Most children go through a phase where their behavior makes us really frustrated. When this happens, the natural tendency is to react in anger or annoyance (and I've certainly done this plenty of times). That kind of reaction isn't generally that productive though, and depending on the child and their motivations, can even encourage them to continue the undesired behavior.
A big part of Montessori is observing the children and the classroom to see what is going well and what isn't, who is thriving and who needs a little extra love. In cases of "bad behavior," we take a moment to really sit and observe the child and think about what might be causing the behavior and what we might be able to do to stop it.
Here are six questions Montessori teachers ask when we want a behavior to change, and how to apply them to your own children and home.
1. “Are their basic needs met?”
Are they tired when they start biting friends? Are they hungry when they're rolling around on the floor? Do they need a reminder to use the toilet when they start to lose control of their body?
When young children feel uncomfortable, they are often unable to pinpoint what is wrong. They sometimes need us to help remind them to take care of their bodies. To determine if a child's behavior is linked to a physical need, we look for trends in when the behavior occurs. If it always happens mid-morning, they may need a snack. If they're losing control in the early afternoon, they may need to rest.
With your own child, think about the time the undesired behavior is happening. It can help to keep a little notebook or something in your phone's notes to track the behavior for a few days to see if you notice trends. Then experiment, offering a snack or a little rest or a bathroom break around that time.
2. “What are they really trying to do?”
Another thing we look for is the motivation behind a child's behavior. Are they throwing things for the sensory stimulation of watching and hearing them hit the floor? Are they trying to get some attention?
Maybe they're hitting their friend because they don't know how to problem solve verbally. Or, they're wanting to roughhouse, but don't know how to invite a friend to play.
Young children don't do things to be "bad," even if it seems like there can be no other reason. Brainstorm a few factors that might be motivating the behavior and try addressing each one. You might help them find an appropriate activity that gives similar sensory feedback, such as a rain stick instead of the sound of a box of beads hitting the floor. Or, talk them through how to respond verbally when someone takes their toy.
Simply acknowledging that the behavior has a motivation beyond annoying you can be super helpful for your peace of mind, even if you haven't found the reason yet.
3. “How can I change the layout of the room to address the behavior?”
We often say in Montessori, "You can't change the child, but you can change the environment."
One of a Montessori teacher's most important responsibilities is crafting a classroom environment that is beautiful, peaceful and conducive to concentration. This environment isn't a static thing—it must change to meet the needs of each child, and this is the same at home.
If we notice that children are often running full speed ahead through a certain part of the classroom, we might move a shelf so the space doesn't invite running. If we notice that a certain corner has become a hiding spot, we may rearrange things so that it's more visible.
At home, if your younger child is always getting into your oldest's art supplies, consider placing them on a higher shelf. If your child is always tracking mud through the house, place a little basket or shelf by the door for shoes.
4. “How can I prevent the behavior?”
It is so much easier to prevent a behavior from occurring entirely than to try to stop it once it's underway. If you really reflect on when a behavior is happening and what might be causing it, you can often prevent it.
If one child always hits another, you may need to be nearby when they're together for a while. If your child always has a meltdown when it's time to go home for a nap, you may need to try heading home a bit earlier in the morning.
It can take some trial and error, but preventing a behavior can not only make your whole day easier, but it also can prevent a child from falling into a behavioral pattern, which may go on for much longer than it needs to.
5. “Why is this bothering me?”
In some cases, like when a child is hurting others or safety is a concern, it is obvious why a behavior is upsetting us. In other instances, we may need to take a look at ourselves to figure out if the behavior is really a problem, or if it's triggering our emotions for personal reasons. It may be hard to step back and let a child figure out social situations on their own if we struggled socially.
Whining might be particularly annoying to us if we got in trouble for whining ourselves as a child. Nap time avoidance antics might frustrate us more if we are completely exhausted at that time of day.
If it's not blatantly obvious, try to think about why a behavior is so annoying to you. Even if you still want the behavior to stop, it can help you have a little more patience and empathy with your kids.
6. “How can I deepen my relationship with the child?”
More than any other question, this one is the key to helping a child change their behavior. At the end of the day, children don't listen to us because we yell loud enough or repeat something enough times—they listen to us when they feel close and connected, when they want to be with us and please us.
It can be easy to retreat when we feel like we really need a break from a behavior, but it's so much better to lean into the relationship and think about how to spend more time, or even just more quality time, with our children.
A child going through a rough patch with behavior usually needs us more than ever, even if it seems like they're trying to drive us away. Finding time for a one on one chat or a few more snuggles can help strengthen that bond that we both need so badly.