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SAUL: Welcome to episode five of Life in the Time of Corona, a podcast exploring the many ways to stay healthy and sane in these strange times. I’m Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a developmental and clinical health psychologist. Many of us have suddenly found ourselves struggling with all sorts of new demands. We may be working either at home or out in the riskier world. We also have to suddenly parent children who are at home all day and we have to oversee their schooling. The clients I work with are reporting all sorts of school experiences. Some have almost full days of online classes. Others are emailed a set of assignments. Whatever your child’s school is doing, all of us, parents and kids, are suddenly in a strange new world.
Our guest today, Stephanie Marcucci, is a mom of three children, two eight-year-olds and a four-year-old. She is also the head of Walnut Park Montessori School which is part of the Jackson Walnut Park School in Newton, Massachusetts. She previously spent 18 years as a teacher at Walnut Park, including a few of those years as one of my daughter’s teachers. Stephanie’s two daughters are graduates of Walnut Park and her son currently attends. As a full-time working mother and an educator, I know Stephanie can help us as we’re trying to parent and educate our children during this pandemic. Thank you so much for joining us today.
STEPHANIE: Thanks for having me, Saul. It’s so nice to see you and to talk with you. We’ve known each other for a long time, although we haven’t seen each other for a long time. I feel like I have known you my whole life, so it’s wonderful to talk with you again.
SAUL: And I certainly feel like I’ve known you my whole parenting life at least, if not more than that. So what I’m wondering, for all the people I’ve talked with here is, what are some of the biggest changes that you’re going through either in your work or your home life?
STEPHANIE: It’s a really interesting question because I think that I somehow think I have two heads here. I think both at the same time… I think I have my work head on all day long, and I have my parenting head on all day long, and they often seem like they’re in conflict because they’re both demanding of all my time and all my energy and my attention at all times, but a huge change is that we’re all together like we are on weekends or in the summer, but it’s very, very different. I’m busy all day long, my husband, he’s a teacher, he’s busy all day long… so for our kids, it feels like we’re all together as a family, and that’s wonderful, but it feels very, very different to them, and I think that’s a challenge, is we’re together, but we’re not with each other, giving each other all the attention I think we all need at this point.
As head of school, I think the challenge is working with parents, working with teachers, working with other fellow administrators about a constantly changing situation that we’re trying to stay ahead of, but we really can’t stay ahead of it, and we’re trying to honor where everyone is, and what people’s needs are from afar, and that feels really hard. I think if I have a teacher at school who’s having a really hard time and we’re in the same building, it can be addressed right away. We can have a lunch meeting. We can meet after school. We can chat in the hallway and it gets addressed right away. I think here, this feels very isolating for people and if they have a concern or a question, it sits with them longer until they can kind of get it addressed, and I think for me as a head of school, that’s been a real challenge for me, is to not be able to deal with issues head-on as I normally would when we’re in the same building.
SAUL: So there’s constantly changing situations, constant challenges. I was wondering, what are some of the things that the Walnut Park school is doing to try to meet some of those challenges for your families but also for yourselves, for the other teachers, for the administration, for the staff?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, you know, I think when this whole thing started, you know, we kind of knew it was coming. As administrators we saw… you know, we knew at some point we were going to have to close either for… we were hoping for a short length of time. We never really anticipated it being this long, so we anticipated some closure… that we were going to have to kind of take on and support people through… so we had started some planning early on about, you know, giving kids… at Walnut Park we have kids who are toddlers through six years old, so they’re really young… giving them some sort of connection to the school while we’re away, even for a short time, and I think that as we kind of got into our building closure, it became clear this was going to go on for a long time, and so what we really had as our overarching message to parents is, “We’re going to meet you where you are”. As Montessori teachers, that’s what we do with the kids, is that we meet them where they are, and try to work with them to get them to the next step, whatever that is… and so really having us meet parents and families where they are and recognizing that everyone has such different needs, it really is fascinating to talk to each individual family and to hear their individual stories. We can’t give a one size fits all remote learning experience for these kids and these families, because everyone is in a vastly different situation. So our teachers are working with families one-on-one to provide a level of education that works for that family, you know, some people need more videos, or some people need more Zoom calls, or some people need just more email worksheets or things like that, and so our teachers are really adjusting to a family about what each family needs to get through the day because as you said, this is now on the parents. We can provide support, but so much of that carrying out of the work is on the parents, especially for parents of young kids. It’s really, really hard. It’s painful for us as educators, knowing that anything we suggest has to be carried out by the parent, on top of them trying to work, on top of them trying to do their laundry, kind of get through the day… it’s really hard.
SAUL: Right, because as parents we’re suddenly thrust into not only changing work roles or changing parenting roles, but as you’re saying… we’re educators, we’re doing all of these things to try to support our kids as their worlds are changing and probably have a somewhat different understanding of what’s going on than they do, particularly the younger ones.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, and I think the additional challenge is we as adults have such a hard time understanding it and so we’re dealing with our own stressors, right, and our own feelings of fear and frustration, and it’s hard enough for us to manage it ourselves and then you know, we’re expected as always, of course, to be those role models for the kids and they’re seeing us as frustrated and agitated and worried and you know, distracted all the time, and they’re looking to us for guidance and it’s hard enough for us to manage it ourselves and I think the children… I don’t even know if my own children are definitely experiencing heightened senses of worry that they wouldn’t be normally feeling, or if they were… they would get a good balance at least from their home life and I think their worry doesn’t always get honored I think, to be quite frank, because I think that I’m personally distracted, and so sometimes I miss their worry and I’m not able to address it as I normally would.
SAUL: So normally the kids would be in school and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what role a structured school day has for children, for their development, but also for their family life?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think all early childhood centers, but certainly Montessori schools thrive on routine and structure, because we understand exactly that’s what kids need at this stage of development from toddlers up through age six, it’s that structure that gives them a sense of belonging. It kind of shapes their world view, it gives them a sense of security. They know what they can predict. They know what’s coming next, and so they’re able to settle in a way and learn, because they understand those limits and they understand those structures and in early childhood classrooms, specifically Montessori, every day is the same. There is no interruption to their day so they know with somewhat regularity what every day is going to look like, and so any concerns they have about what’s going to happen or what’s going to come next is easily solved because it really… every day is the same. Kids thrive on that and I think it allows them to test their freedom a little bit because they know those boundaries are always going to be there, right?
It allows them to push a little bit with their learning, because they know those boundaries are always going to be there and someone is always going to be there to kind of catch them, and so it allows them to challenge themselves in every day, I think, because those structures and boundaries are so, so, so clear. And I think this whole situation has really disrupted that. And I think you know, we as a family in my house, have tried I think probably six different schedules, six different routines in the past six weeks, trying to figure out what works and nothing we do at home is going to replicate that school schedule, and I think that’s the challenge… an additional challenge… is that we can put a schedule in place at home, but it’s still not the same, and it’s because it’s different players, you know, my kids have said to me, “Well that’s not how my teacher tells me”. So okay, well, “I’m not your teacher, I’m your mom”. And I think that routine of school no matter how much you try to replicate it at home, you can’t… you really can’t and I think there has to be some letting go of that and not trying to replicate the exact school schedule because I think the dynamics are so different.
So I think for our family, the evolving schedule works, kind of where we’re at each day, where we’re at each week, you know, my kids are eight years old, and as Montessori graduates, they’re extremely independent, and extremely opinionated, and extremely outspoken about things they feel must happen for their day. And as parents, we try to honor that as much as we can, and to follow their lead on what they think they need in order to be successful. Really, we go week by week. You know, what do we need to be successful this week, and what does success look like, you know, what does success mean this week? And having them have some ownership over that, so I think as opposed to the school schedule, it really is dictated by the educators, we’re kind of giving them those parameters I think, at home, for us at least, to give our kids some ownership on that schedule and say something… we have to have a schedule… something… we have to do something and letting them have some input on that has worked for us, even though it’s an ever-evolving schedule.
SAUL: I’m certainly finding here at my house, but also with the parents that I’m talking with, there’s this sort of inherent conflict between this ever-changing situation we’re living in, and there’s a new stressor every day, on the one hand with wanting to maintain that sameness for the kids. I think with many of the parents I’m working with and I know with myself as well, trying to maintain that sameness is this kind of combination of wanting to do what’s best for our kids but also a response to my own anxiety about what’s going on around. So there’s that conflict I think… your idea of this… having an evolving schedule where we are continuously trying to determine what makes the most sense and what the goals are and how things are working makes a lot of sense. What advice might you have for the parents at home to try to work into this evolving schedule idea to try to maintain their sense of what’s going on with the kids?
STEPHANIE: You know, I think as educators of young kids, again, as Montessori educators of young kids, because that’s all I know is Montessori with young children, is really giving kids a sense of ownership and really giving children an opportunity to have a voice and that’s something that I think Montessori classrooms and Walnut Park does really, really well, is give kids a voice and allow children to have their voice heard. At the end of the day, the structure of the day and the environment will either agree or disagree with that voice, but they’re given the opportunity to share it and I think that if I weren’t a Montessori educator, I would not even begin to think that a three, four, and five-year-old could have an opinion on what the day should look like, I really wouldn’t. I would think, “What do they know? I’m the adult, they’re just little”.
But working with young kids for a long time, I really can see that their perspective is vital in order to make something work, and I think that’s true in the classroom and I think that’s true at home, and again, it is up to that adult who does set the basic structure of the day or the basic structure of the household to have the ultimate decision, I guess, but to really give kids an opportunity to have that voice and to decide what things work and what things don’t work, right? You never would let it happen in terms of playing with sharp objective, right? Because you know, a child may say, “I want to play with this knife and how come I can’t?” So that’s something that of course would be non-negotiable.
But things that can be negotiated, that can be kind of solved with conversation and dialogue, I think to give kids an opportunity to do that… so you know, I’ve been working with some families during this time, but really all year about you know, what are those times where something can be negotiable… and you can give the kids an opportunity to have a voice, because when I think children feel ownership and they feel agency, they’re more invested in that, right? So giving kids an opportunity to say, “Hey, let’s…” now that we have more time on our hands in theory… “Let’s sit down and decide together what our lunches are going to be this week, what would you like tolerate have for lunch this week? What would you want to have as part of your dinner this week?” And give kids an opportunity to share that or to say, “I really know that you like your screen time, so what time during the day do you want to have your screen time?” You as a parent are still limiting that, but you’re giving them an opportunity to plan that part of the day and then, of course, it gives opportunity… the child chooses you know, first thing in the morning I want to do my screen time… and then three hours later they’re asking for it again. And you say, “Well, remember we decided that you wanted to have it now, so this is the plan that we came up with together”.
And so I think it gives kids an opportunity to problem solve a little bit, to think ahead a little bit, but I think you know, bare bones of giving kids a chance to have input, and giving kids a voice and hearing that voice and giving that voice kind of validity, I think as young as toddlers gives them an opportunity to I think, feel a little more secure and to feel that this situation is less out of their control.
SAUL: Are you finding that it works best maybe in an informal way or maybe they have more formalized family meetings or check-ins… what are you finding that works for people?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, it’s funny, I think that you know, at my house we tried to come up with a family meeting… like a set time per week or… my kids wanted one every day of course. But you know, that didn’t work, there was some push-back on that… “Ohhhh!! We can’t do it every day”, or “ We don’t want a family meeting”, or “We tried it and it didn’t work”. So I think different things will work for different families which is kind of a non-answer, but I think it’s really seeing what will work, and I think at my house a lot of our conversations, although it’s not formalized, happen over meals at the dinner table, where you know, we’ll bring things up in a non-threatening way I hope, saying like, “Wow, my day was really hard, and what was frustrating for me was…” and kind of filling in the blank and kind of modeling that reflective way of thinking and reflective dialogue in a way for kids, and say, “Wow what was hard about your day?” and maybe they have nothing, and that’s fine, and that works for our family, kind of not having a specific day for a meeting, not having it be super formal, but having times where we are all sitting together and doing some reflection and some bringing up of topics that are hard in a way that you know, invites all people to participate and so I think for some families, I’ve heard the weekly family meeting works really, really well for kids as young as three and four, they can participate in that and you know, to set the groundwork of any input is good, you know, we don’t shoot down anyone’s ideas… so you’re going to have the two-year-old that says something that’s totally off topic and say, “Wow that’s a really important point, thanks for bringing that up”, and kind of giving everyone a level playing field. In the classrooms we do that a lot, we bring classroom issues to the group and say you know, “This has been hard in our classroom, does anybody have any ideas about ways that we could work on this?” And the kids raise their hands and give awesome input. So I think just to provide time for that for kids is really important. Once again it really is… to a family, what works for them, but just to find time in your day or in your week to give kids space to give ideas and share information and problem solve, and you never know, like, sometimes the three-year-old has the best ideas for the ways a problem can be solved. You just have to ask them.
SAUL: Obviously we’re all a lot stressed out compared to before the pandemic really changed everything. Do you have any thoughts of any advice for parents to help them find that time, not just physical time, but also sort of the mental space and the flexibility and patience?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that’s actually been one of the hardest things for me personally, I think, Trying as a head of school remotely, to be super-responsive to parents, families and teachers. So if someone needs a meeting, I jump into a meeting right away, or if somebody needs a phone call, I jump into a phone call right away. Or I get on my email and type out a response, because I want to be responsive and I want them to feel that I’m here for them no matter what, and I think that what’s been happening in my own house is that my kids have fallen down that list of priorities and at the end of the day, literally at the end of the day, that’s what weighs the heaviest on me… is that okay, I felt good about responding to this parent or I felt good about the meeting I had with this teacher or the conversation I had with an administrator, but then I think of my kids and feel like I don’t know what they did during the day… I don’t know if they’re okay today about something they head and really feeling like that’s been the hardest thing for me as a parent, is to feel like I’m giving my kids the least amount of my attention and the least amount of my brain power, and so I think that I have tried, somewhat successfully, I think, that if I’m sitting down to lunch with my kids, I put my phone in the other room and that’s what I have to do, because if I’m sitting down to have lunch with them, I want to be there fore them. And I’ve heard them say things like, “Mom, you’re always on your phone”, or “Ugh, you’re in another meeting,” I appreciate them voicing that because I think that if they’re voicing it they must be feeling it that much more, right? If they’re finally saying it, they must be really thinking it. So to try my hardest to really put my phone in the other room or if I’m invited to some sort of inane pretend play game which I try to avoid anyway… but if I’m invited into it, to put my phone in the other room and not even… not pretend I’m there to take a picture, but to put it away and to really be present even if for five minutes, but that has been one of my biggest challenges continually, is giving my kids that time and space… and my husband too, and our family, that time and space to have those conversations and for me, the simple thing of putting my phone in the other room, turning it on silent, has been somewhat successful. It’s not perfect and I constantly have to work on it. It has to be forced at this point, because if I try to allow it to happen naturally and organically, it won’t, and my kids will suffer.
SAUL: We suddenly have all these new roles and conflicts between all of our roles. I think it takes a deliberate effort to shift from one role to another in trying to balance all of that out.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, and that’s hard for me anyway, you know, even outside of this crisis, I think the nature of my job and the nature of how I feel about my job is that you know, even if I come home from work and I’m home at 4:30 or 5:00 every day, I’m still thinking about work… and to make that transition from work to mom is never easy… it’s never easy for me, and I think that’s true for most parents, and so I think this is that much more almost in our face, of being not easy because we’re working at home and we’re parenting at home, and we’re educating at home, and it’s all kind of swirling in front of you, where at least prior to this, you at least were in a physically different space, so I could say okay, now I’m physically in my house… I am now the mom. But now it’s all happening at the same time, so those lines are really, really blurred and it’s hard.
SAUL: Absolutely. And given that it’s so hard, I’m about to ask you a really hard question, which is to… as best you can, pull together those two roles, parent and head of school… try to integrate them a little bit as you think about what message as both a parent and as a head of school, what message would you want to send families that are out there struggling with all of these issues?
STEPHANIE: I mean, I think that… and again, it’s a message that I need to be telling myself constantly, so I’m going to give a message that I, myself, need to hear, is that there are things you can just let go, and there are things that you just have to not be good at and that’s okay. And I think… you know, the thing I’ve let go, and this is going to be somewhat ironic, I think, is the educating of my own kids. Their teachers are fabulous and they’re in a public school near our house, and their teachers… I know how hard they’re working and I know the content they’re putting out is amazing, but I don’t have the brain power and emotional space to sit with them to try to get their work done. And I think that giving them some independence there is great, but if they don’t want to do it, I don’t push it, and if they’re happy playing their Legos, I know they’re getting something out of the Legos, you know, I know that when they’re playing “store” that they’re doing math, and I know that when they’re reading all day, they’re… you know, so I think… you know, there are things that… we cant do it all… it is impossible to do it all. We can’t be a full-time parent, a full-time working, a full-time educator… it is impossible.
And so I think to take the pressure off ourselves on something is okay. And for me, I’ve obviously got to work… I’ve got to make money and work, so that, of course has to be a priority and so are there things I can let go? Yeah, absolutely, and I think it’s taken the pressure off myself a little bit. I still feel guilty about it, about not doing it, right? But I think that to say okay, if you spend the whole day playing outside with your kids, that’s okay. If you spend the whole day sitting on the couch watching… binge-watching some Netflix show with your kid, that’s okay. Parents I think… we’re always putting pressure on ourselves, right? To do better, to be better, and to be that mom who is posting on Instagram about their beautifully set-up home and you know… but I think now more than ever it’s just really… to really say it’s okay just to be with your kids and make sure your kids are feeling okay, and whatever that looks like, you know, any advice or message I have would be just to let some things go and that’s okay.
You know, this will be over at some point and if anyone is going to be okay after this, it’s going to be the kids. The kids will be okay. You know, they’re learning constantly, these kids are learning constantly. So I think this adult feeling of feeling like I have to do it all is just going to blow up in our face because we can’t.
SAUL: Yeah, I definitely think that giving parents permission to be okay with what’s going on is some of the best work we can do for them. So I like to end these conversations with a few “one thing” questions, is that okay?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, sure.
SAUL: Great. So what is one thing people should take away from our discussion?
STEPHANIE: I think giving your kids space to talk, and giving your kids space to share, whatever that is… if it’s feelings, if it’s emotions, if it’s ideas, if it’s predictions for the future… I think just giving your kids some space to do that I think would help everybody. I think I’ve learned like you said, Saul… I’ve learned so much about my own children, just these weeks, just watching them and listening to them, in a way that I don’t always so I think it’s hopeful.
SAUL: What is one thing that you’re doing to take care of yourself?
STEPHANIE: I don’t know… you know, one thing… I always appreciate exercise. I belong to an awesome gym that I you know, during regular times I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and go to an awesome class at 5:00 and sometimes it’s the best part of my day, and so I think finding time to be physically active, even if it’s going for a walk by myself or getting outside and pulling weeds, I think that is hugely restorative for me, even if it happens first thing in the morning, I think it sets my day off better when I am able to do that and it feels purposeful which sometimes my work doesn’t always feel purposeful… it feels like I’m having these meetings that I’m not sure I helped anybody and I’m not sure anything happened, but doing something physical always feels purposeful to me, so that always feels good.
SAUL: Finally, what is one thing that you think has now changed forever?
STEPHANIE: Wow… forever… you know, I have these hopes that you know, education will change a little bit in allowing more creativity and allowing less emphasis on product and less emphasis on deadlines and grades. I’m hopeful for that. Change forever… I don’t know… because I’m hopeful that things will change in the short-term… you know, I think there’s definitely been… you know, even walking the street, there’s been more friendliness around, and people looking out for each other more… I don’t know if that’s going to be changed forever… I’m hoping that my kids will see that as being the norm and looking out for each other… forever… I don’t know that’s intense… I am hopeful about maybe people’s view of teachers and seeing how hard these teachers are working, and I have to tell you I work with these teachers all the time and they’re heartbroken not being able to be with the kids and the level of dedication, which I always knew existed, is really just astronomical and it really is something that you can’t even wrap your mind around, like, the level of what these teachers are doing and trying to do for these kids.
SAUL: Stephanie, you’ve given us some great insights into what our young kids are going through and how we can support them as parents. Listeners, thank you for joining me during Life in the Time of Corona. You can subscribe to this show at iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate the show and leave comments. Find out more at my website, saulrosenthalphd.com and follow me on twitter and Instagram @DrSaulRosenthal.
Stephanie Marcucci is the head of Walnut Park Montessori School where she has taught for 20 years. She is also mom to eight-year-old twins and a four-year-old. Learn more about the Walnut Park and Jackson Schools, at www.jwpschools.org. Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us.
STEPHANIE: Thanks so much, Saul. This was great. It was great to talk to you again.
SAUL: And thank you, listeners. I look forward to continuing the conversation on Life in the time of Corona.
Saul Rosenthal, PhD May 5th, 2020