Modeling in Waldorf Education
By Kristie Burns
Modeling is one of the most important concepts in early Waldorf childhood education. Many books are written on the topic and entire Waldorf parent-child and Early Childhood programs are based on the concept. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that, in Waldorf education, each year is intended to build upon the previous year, not replace it. In Waldorf education what a child learns one year directly builds upon what they have learned in the previous year. Modeling continues to be important in the upper grades, even if it is not the central way of learning for the child.
In the early years emphasis is put on teaching the child through actions. When the parent/teacher does the dishes, a child also learns responsibility, fine motor skills and a sense of order. When the parent/teacher reads a book the child learns that books are something of interest and will become attracted to learning more about the words that are in them; and, when the parent/teacher knits a toy for the child the child may play with the yarn and try to knit something themselves. All these experiences become part of who the child is. At home, parents are encouraged to continue about their daily tasks rather than becoming the “entertainment” for the child or enrolling them in numerous outside activities – for it is within the home and in watching the parent that the child will learn all they need to learn to prepare them for the advanced learning processes.
Once a child reaches the age of seven, the emphasis is shifted to instruction rather than modeling. However, modeling should not be forgotten. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, spent many hours lecturing to teachers in his first schools about being good role-models. Many of his lectures began with a verse created to prepare the teachers for learning and to center their minds. Although he spoke of numerous topics from geography to math he constantly emphasized that the teacher should strive to be in the best physical and emotional health possible and always set a good example for the students. In his lectures to some of the first teachers Steiner said, First, teachers must make sure that they influence and work on their pupils, in a broader sense, by allowing the spirit to flow through their whole being as teachers, and also in the details of their work: how each word is spoken, and how each concept or feeling is developed. Teachers must be people of initiative. They must be filled with initiative. Teachers must never be careless or lazy; they must, at every moment, stand in full consciousness of what they do in the school and how they act toward the children.”
By the time a child is in 6th grade modeling should be second nature to the experienced teacher and this will naturally be reflected in how the class (or your student(s) at home) act.
This point has been illustrated many times to me in the past year as I’ve been doing workshops for various private and public schools around Iowa. A typical day for me includes a 45-60 minute presentation to 4-8 different classes with different teachers. The students I work with are in 1st – 6th grade – well beyond early childhood. It continues to amaze me how teachers are still so vividly reflected in their classes. It reminds me of studying microcosms and macrocosms in sociology class. The class truly is the macrocosm of the teacher, the microcosm.
If the teacher is sitting and listening to my presentation the students will too. If the teacher is interested and curious so are the students. If the teacher participates in the activity the students participate more enthusiastically and are more present and cooperative. On the other hand, if the teacher is sitting in the back of the room talking to another teacher, the students will be distracted and perhaps whispering themselves. If the teacher stares off into space and looks bored and tired the students often have glazed looks on their faces as well. And if the teacher does not participate and takes the opportunity to “take a break” the students tend to walk through the motions of the activity rather than throwing themselves wholeheartedly into it.
Of course, there are exceptions – there are always those one or two students who are enthusiastic no matter what. And there is the factor of the presenter. Eventually I work hard enough to bring everyone to where they “should” be – focusing, enthusiastic, present and happy. However, depending on what state they are in when I start my job is either much harder or much easier.
Another example comes to light in my temperament counseling sessions. During a temperament counseling session the parent and I work together to determine which of the four temperaments their child is and how best to teach and parent that child based on their temperament. We also discuss any specific concerns or situations the parent may have with the child. What is interesting, however, is that often the concerns have as much to do with the parent’s temperament rather than the child’s.
A choleric parent may often express themselves in enthusiastic and dramatic ways. When this is reflected back at them from their child it often appears defiant and challenging. The sanguine parent may tend to do things spontaneously in the moment. When this is reflected back at them it may appear the child is doing tasks without thought or consideration. I remember, once, a parent sharing how she was so upset with her child once for putting sewing pins in her mouth. She asked her, “why on earth would you do such a thing?” The child innocently responded, “mama, when you sew you put the pins in your mouth.”
A melancholic parent who models a sense of order and routine may be frustrated with a child who insists on keeping their own routine (which may not match their own) and a phlegmatic parent who models a sense of steady motivation may wonder why their child does not show the initiative that they are expecting from a child.
In the area of discipline modeling is also important. One of my favorite examples is that of time-outs. Why do they work for some parents and not others? The reason is modeling. If, as a parent, you model time-outs yourself and take them yourself then the child will see these as something normal and useful and will not feel they are a punishment. Time-outs are a useful way for all people to stop and think about their actions. Parents, as well as children, should take time-outs. Rather than telling a child “You have a time-out!” as a punishment, time-outs can be modeled by the parent saying “I think I need a time-out to think before I talk to you.” and then later suggesting that the child may need one themselves. In this way we are teaching the child to learn how to balance their behavior and be patient and thoughtful rather than punishing them.
As parents we will get the best behavior, work ethic, manners and speech out of our children if we model these ourselves. I am constantly impressed at how effective modeling is as a tool of teaching, discipline and learning. I agree with Steiner when he concluded one of his lecture by saying, “But our Waldorf school, my dear friends, will depend on what you do within yourselves, and whether you really allow the things we have considered to become effective in your own souls.”
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Thank you for this super insight, Kristie. In my own Waldorf journey, understanding the importance of modeling was like a light going on for me. When I realized that I am teaching through my actions, it seemed like every little thing I did became important. The understanding gave me a reason to not crumple in a heap of misery (as is my instinctual reaction) when a glass of milk got spilled on the floor. Instead, I could model the right behavior to deal with this mishap… calmly and gently getting a cloth to wipe up the spill. In time, the later reaction has become part of how I react. Not always, of course, (I do sometimes still crumple in a heap of misery) but, just as often, I instinctively react in a ‘lighter’ way. So, not only has modeling taught my children a better way of dealing with mishaps, can you believe, it has also taught me the same thing!
Thank you, Kristie, for explaining that modeling continues, no matter how old your child is.
Here are the other great articles in the Discovering Waldorf Series.
Blessings and magic to you for sharing today, Kristie,