Q&A with Berenice Saint-Saens: Helping Your Toddler Thrive At Home

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As a tele-working mom with two young children at home, a third on the way, and an essential-working husband, there are many moments each day when I have to pause and take a deep breath. These moments of overwhelm are not new to my motherhood, but a world pandemic certainly has a way of adding an unprecedented weight. And of course, I know I’m not alone. When I work through these moments of overwhelm, I find reassurance, community and connection with fellow parents, friends, family, neighbors, even if only virtually. Empathy. Compassion. Support – parenting cannot be done in isolation. We already knew this.  

Equally important, there are people in my closest circle who feel the same overwhelm but do not have the ability to process and cope in the way that I do. Empathy. Compassion. Support – our children need this just as much as we do. We cannot forget to recognize that this dynamic is equally as hard on our children. And, if there is a developmental age that thrives most on predictability, structure and routine – which has been overturned during this pandemic – it’s the ages of our toddlers! 


So, I sat down with AMI-trained educator Berenice Saint-Saens over virtual coffee, who helped me frame my parental overwhelm with compassion and support that includes and extends to my toddler and preschooler. Berenice, trainer and coach with The Prepared Montessorian, has been in early childhood education for over 10 years with a special focus on birth through age 3. Many parents know her from her time teaching in toddler communities, doing parent consultations with Monti Kids, and online from co-running the Montessori Toddler Facebook community. During childcare and school closures due to COVID-19, she has been coaching parents through Guidepost at Home’s new Family Framework program, helping families re-instate a sense of calm and order by adding Montessori principles to the home.  


What does your role look like with the Family Framework program so far? 
Right now, I’m working closely with about seven families through the program’s Parent Concierge service, and I meet with them individually. It's very hands-on, collaborative and tailored to the family. For example, one family wanted to focus just on toilet learning, and so I partnered with them to create their own personalized framework on toilet learning. This is a common topic for toddler families because when schools were open, their children were already beginning toilet independence in the classroom. So, parents want to translate that from classroom to the home, and this new Montessori-at home platform is a way to truly bridge that support over major developmental milestones like this! 

So the early childhood Family Framework program, then, in the context of at-home learning, is not necessarily about putting toddlers online; it’s about connecting with the parent? 
It is not realistic to create a distance learning program that just places toddlers on screens. Our goal with the early childhood Family Framework is to support families so that they can change the context of their home to promote their child’s development. Just weeks ago, many families would wake up, go to school, and that is where their child’s work happened. Now the child is working at home, and that’s a big transition. The home is where our collaboration comes in. Last week, for example, I worked with a family on preparing their environment, and they moved a little shelf into the kitchen for a self-serving snack station. After only three days of an otherwise small addition, it created a big stride in their routine. Now, their toddler was more independent and was able to get her own snack. 

When you are connecting with parents directly, what comes up most?   
How to create a routine that helps toddlers build their concentration, promote their independence – and as parents, how to set boundaries to frame all of this. Especially right now in the context of so many new virtual alternatives, parents feel illusioned, “Is my child supposed to be on a screen?” It’s just not realistic for a young child to sit down that long, and the most important thing at this age is nurturing the skill of concentration. This skill should never be disrupted to join a virtual circle time, for example, and yet families feel a lot of pressure to “sign on” to everything. I remind them it’s not necessary to do it all. These types of offerings are options. That’s why our program is called Family Framework, because at-home learning for a toddler does not rely on a screen, it relies on these concrete frameworks of preparing your home environment, building a consistent routine, and offering meaningful, hands-on work appropriate to their developmental needs.  

What is your biggest piece of advice for toddler parents who are trying to build their at-home framework, then?  
Routine and consistency have to be set. Have those conversations in the morning that today is a workday, which sets that framework and helps differentiate that your Wednesday is different from Saturday. For children under three, they have huge comprehensive language skills and they can totally understand you – this is true even for our infants. So don’t forget to communicate, because they do get it!  

On this note, infants and toddlers are truly capable. As much as you can, allow for freedom of movement. Give them time and space where they can explore and create opportunities where they are empowered. Instead of handing them a banana, have them peel it themselves. Instead of having them always come to you when they are thirsty, allow them to pour their own water.  

I love that you bring this up because it reminds me of my own Montessori parenting journey in understanding this concept of children as truly capable. It is easy to under-estimate this age range in particular, but as I make small changes one by one, and I see the difference in my toddler, I am able to adjust my expectations and better meet her where she is.  
Yes, making small changes really does make a big difference, and it does require us to step back first. Often with toddler families, so much time is spent telling them what they cannot do. I help families re-frame this by asking, “What can they do?” It’s important to establish boundaries and limits in the context of your child’s needs, and then re-direct them to what they can do to meet their needs. As you give them more freedom, and they show you they are capable, your trust in the child will grow. I remember my Montessori trainer said, “You adjust the environment as your child conquers their freedom.” I think this is super powerful.  

Isn’t a lot of this trust dependent on learning to first observe our children, too? Why is this so hard sometimes? I still catch myself interfering unnecessarily.  

It is hard to practice observation because most of the time our interferences are out of love. No parent should feel guilty about this! No parent interferes because they don’t want their child to learn. Dr. Maria Montessori had trained teachers to sit on their hands when observing children so as not to interfere. I like to share that because it helps with that understanding of, “Give the child more time.”  


To learn more about the Family Framework program, join the community at elearning.guidepostathome.com. This online Montessori community is run by Montessori Educators around the world and offers two different paths: a free community where parents can take the lead in utilizing at-home resources with their child on an as-needed basis; or enrollment in a monthly Montessori-at-home program that is supported by a Parent Concierge for the parent and a Montessori Guide and classroom for the child. Upon joining, all new members have access to a free consultation with the Parent Concierge Team. Concierges are available for parents of children under three, between ages 3-6, and also for parents of elementary children. 

Guidepost Montessori is a a global network of schools serving 3,500+ families with early education programs, including Emergency Care for Essential Workers (ECEW) during the COVID-19 crisis. Looking for more free content? Download Guidepost Parent from the App Store for personalized Montessori inspiration and activities.

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