By Wanda Whitehead
I am often struck by how often questions from parents focus on two key things: testing and homework. Both of these have become known to be the least important indicators of joyful learning and success in life. I know that at the heart of all the questions lie the parents’ concerns, “Will my child be successful as they take a next step in life?” “Can they handle the changes and challenges that will come their way?”
It is so easy for us as adults to focus on and worry about the external challenges of any new growth steps. So what are the essential skills needed for a child’s success in life? What do they need to not only be successful academically but in all aspects of adult life?
These ponderings brought me to Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs by Ellen Galinsky. I highly suggest this book to teachers and parents. The acquisition of these skills is a much more likely indicator of future success than the conventional measures like testing and homework. And, it is important to note, the seven life skills that Galinsky identifies are all carefully nurtured in our Montessori environment.
In a nutshell, Galinsky defines the essential life skills as:
1. Focus and Self-Control: “Focus and self-control involve many executive functions of the brain, such as paying attention, remembering the rules, and inhibiting one’s initial response to achieve a larger goal.” (Montessori was very clear on this need and included many activities and materials in the Primary environment to support the child’s development of focus, concentration, and self-discipline.)
2. Perspective Taking: Perspective taking calls on many of the Executive functions of the brain and requires inhibitory control (inhibiting one’s own thoughts to consider others), cognitive flexibility (so you can see situations from different views), and reflection to be able to consider someone else’s thinking alongside your own. Perspective taking affects how we deal with conflict. Simply teaching problem-solving techniques or conflict resolution is not enough. “A curriculum aimed at teaching children to understand other people’s intentions and behaviors by using books, discussions, and role-play has had very promising results.”
3. Communication: Galinsky writes, “Communicating is much more than understanding language, speaking, reading, and writing—it is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others. It is the skill that teachers and employers feel is most lacking today.” Core lessons in successful communication begin in the parent-child relationships and continue through teacher-child interactions. Engaging attention and communicating emotions build strong communication skills. Since this skill is based in language, promoting literacy, and using and encouraging a rich vocabulary is key. For example, when you read to young children, ask them why they think a character acted a certain way, or what they think will happen next.
4. Making Connections: “Aha moments” are most often moments that involve seeing new connections. Sorting and categorizing are first exercises in this skill. Making unusual connections is the basis of creativity. Montessori activities and materials allow for so many experiences of the “Aha moment.” The self-correcting materials guide a child to look back at their own thinking and make new connections. The presentation of the subjects in an integrated manner allows for children to make connections between things they study in Science with ideas of History or Geography. “In a Google generation where there are facts at your fingertips,” notes Galinsky, “the person who will later be called boss will be the person who can put those facts together in new and innovative and creative ways.” 
5. Critical Thinking: Critical thinking skills also draw on the Executive functions of the brain and involve developing, testing, and refining theories about “what causes what.” It is not unlike the scientific method.
6. Taking on Challenges: We want to help children take on challenges. Children who avoid this generally have a fixed mindset, seeing their intelligence as fixed and are reluctant to stretch. Children who take on challenges usually have a growth mindset seeing that they can develop their abilities. Remember to acknowledge EFFORT to help reinforce the excitement of taking on challenges. “Your focus on this task is amazing.” “The care and time you put into this project has really paid off.”
7. Self-Directed/Enabled Learning: Ellen Galinsky recognizes that social-emotional and intellectual learning are linked. We need to see our community of learners… adults, too. She states so clearly, “motivation begets motivation;” adults foster children’s motivation by being motivated learners themselves. The Montessori Way through its daily implementation gives room for the child to pursue their learning through their own interests as well as through a vast curriculum.
In many of the skills above, executive functions of the brain are referenced. These functions take place in the prefrontal cortex, “the neuronal work space,” a term coined by Stanislas Dehaene of the College of France in Paris. This is where we assemble, confront, recombine, and synthesize knowledge which then guides our behavior by any combination of information from the past or present experience. This area of the brain begins to develop in preschool years and may not be mature until adulthood.
The very fabric of Montessori education nurtures and encourages practice in all of these skills as children work with materials, negotiate their learning with their teachers, and pursue their own interests. Montessori children take these skills with them and add to them as they move through higher levels of education.
Most of our academic tests involve memorization of facts, some may actually ask for you to synthesize, but that is much rarer in a test. In her lecture on brain development at the AMS conference, JoAnn Deak pointed out that the process of memorization as an act of “learning” actually diminishes neural pathways and higher order thinking. Most tests check for and measure this limited kind of “learning.”
While it is necessary to memorize your multiplication tables and other such tools, what we want most to see develop in our children are the seven essential skills defined here. There is no simple “test” to measure their development of the essential life skills. Tools can be learned through practice and application of tools can be observed.
As our children transition in any phase of their life, we might remind them of these skills that will take them to where ever they want to go.
Mind in the Making is a rich read with all sorts of suggestions for parents to support their child’s development of these seven skills. Montessori classrooms are a rich environment for such learning! For parents who have chosen this method of education, know that it will support your child in a lifetime of learning.
About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).
7 Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs and How Parents Can Encourage Them by Ellen Galinsky
How Do We Teach Children The Most Important Life Lessons? By Ellen Galinsky
 Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. (HarperCollins Books, New York, 2010) 5.
 Ibid, 6-7
 Kathy Hirsh-Pasek Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, interview with Amy McCampbell,February 22, 2005.
 Galinsky 10.
 Heckman, James(Nobel Peace Prize winner). Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children. (Science 312, no.5782, 2006)