Montessori Moments

August 16, 2009

Following the Child: The case of the bowl of berries

Filed under: classroom,maria montessori,teaching — The Full Montessori @ 2:26 pm
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As Montessori guides, we are reminded time and again by Montessori’s books, our trainers, and mentors to “follow the child”.  In theory, this phrase requires the guide to observe the child’s behavior, in order to get clues about his developmental requirements.  Then, she can manipulate the prepared environment (give a presentation, make a new material, etc.) as a means of helping the child satisfy this need.  (Note: It is the child’s interaction with the environment, and not the adult’s ability to “teach” the material, which will ultimately allow internal growth to take place).

The theory sounds straightforward: observe, put the child in touch with the environment, step back.  Repeat.  

The practice, however, is more daunting… 

In the classroom, I work with a boy who’s currently two months shy of turning four.  He came to me exactly one year ago, a crying toddler not quite three.  His parents are Asian, and I assumed they spoke to him in their native tongue at home, so I was not surprised to find that the child could not communicate with me in English.  I began working with him as I would with any child who has had very limited exposure to English: I presented basic nomenclature, I spoke slowly in short but complete sentences, and I used a lot of body language to accompany my words.  

The child cried for majority of the first week.  When he wasn’t crying, he was either stacking materials that were not meant for stacking (like boxes or bottles), or running around and touching every material on the shelf.  While most new children (even the 2.5-year olds) very quickly grasp the concept of waiting to touch a material until it is presented to them, this child, let’s call him S., did not seem to understand or give importance to my repeated attempts at establishing the rule.

The most interesting part of his behavior was his almost pathological sense of order.  If his lunchbox was taken out of the car before he was, he would have a meltdown.  A minute change in routine, such as going to the bathroom before lunch instead of after lunch, would have him crying for hours.  Arriving late to school, while difficult to handle for most children, was downright agonizing for this little boy.  His behavior was more reminiscent of a toddler than a three-year old, and I could see marked toddler qualities in all other areas of his development.

Apart from being quite small for his age, one of the most prominent (and exhausting) behaviors was his inability and/or unwillingness to follow even the simplest rules, making it very difficult to have him in a Primary classroom.  He was still completely non-verbal several months into the school year, despite my efforts, and it was obvious to me that not only could he not speak English, but he could not understand it either. At one point, several months after his third birthday, the school was planning a field trip.  During a conference with his parents, I informed them that one of them would have to accompany us on the field trip to make sure that S. was able to follow the rules.  I told the parents that they would have to translate the rules into their language, and the father responded: “Well, he speaks as much English as he does our language.”

The blood left my face, my stomach did a backflip, and I realized that something needed to change in this child’s life.  I began working with him to develop his language skills in a way that I’ll describe in a later post; one year later the child understands most of the things I tell him, and is beginning to form simple phrases based on the interactions he’s had with me in the classroom.

Ours has been a difficult relationship, not aided by the fact that I had 22 other children to “follow”.  Many times, I would confuse this little boy’s “inner teacher” (still remarkably strong and evident, another indication of his toddler-like tendencies) with mischief.  Other times, the mischief was real, buoyed by his inability to express his feelings, control his temper, or find material in the Primary environment that would satisfy his toddler needs.

Towards the end of the school year, most of the children were now working independently and I had more time to step back and observe.  For months, S. had been entering the classroom every morning, heading straight to the children’s assigned shoe cubbies, and moving shoes around.  The children would come to me to complain, fed up by their classmate’s erratic behaviors, and I would march over to where he was, bark at him in frustration to fix the shoes, and walk away to put out another fire.  One day, at my wit’s end with this behavior and not knowing how to solve the problem, I grabbed a notebook and pen and sat down to observe.  S. came in, made a beeline for the shoe cubbies, and started moving the shoes around.  I bit my tongue to prevent myself from barking orders, and instead wrote as quickly and objectively as possible.  What happened next baffled me…

Having moved almost every pair of shoes, S. then took a pair and purposefully looked at each cubby.  I quickly realized that he was looking at the label taped to each cubby, which had each child’s name and a small picture of a particular animal (to make it easier for non-readers to identify their cubby).  When he found the cubby that corresponded to the pair of shoes he was holding, he would remove the shoes that were currently occupying the cubby, and would insert the correct pair.  He would then repeat the exercise with the shoes he was holding.  He did this over and over, with more than 12 pairs of shoes, and he ALWAYS put the shoes in the right cubby.  I held my breath as he put back the last pair, stood up with a contented half-smile on his cherubic face, and walked to where I was.  “Fix”, he said, pointing at the shoes.  A huge knot formed in my throat.  This child knew what he needed, could not find it in the materials, and was following his inner teacher.  Why did it take me so long to see this?

Fast forward four months… S. is now two months shy of turning four.  

On Monday we received our floral bouquet for the week, and the children quickly went about decorating the classroom.  The assorted bouquet had a handful of branches with small red berries.  A couple of times the children had found these berries on the floor and I had asked them to throw them in the trash.  One day, S. discovered the berries in the arrangement and began to pick one or two each time he passed by.  This action started to get on my nerves, mostly because the uppity adult that lives inside my head kept reminding me that the berries were NOT for picking but for making floral arrangements!  

As I was about to open my mouth to reprimand him for picking the berries, an image of the cubby experience flashed in my mind.  I quickly closed my mouth, stood up, picked up the heavy vase and gently invited him to a kitchen table.  I put the vase on the table and placed a bowl next to it.  As he sat in the chair, his eyes filled with curiosity, I squatted down, silently picked a berry using the pincer grip and dropped it gingerly into the bowl.  I repeated the procedure, looked at him, and invited him to continue.  Without a word, he turned to the berries and went to work.

spicI quietly and briskly herded all the children who had gathered to watch the bizarre presentation, and helped everyone find purposeful work.  As I gave a presentation across the room, I watched S. with bated breath out of the corner of my eye.  When the bowl had filled up with berries, he stood up and took it in his two hands.  I prayed that he wouldn’t walk over to a classmate and pour the bowl of berries onto his head, for this was the type of impulsive silliness that had gotten him in trouble in the past.  

However, S. simply walked to the trash can and emptied the bowl.  He then walked back to the table, sat down, and continued to pick.  This went on for at least 20 minutes.  When he was done, he carried the (very heavy) vase back to its original table, put his bowl away, and approached me.  I squatted down to meet him at eye level, and this normally impulsive and defiant little boy stretched out his arms and said: “hug”.

I wrapped him in my arms, overcome with emotion by his simple way of thanking me for following him.

In The Formation of Man, Dr. Montessori reminds us that “…the child constructs himself, that he has a teacher within himself and that this inner teacher also follows a programme and a technique of education, and that we adults by acknowledging this unknown teacher may enjoy the privilege and good fortune of becoming its assistants and faithful servants by helping it with our co-operation.”


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