Head of School

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth

-Kahlil Gibran-


As our family vacationed this summer, my wife and I reflected on the truth that we'd been warned of by older folks: yes indeed, our fifteen- and twelve-year-old sons are growing up so fast. As we imagined the horizon, the world our sons will enter as adults, we asked again, what do we want, really, for our children?


I thought about the people I admire, from my cousin Francine, to Gandhi; from our centenarian neighbor Mr. Skillings, to Nicolaus Copernicus; from my dad, to Sal Kahn. And my guess is that like many others, we realized we want our children to become adults who lead ethical, passionate, and meaningful lives; that they contribute more than they take; that they are independent, financially and otherwise; that they are surrounded by people they love and who love them back; and that when they, in their old, old age, look back at their lives, they feel richly satisfied.


To reach these ideal places I know our children must develop self-differentiation, a quality that those whom I admire live out in spades.


Those who lead extraordinary and beneficial lives see beyond the dominant views of the time and imagine possibilities not considered doable or reasonable. Daring to suggest a heliocentric vision of the universe, Copernicus questioned Ptolemy's accepted and absolute "truth" that the sun revolved around the earth. Susan B. Anthony valiantly pursued an ideal of gender equality that most in her day could not even conceive. In our lifetime, someone like Sal Kahn was able to imagine schools beyond brick and mortar classrooms, and his boldness to harness the technology of the day to try a different approach is now benefitting millions of students around the world. These are examples of individuals who are emblematic of self-differentiation.


People who become overly enmeshed with others or with prevailing cultural viewpoints, and cannot separate their own thoughts and feelings from family members, friends, colleagues, classmates, teachers, organizations, political parties, or others, experience greater emotional and psychological distress. This is because they act based on other's thoughts and feelings, and not their own; because they get trapped in "group think," they also struggle to innovate or lead.


Thus, self-differentiation, the abilty to distinguish one's thoughts and feelings from others, is crucial. Research published in many journals (e.g., Journal of Counseling Psychology, Addictive Behaviors Journal, Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal) shows the following about those with higher degrees of self-differentiation: they are less anxious and less emotionally reactive, they are better able to self-regulate their emotions, they think clearly under stress, and they are more capable of remaining in connection with significant others while maintaining a clearly defined sense of self both in and out of relationships; they also have lower levels of relationship violence and substance abuse.


Dr. Montessori understood that children need to self-differentiate, that they need to become independent individuals capable of autonomous decision-making. She also understood though, that as social beings, they, like all of us, have a strong need for belonging and community. As she wrote in Education and Peace, "Two things are necessary: the development of individuality and the participation of the individual in a truly social life." 


Thus know, parents, that the gift you are giving your children and teens through Marin Montessori, is a school and community that meet their needs to self-differentiate and experience close community. Our vibrancy as a community is obvious—just step onto our campuses—as is the emphasis on collaboration and group processing and decision-making. What about self-differentiation? How do we do it?


Concentration & Opportunities: As researchers Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde found and shared in the American Journal of Education (May, 2005),  Montessori students experience stronger levels of undivided attention and energetic focus (also known as flow states) during academic work than students in conventional schools. Concentration is foundational to the development of self-differentiation, because only through concentration can children become mindful of their thoughts and feelings, and then develop the invaluable capacity to self-regulate their emotions. Further, because students are offered greater degrees of choice and time and support to dive deeply into areas of their personal interests and passions, they discover more and more about themselves as learners, thinkers, and creators. Finally, because the adult Montessori teacher trusts her students to pursue their intellectual and creative interests, students learn to trust themselves. It is no wonder that so many icons of creativity and innovation hail from Montessori schools (for examples, see the Wall Street Journal article, "The Montessori Mafia").


Self-Differentiated Teachers:  If your model of the ideal teacher is John Keating, the Robin William's character, the jump-onto-desks-shouting-poetry teacher, from the film "Dead Poet's Society," (confession: he was my inspiration when I got into teaching high school students twenty years ago), you may be confused observing the teachers in our toddler and primary classrooms. All Montessori teachers operate from a place of deep respect for children's and adolescents' need to construct themselves through their work; it's why we call primary classrooms "children's houses." Montessori teachers are warm and clear with students. They know though that when harnessed, a child's own intrinsic curiosity and desire to learn through exploring his or her environment is the best motivator. So, unlike many of us when we interact with children, especially young children, our toddler and primary teachers tend not to entertain and engage students through exaggerated behaviors and emotional displays, pretend or otherwise. (The approach does shift somewhat in elementary and junior high, when teachers use storytelling and the modeling of their own excitement and curiosity to inspire older students to engage and yearn for deeper understanding.) This is subtle but so important: Marin Montessori teachers seek to not overly impose their thoughts and feelings onto their students, but rather, they strive to give students the skills, knowledge, inspiration, and permission to construct themselves and realize their potentials and beliefs as individuals. In a phrase, to self-differentiate.


The maturity and self-differentiation of the teacher then becomes vital, too: as researchers like Elizabeth Skowron and Michael Kerr, M.D. have shown in separate studies, when children feel responsible for taking care of the emotions of adult caretakers, like teachers or parents, they become anxiously and outwardly focused, monitoring and seeking to soothe the adult's emotions as opposed to paying attention to and regulating their own. Montessori teachers seek to be the true, self-differentiated adult models in the room, to not impose their emotions on their students, or ask students to take care of the teacher's feelings: the goal is for the child to self-differentiate, to trust and act from his or her thoughts and feelings, and not be nervously focused on pleasing the adult; this is also why Montessori teachers don't use punishment or reward systems (like gold stars, Student of the Month placards, etc.), so that students don't lose their intrinsic drive and become too outwardly orientated in seeking validation.


Individuals Seen & Valued: In my first year at Marin Montessori, I observed two children sitting side-by-side in their classroom. One child proceeded to draw Central and South America and label, by memory, each country. The other child focused on matching beads to simple math equations and writing the answers out on a piece of paper. Though in my own mind I labeled the first child's work as "advanced" and the other's "remedial," the children themselves seemed to possess no such narratives. They were each absorbed in their own work, often with subtle smiles. Neither seemed either arrogant or insecure: the children were deeply engaged in the mental work that was at their edge of challenge, and enjoying the pleasure of working side-by-side.


Because we honor the unique qualities of each child, because each child feels seen and valued for his or her specific gifts, they see and value each other's gifts; they do not feel threatened by them or diminished. This in turn gives each child the confidence to believe in him or herself, to trust his or her thoughts and feelings. In short, to be empathetic and supportive community members, while being self-differentiated enough to live from their own truths too. Anyone who has attended the Marin Montessori Junior High graduation ceremony and heard our graduates give their individual speeches (or dances or songs), knows that even as young adolescents, our students are already grounded in a confident sense of themselves.


The House of Tomorrow

Last week I ran into a MMS dad at a local coffee shop, and he shared with me that he and his wife received a message from their elementary son's sleep-away summer camp counselor. The counselor reached out because he was so struck by their son's remarkable maturity and courage in standing up to a child who was bullying another child. In today's increasingly polarized world, where acrimonious sound bites fill the air far too often, we need to raise children who can see beyond the fray and discern thoughtfully what is true and what is right and then live that, without bowing to manipulation, pressure, or group think.


Kahlil Gibran wrote that our children "...dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…" Now that our own sons are each in the "third plane" of development—adolescence—the truth of Gibran's words rings even clearer: my wife and I still have influence over our sons and a clear responsibility as their parents to continue to provide well-defined boundaries and support. They will be their own people, though, and sooner than we expect, they will have their own lives. While this may be difficult for our hearts to truly accept, their differentiation is actually a very good thing.


At MMS today we eagerly await your and your children's return to our campus. Thank you for taking a big and thoughtful view of education, for recognizing the value of the gift of the Marin Montessori education you are providing for your children. Thank you for aspiring for children that they become their own strong, vibrant people. It is our joy and honor to do this work, and we can't wait to begin again soon.


All my best,



5200 Paradise Drive Corte Madera, CA 94925 | 415-924-5388


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