Montessori: The Debrief

Very small children are all about predictability and knowing what comes next, which is why they respond so well to routines. It's also why they respond to a lack of routine quite horribly. The problem is, of course, that we do things each week, or at least each month, that fall out of our predictable routines and that's when we all need the debrief.

When I was teaching, I employed the debrief often. Before Creative Movement class, which only happened every few weeks, we would debrief. Before any sort of holiday gathering or inviting observers or visitors into the classroom, we would debrief. Before going out on the playground after the first Oregon rainy day, debrief. It was upsetting to the children that everything was wet and squishy. They needed a heads up.

Simple things to which we are accustomed are happening to children for the very first time. Before Creative Movement, we'd all gather in a circle and I would explain plainly and somewhat slowly what was about to happen. They enjoyed the suspense and intrigue of being told what would happen. They would not have enjoyed the jolt and surprise of just going without the debrief. I looked around the circle at their little eyes. "Today, we are going to Creative Movement" I would say. "Very soon, I will call your names one by one to line up by the outside door. Miss Joan will be waiting for us in the covered area and everyone will participate and have a nice time." Pause. "Can anyone tell me something they remember or like about Creative Movement?" After no more than three comments, I would announce the first person to line up and then get them on their way. Whereas they might be frantic and worried about where I was leading them outside, not during recess time (!) they would walk calmly and without resistance to Creative Movement. They would then participate and have a nice time. So handy!

A few weeks ago, J took Coco and Theo to Target because he needed to buy some thank you cards. This was most certainly outside of their predictable routine. They go to Target with me often enough, but almost never with J. Whereas I have some ground rules and routines for Target visits, J just thought he could take them in there, grab some cards and get out. Ha. Hahahahahahahaha! Of course all hell broke loose when Coco spotted some toy she wanted.

Normally, I make them both sit in the cart (Theo in the seat and Coco in the actual cart) and allow them to each pick a toy to have with them whilst we wheel about. J did not know this, of course, and told Coco no to the toy. Coco, not being one to take no for an answer, proceeded to have the worst tantrum of her life, complete with clawing at his face and screaming blood curdling screams in the middle of Target.* By the time we'd had a glass of wine and he was telling me about it while they slept in their beds later that evening, he was able to laugh about it (bravo, J!) but he said in the moment, it was extremely trying and embarrassing. Um, yeah.

I explained to him that he needed the debrief. Rather than just cruising on into Target, he needed to park the car and then turn around and look into their sweet eyes and explain what was going to happen before going in. Lay down a simple code of conduct. "You're going to both sit in the cart while I push" Explain what you're going to get and why. "I need to get some thank you cards for my co-workers. You can help me pick out some nice ones!" Then, allow them to ask questions. "Can we have a toy in the cart? Mama always lets us have a toy." Coco would definitely explain this one in her super detailed way, "We go to the toys and mama lets us point to a toy and pick that one to have in the cart with us. And after a little while, we trade and Theo looks at my toy and I look at his. And we don't buy them. Andt the end, we put them away before we go." She's very verbal. And tenacious.

After days and days of begging and pestering and constant asking, I finally took Coco back to Target to look at the coveted toy. I needed to buy a few other things, so she played with it in the cart. After five minutes or so, she said, "Can I get a new toy? This one's boring." Theo wasn't with us that day, so we swung by the toy department and switched it out for something else. Then I finished my shopping.  She probably would have gotten bored of it the day she was there with J, too. But it's good he held his ground anyway. Hopefully next time, it can be avoided.

Do you like surprises? Do your kids? How do you debrief or help things to run smoothly?

(Photo via The Mountain Laurel/Tumblr)

*She came down with a fever the next day;)


  1. Yes to this. Also huge yes to disrupted routines when the unsuspecting other parent takes the reins. If we go to Tesco, Silvia and I discuss what type of trolley we will have (well I tell her and explain why), we load ourselves in, she chooses an apple from the free fruit by the door and we go round. Phil thought he could just nip in and skip these rituals when he took her solo and she was really not happy.

    I like to describe the day at breakfast too- we are going to do this this and this. And then at dinner we did this this and this, and then x happened.

    I think it's clever to vocalise your expectations too- you are providing the pattern for how you want their day to go and for them to act.

  2. Yes! I "debrief" with my 5yo step daughter almost daily when she's with us. It helps us get ready for the day and then she knows the plan, especially when it comes to pick ups and drop offs. If a meltdown seems imminent then I can remind her of the conversation we had earlier in the day.

  3. I notice that at the local Swiss schools here they do debrief the kids in the classroom. They really explain absolutely everything to them before they begin the activity. I notice it in Kindergarten as well as in 1st grade here. It's really quite fascinating instead of just being handed a worksheet or a book or a film to watch as I seem to remember happening. And my oldest really likes to know what's going on. I surprised her with horse riding lessons a few months ago and it's was a total dissaster, a complete meltdown cry fest. She does not like new things, or not knowing. I'll revisit birth order for that one.

  4. This is great. It is something I feel like I always knew would be a good idea but had never actually heard articulated and thus never (or rarely) fully and intentionally implemented.

    Yesterday was a hugely "out of routine" day for us and so, newly armed with this blog post, I made full, deliberate use of the debrief. I think it made an enormous difference. We took a train into NYC, took several subways, then tried on new shoes, then blew off steam for a couple hours at an unfamiliar children's museum, then took a cab downtown to have dinner with distant relatives who were in town for the day, then walked to Grand Central and took another commuter train home. All told it was about 8 hours of completely non-routine activity and we sailed through it - well, not effortlessly (on my part at least, lol), but without any problems at all. I think that debriefing the overview of the day and then debriefing each individual step in detail as it approached made a big difference. My son seemed much more relaxed and confident than I expected him to be.

  5. Yes! I wish I had figured this out much sooner. I feel like my younger child is much better behaved but I suspect it is because I now have tools like this to make our lives easier. It's hard for me because I hate having things over-explained to me, but my children love having things over-explained to them. I have to remind myself that they are too young to hate it yet.


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