfills the child and allows him or her to become the person who intrinsically wants to help others and to make a difference in the world. Although it’s easy to imagine that a classroom full of kids each doing what he or she individually wants would be chaotic and noisy (a very common misconception), the complete opposite is true. TNCS classrooms are warm and peaceful places. The children are engaged in their work, and the atmosphere is one of pleasant, purposeful exploration. It goes without saying that passive, rote memorization–based learning has no place here. Learning is a dynamic, absorbing experience. It’s truly a marvel to see the self-discipline TNCS kids exhibit as they go about their daily work.

Yet another difference is the breadth of the classroom. TNCS extends the classroom to encompass the surrounding neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community and instilling the importance of community involvement—“our extended campus is the city.” And, for that matter, the world. TNCS has a very diverse student body, and students are encouraged to share their culture, promoting mutual respect and a broad, global perspective. Getting outside and seeing what’s going on around the school is a regular part of TNCS curriculum.

A final difference to be discussed here (though there are many more) is in the approach to “success.” AT TNCS, the product of the work done is not the focus; rather, the doing of the work is what’s important. Making mistakes and having another try is all part of the process. Students learn to relish the endeavor, of trying over and over, instead of being afraid to make those mistakes: “They welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again.” (This hearkens back to an earlier post on “grit”; see “Getting the Education Nitty Gritty” in Recent Posts, top right.) This also touches on another concept fundamental to the Montessori classroom—work cycles. Although Montessori methods are often criticized for not allowing imaginative “play” and focusing all on “work,” children do not make this distinction. If they are doing what they themselves have chosen to be doing, it follows that they will be enjoying it. The work cycle, though, by having a beginning (choose work), a middle (do the work), and an end (put away the work), additionally teaches them commitment, focus, and persistence. The rhythm of the work cycle has applications in all areas of daily life, not just in the classroom.

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” And this sums up the difference between a Montessori and a traditional classroom best. All too commonly, the traditional classroom, even at its pinnacle, can do no better than produce test-takers, albeit skillful ones; the Montessori classroom, by contrast, yields happy, inquisitive, well-rounded citizens of humanity.*

playing on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall day

For more information, including articles and videos, visit The Montessori Foundation’s website. And, find some hard data on the learning experience delivered by traditional versus Montessori approaches here.

*You want proof, you say? Consider this illustrious list of well-known folks, from silicon valley entrepreneurs to great chefs to princes, who were either Montessori educated or educators, and see for yourself!

Kindness Counts!

One of The New Century School’s core values is kindness. At the heart of their Montessori-based, yet progressive approach, is being kind to one another–it informs every interaction between teacher and student, between student and peer, and among faculty and administration. Children are not punished or labeled as “bad” when they behave counterproductively–such negative reinforcement is proven ineffective. Rather, they are taught the logical consequences of their actions, such that a disruptive child is removed from a group activity and allowed to pursue a solitary one–always with respect and always with a gentle, encouraging word.

child is being guided to better hallway behavior by a teacher

A child is gently redirected by a teacher

Well TNCS Parents, besides assuaging that natural parent anxiety about how your kids are treated when you’re not around to see, the kindness your kids receive at TNCS does more than give you and them that warm, fuzzy feeling–it’s actually making them smarter, too! A new study from the University of Pennsylvania finds that children who are lovingly nurtured at age 4 years have better developed left lateral cortices–the part of the brain that regulates semantic memory, processes word meanings, and develops general knowledge about the world–as adults.

Furthermore, the researchers report that the cognitive stimulation a child gets from books, music, and educational toys also greatly influences brain development. Although this may come as no surprise to many, it’s nevertheless tremendously satisfying to actually see those measurable neurologic data. Even better, these benefits are reaped independently from genetics.

girl helps younger student by getting him some materials to work with and providing basic instructions

An older child kindly helps a younger classmate engage with stimulating materials

It’s also tremendously satisfying to know that a child is getting both the nurturing interaction and cognitive stimulation in the TNCS classroom that he or she benefits so greatly from in the home environment. The TNCS faculty play a role that cannot be underestimated in helping our children develop mentally, socially, and emotionally.