When prospective parents come to observe our Montessori classroom, they often comment on how quiet and calm it is. They sometimes wonder whether their own child could be successful in such an environment. How are all of these children working independently, moving around the room carefully, and speaking softly?
The answer is purposeful work.
Montessori classrooms are designed to provide children with meaningful activities that align with their developmental needs. Just like grownups, children often reach a calm, highly focused state when they find a purpose toward which to direct their abundant energy.
In addition to giving them a sense of pride and confidence, helping children find purposeful work is a powerful way to redirect “misbehavior.”
Years ago when I first became an assistant in a Montessori classroom, we had a sweet little 3-year-old boy who had more energy than any child I’d ever seen. We were on the playground one day, and he kept getting cups of water (meant for drinking) and dumping them out—on people, in the sandbox and pretty much everywhere he could think of.
I tried, without success, to redirect his behavior by reminding him of the rules, trying to entice him to do something else, and standing between him and the water station to block his way. Nothing was working.
I was trying to fight against his impulse, and it was a losing battle. An experienced Montessori teacher came over and simply said, “I see you want to work with water. Let’s go find the watering can.”
She helped him get started on watering the plants, and he peacefully did so for the rest of playtime. I couldn’t believe how focused he was! I couldn’t believe how much energy I had spent futilely trying to thwart his efforts when she had so easily redirected them with purpose. Instead of telling him “no,” she gave him an outlet, a way to be successful.
His impulse wasn’t wrong. He needed to work with water. He just needed help finding a purposeful and appropriate way to fulfill that desire.
Dr. Montessori observed that children are happiest when they have purposeful work that they had a part in choosing.
Children, of course, need lots of time for open-ended play as well—play is their work. But when you see a child breaking the rules, try to look for the impulse behind it and help him find a way to be successful.
Is your toddler carrying around a step stool and knocking things over? Perhaps they’re looking for some heavy lifting. Try taking them out to the backyard and letting them move some stones to create a new flower bed border or carry buckets of water to fill up the kiddie pool.
Are they throwing sand out of the sandbox? Show them a purposeful way to use the sand. Demonstrate how to build a sandcastle or show them how to sift the sand to get rid of any rocks that have found a way in.
Are they trying to cut a page in a book? Give them work with scissors, perhaps trimming the grass outside. Or simply give them a basket of paper scraps they can cut to their heart’s content. They could save them for future collage work.
Are they throwing the laundry on the floor while you try to fold it? Maybe they want to help, to be part of the action. Show them how to organize the laundry into piles of pants, shirts, etc. Show them how to fold the washcloths and stack them neatly. Show them how to match socks. Give them a stack of laundry to carry into their room. Find a way for them to help that matches their ability.
Children have strong impulses and often can’t yet fight them—this is really a good thing. These are the same impulses that drive a baby to work hard to learn to crawl and walk and speak. This is how they build the skills they need.
Does this mean they get a free pass to behave however they please? No! They very much want and need our guidance. But it does mean we should approach their misbehavior with a different perspective. They’re not doing these things to us, they’re just struggling to find an appropriate way to explore the world.
Trust that your child knows better than anyone what they need to practice at that very moment. Take a minute and think about how you can suggest an alternative way instead of saying “no” or “stop.”
This takes practice, but becomes natural with time, and is so worth the effort. Children are never so calm and focused as when you find the right match of work to meet their needs.
It would be so much easier if children could just tell us in words exactly what they need, but they can’t. Instead, they tell us with their actions and with their behavior. We just have to watch, to interpret, and to learn their language. We won’t always get it right, but it will be so much more successful than just saying “no.”