Sometimes young children can challenge our patience—at home and at school. It is tempting to condemn and punish the behavior. It’s also short-sighted. Far more important is to uncover the cause of the behavior and address it. We’ve grappled with the issue this school year and a recent forwarded post on Facebook provided me the spark to address it. Thanks to former MSC teacher Mariyam Petiwala for bringing to my attention an article in the on-line “Age of Montessori” that asks readers if they were aware that “According to U.S. Department of Education, 6,740 children who were enrolled in district-provided pre-K in 2013-14 received one or more out-of-school suspensions. And that’s just public pre-K. Still more children were likely suspended from the nation’s many privately-run preschools and day cares” (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence).
We are indeed aware of it, and sometimes parents, angry that their child seems to be in conflict with a classmate, asks me to “do something,” by which they really mean “expel,” even when they can’t say it out loud. I know this to be true, because responsible corrective action takes time, and the parent standing over my desk wants quick solutions. This is both understandable and shortsighted, and it falls far short of the capacity of an authentic Montessori environment to address the needs of children.
In traditional educational environments teachers have few alternatives but to suspend or expel children, regardless of age. Even with adequate training, caregivers are constrained by a structure that places a premium on obedience from the authority figure in a dominator-model institution. Anyone who has ever dealt with a number of three-year-old children knows that when they break loose, they couldn’t care less about consequences. Suspension or expulsion are the only possible reactions afforded traditional teachers or administrators confronted with flagrant disregard of authority, and the child doesn’t care. But the parent does, so we’re punishing the adult for a behavior caused by an environment over which they have no control.
As we could predict, Dr. Montessori points us in the right direction:
They [misbehaviors] are merely reactions to an environment that has become inadequate. But we do not notice that. And since it is understood that the child must do what adults tell him, even though the environment no longer suits his needs, if he does not comply we say that he is “naughty” and correct him. Most of the time we are unaware of the cause of his “naughtiness.” Yet the child proves by his conduct, what we have just said.
The Montessori environment by its very nature minimizes the struggle because, to a certain extent, the children shape the environment to meet their individual needs. Yes, even at the age of three. And even we have challenges to our patience, and occasionally a child reacts irrationally to a situation. Rather than assume the child is “naughty” we look for causation—physical, emotional, and environmental. Lack of sleep, un-adjusted medications, turmoil at home, poor nutrition, undiagnosed vision or hearing loss, and many other root causes could be affecting a child’s behavior. Oftentimes pediatricians miss the signals because they see the child in special circumstances. Grandparents or babysitters who spend after school time with children often miss signals as well because of the short intervals they have with the child and because that time is almost entirely transitional—that is, insufficient time for unwanted behaviors to develop fully.
The Montessori school can be the common thread. Children spend a minimum of 18 and ½ hours a week at school; most spend much more—up to 45 hours—and the uniform environment with few limitations allows us to see the children as they are. We model the behaviors we wish they to imitate—patience, calm, caring for others, assuming responsibility. We guide the child to react appropriately. We have the time to do these things in class because the other children are working purposefully and need only intermittent assistance.
When we have a child under stress or not at peace with himself, we develop an observation report that allows parents and pediatricians a window into the behaviors in the classroom, and the responses we give to the child. This is the first step to getting at the root of the problem and at synchronizing a seamless response. The young child does not need to be expelled; that only pushes the problem—eventually perhaps to the Juvenile Justice System—when he really needs to be nurtured according to the specific circumstances that brought him to his crisis.