Thursday, June 25, 2015

Montessori Theory Part I - Normalization


The Normal Child
Within each human is an innate push to move forward, to learn more, to learn how, to create oneself.  On this path to self-creation each person meets with opposition and obstruction.  Continued obstruction causes deviations in a man’s behaviors.  An infant may feel the pull to learn to turn over onto his stomach and will work and try until he has been successful.  Having done that he will work to perfect his new skill until he can turn over with ease.  What if instead of success on the other end of his strivings there was something that impeded his ability to turn over?   He would become agitated and upset.  He may be very likely to cry and make a fuss because he needs to do this work, he is driven to learn this skill and then another.  What would happen to the child if he was stopped at every struggle to turn over?  His behavior would become changed or deviated until his impediment was removed.  Just as damaging to the child would be the parent turning him over every time he began his struggle for greater independence.  As we see, the infant becomes disturbed if his pursuit of learning is obstructed, the young child’s behaviors become deviated when he cannot follow that inner guide in accomplishing the task of creating the adult he will become. 
When a child meets with an obstacle to his learning we then see unwanted, or “naughty” behaviors exposed.  Many of the behaviors that are commonly attributed to childhood such as rowdiness, bossiness, naughtiness, defiance, carelessness, timidity, laziness, and stubbornness are actually an outward manifestation of unmet developmental needs in children.  These behaviors, contrary to belief, are actually not attributes displayed by a child who is allowed to follow his voice unimpeded.  The world is still largely unacquainted with the true normal behavior of children because the world, at large, does not understand the innate needs that children have and, even more importantly, how to meet them.  At every turn the child is hampered in his journey to independence and growth by well meaning adults.  The child must grow, and he must do this himself.  No one can do it for him no matter how we might wish to.  
In fact, ‘every useless aid arrests development.”  What the child needs is to work.  Work is 
for him a necessary form of life, a vital instinct without which his personality cannot 
organize itself.  So essential is it for the child to have the opportunity and means for this 
creative “work” that if it is denied him his deviated energies will result in all sorts of 
The publishers of educational and parenting materials have no shortage of, and make a great deal of money on books in the subject of the management of children, the correction and alteration of undesirable behaviors, and using the “good” child as a model of behavior in the classroom.  In her work with the slum children of Rome, however, Maria Montessori discovered something new; something that is still new.  She began without any preconceived idea about what education ought to be.  She approached her charges with an eye toward scientific exploration and observation.  She was most astounded by what the children divulged.
It was thus, through experience, that Montessori discovered - one might say 
stumbled upon- the characteristics of the normal child.  She was not looking for them; she 
was not expecting them; she was not even thinking about them.  It was a genuine and 
unforeseen revelation. . . These normalized children - “the new children” as they were often 
called - have appeared again and again in almost every country in the world for a whole 
generation.  Race, color, climate, religion, civilization, all these made no difference.  
Everywhere, as soon as hindrances to development were removed, the same characteristics 
appeared as if by magic. 2

What then are the characteristics of the normalized child?
  • Love of order
  • Love of work
  • Profound spontaneous concentration
  • Attachment to reality
  • Love of silence and of working alone
  • Power to act from real choice and not from curiosity
  • Obedience
  • Independence and initiative
  • Spontaneous self-discipline
  • Joy 3
In Maria Montessori’s words, “The children of our schools revealed that the real aim of all children was constancy at work, and this had never been seen before.  Neither had spontaneity in the choice of work, without the guide of a teacher, ever been seen before.  The following of some inner guide, occupied themselves in work (different for each) that gave them calm serenity and joy, and then something else appeared that had never yet appeared in a group of children: a spontaneous discipline.  This struck people even more than the explosion into writing.  This discipline in freedom seemed to solve a problem which had been insolvable.  The solution was: to obtain discipline, give freedom.  These children going about seeking for work in freedom, each concentrated in a different type of work, yet as a whole group presented the appearance of perfect discipline.”4  
This idea that to obtain discipline, give freedom is even more counter intuitive in our society today than in her time. Within the traditional education system it is common practice to believe that a disruptive child needs an intervention.  If a little intervention is good, then a lot must be better.  When a class is struggling they must need more assessment from which to draw data.  If a little data is good, a lot must be better.  People in our society sometimes make horrible choices, therefore they must need policing.  If a little policing is good, then a lot must be better.  When a group of people becomes unruly they must be forced into obedience.  If a little force is good, then a lot must be better.   One might even consider that, from this perspective, we first make thieves and then punish them.  From this camp of thought, how could greater discipline possibly be achieved through greater freedom?  Contrary to this deeply rooted misconception, year after year in Montessori classrooms all over the world this guided freedom unveils the true nature of children and their capacity for internal discipline.

Laws or Principles of Childhood
Before the age of three a child is in a state of unconscious preparation for later years.  He begins, as it were, a blank slate onto which all stimuli and experience is written.  His mind is absorbent and he constructs himself bit by bit, little by little.  By the time the child has reached three years of age the unconscious work is fixed and the child steps into a new frontier; the development of his mental functions.  He is ready to take what is unconscious and make it conscious.   Once a child emerges into this conscious arena he is ready to follow her innate pattern for development.  If two conditions exist, an environment that appropriately supports his and the freedom within that environment to follow the inwardly motivational pull of development, we will be witness to the laws and principles of childhood.  It is as if he is the theatre and will show to us:
  • The Law of Work
  • The Law of Independence
  • The Power of Attention
  • The Principle of Will

The Law of Work
In the fall the leaves pile up under the towering maple tree in our front yard.  I will want to find the easiest and most economical way possible to do the job of raking up and removing the leaves.  I may spend extra money on a fancy rake or even perhaps a leaf vacuum that will help this tedious chore be finished more quickly.  I look to the time when my chore is completed and what that will look and feel like.  For me this is a job to get done with, and I am so grateful when the last leaf has fallen and my raking is finished for the year.  Conversely, how often do we see the children of a house rake up the leaves into a pile just to scatter them out again and begin the process all over.  The adult and the child have vastly different aims in work.  For the child the interest is not getting to the end of the process; the process IS the aim.  Work, and it’s timing, are a different thing to children.  Repetition of work is a seminal observation of the normalized child.  Because her work is to develop her skill, and to understand what is before her she takes it up again and again.
“ …as we have seen, the child does not stop when the external end has been reached; he very often goes back to the beginning and repeats it, many times.  But he does stop in the end - and that quite suddenly.  Why does he stop just at that moment?  It is because, unconsciously, he feels within himself that he has obtained what he needs from that particular activity - for the time being at any rate.  While he has been repeating the exercises, there has been going on inside him a process of psychic maturation, which has now come full circle.”5
Because our aims in work are so opposed to the child’s, we miss the needs of the child and consistently project our own views of the value of work onto the child.  This presents no small opposition to his growth.  The adult may see the repetition of work as unnecessary, because it might be for us, or become agitated with the amount of time it takes her to be ready to move from one activity to another.  
If adults persist in interrupting the child during this cycle of repetition, his self-confidence and ability to persevere in a task are severely jeopardized.  Constant interruption during this time is so upsetting to the child that Montessori felt it caused him to live in a state “similar to a permanent nightmare.”6
The world is tailored to the adult for his convenience.  Everywhere in the child’s life the adult plans usefulness for himself.  This convenience is planned into even the cups and dishes that will not shatter to save money, time and necessary supervision without considering the impact on the child because she is unaware of what he may actually need. 
Because of the social nature of his life, which is neither adaptive nor productive to adult society, the contemporary child is largely removed from it.  He is exiled in a school where too often his capacity for constructive growth and self-realization is repressed.  This problem in contemporary civilization increases as the adult’s role becomes even more complex.  In primitive societies, where work was simple and could be carried out at a relaxed pace, the adult could coexist with children in his working environment with less friction. The complexity of modern life is making it increasingly difficult for the adult to suspend his won activities “to follow the child”. 
There are great factories built for adults to do their work.  Even the home seamstress or weekend carpenter understands the need for a place to complete their projects, and of the importance of access to all the necessary items for their occupation.  It is so frustrating for the adult to try completing something without the right tools for the job that they plan and save to create the “perfect” workspace for themselves.   The child as well needs his own places in which to do his incredible work, but he is not just building a car or a quilt, the child is building himself.  
        In order that the child may be able to carry out his great work properly, he needs something more vital and dynamic than a workshop.  We must accustom our minds to the notion of an environment which will be more akin to that living environment which surrounds the embryo in the maternal womb. 7
Therefore children needs a “living environment” that is prepared to answer the cry of their heart.  When adults understand and prepare themselves and an environment that is conducive to the very sensitive periods of learning in children, they respond by revealing themselves.
Maria herself had this to say about the role of the prepared environment in this way:
“All children, if placed in a new environment allowing ordered activity, show this new appearance, so there is one psychic type common to all humanity, which hitherto had remained hidden under the cloak of other apparent characteristics.  This change that came over our children and made them appear as of one uniform type, did not come gradually, but suddenly.  It always came when the child was concentrated in one activity; so that if there was a lazy child, we did not urge him to work.  We merely facilitated contact with the means of development in the prepared environment.  As soon as he found work all his trouble disappeared at once.8
It is imperative to understand the importance of the correctly prepared environment and sufficiently trained and practiced adults in achieving normalization.  Children need the right conditions in order to do their work, to follow this law.  If their conditions are not right we see all kinds of problematic behaviors surface…
          but once the conditions for building the psyche are there, the normal type appears.  We therefore called the type that developed in our schools “normalized” children and the others deviated children.9
During the 2013-2014 school year there was a girl in class 11 named “Lila”.  She was nearing five years old at the beginning of the year and had begun attending a Montessori school just a couple of months before I transitioned into directing that class.  She exhibited several deviated behaviors when we began classes together.  She consistently sought for inappropriate attention.  She would speak out of turn and over other children, interrupt children who were talking to me and demand that it was her turn, and deliberately make a lot of commotion at the line and outside in an attempt for one of the adults to pay attention to her.  When she didn’t succeed in getting the thing she was after, she would cry very loudly and flop on the floor.  Rather than turning our attention to her problematic behavior, my co-teacher and I strategized that we would ignore anything that didn’t disturb other’s work, hurt herself, the items in the classroom, or others.  We also strategized what works might interest her and made plans to present them.  She was interested in the practical life exercises in the classroom, and even more interested in works using water.  I gave her a few preliminary exercises to make sure she could be successful with more advanced ones, and then I presented her with the lesson of scrubbing shelves.  Being allowed to have a tub of water at her disposal was an experience that made her giddy.  She loved the soap, the bubbles, the dirty water, the drying of the shelves and seeing them gleam when they were dry.  She was completely engaged at this occupation the remainder of the work cycle on day one and returned to this same work for the three days following.  She never once brought us over to look at her work; she almost didn't even notice that anyone else was there except when they got in her way.  Each day when she would clean up she had the most satisfied and calm demeanor about her.  From this moment on she was a changed person.  It was as if something inside of herself opened up and light poured in.  She came to class eagerly looking every day for work that called to her and would get busy alone and eventually with friends.   She remembered practically everything we ever said or sang, and drank in the entire experience.  She loved demonstrating the grace and courtesy lessons, and took delight in her abilities to wait in absolute silence at the circle, especially in being called to leave the circle very last because she was so adept at waiting.  It was no longer about what someone else saw her doing, but what she knew she could do herself.  She was no longer possessive about our attentions and looked for opportunities to be the teacher and helper to the younger children.  There was a little three year old with some sensory issues that she took under her wing.  Line time was particularly difficult for this child.  Lillian once saw me rub her back in a circular motion and took it upon herself to sit by this girl the remainder of the year and rub her back at the line so she could be successful.  This tale of change is just one of many that has been repeated again and again in the classrooms I have directed, not to mention my own home.

The Law of Independence
Help me do it by myself is the watch cry of the child.  He longs to be in the world and to work in it as the adults in his life.  He is driven to do things on his own, and in his own time.  It is the necessary application of our stewardship to apply the law of work in such a way that the child feels that he has been his own teacher, in truth that he becomes his own teacher.  To set up his environment with success in mind, to prepare work that will isolate the difficulties he meets in his life in such a way that he can be successful in mastering it.  To step away from the child and allow him his own work and development within bounds that help him progress from one step to the next.  It is our aim for the parent to ask the child if we have taught him a new skill and for the child to answer that he did it himself.  We are aware that “Except when he has regressive tendencies, the child’s nature is to aim directly and energetically at functional independence.  Development takes the form of a drive toward an ever greater independence. 10

The Power of Attention
At a certain stage of his development, the child begins to direct her attention to particular objects in his environment with an intensity and interest not seen before. 11  It becomes the responsibility of the adults to make the environment attractive and irresistible to the child in order that she may pick up whatever may direct her attention and use it.  The child becomes concentrated in her work and will not leave it even when disturbed.
When a normal child is concentrated on his work, he refuses to be interrupted by those who try to help him.  He wants to be left alone with his problem.  The result is a spontaneous activity that is of far greater value that simply noticing differences in things, which is, of course, of great value in itself.  The material thus proves to be a key which puts a child in communication with himself and opens up his soul so that he can act and express himself.12
“Sara” was a first year student in class 11.  At the beginning of the year she was fearful and intensely quiet, but soon lost these attributes and worked well among her peers.  Every day she would begin with the broad stairs and pink tower as long as no one else got there first.  She was careful and attentive.  On a day in February I made the particular observation that Sara was performing this work with such concentration.  She looked around the room intently for the right place to put her rug, and began taking each cube and prism to her rug.  The classroom had a cement floor with seams.  She had set her rug so that she could take a trip to and from her rug on the seams in retrieving her work, and placed each foot carefully in front of the other.  She walked so slowly and patiently.  She would stop and wait if anyone went in her path.  We noticed this quickly and worked to shift a rug that was in her path as soon as that child was finished, and helped other children set up in another spot of the room so she could keep up her work uninterrupted. Once she had gotten them to the rug she made the tower and the stair only once, and proceeded in the same fashion to return them to the shelf.  Her work that day was the trip back and forth to the rug.  She began this work at approximately 9:15 and did not end until roughly 11:20.
The power of attention is that once a child has developed this skill and is attuned to the things that draw his attentions, he can then move from being acted upon to acting.  “He has more experience and builds up an internal knowledge of the known, which now excites expectation and interest in the novel unknown.” 13  His appetite has been wetted for experiences and the knowledge that work and learning imparts to him in his quest to create himself.

The Principle of Will
Once a child has established this ability for prolonged attention and concentration he reveals within himself a principle of will.  This will continues to develop through further as he works harmoniously in an environment that supports him.  An inner formation of the will is gradually developed through this adaptation to the limits of a chosen task. 14  He must make decisions and act, and these in turn develop will.  Because traditional schooling severely limits the choices, decisions, and actions of a child, Montessori felt it “not only denies the child every opportunity for using his will but directly obstructs and inhibits expression.”15  The observations garnered in her work with the children of the Casa de Bambini have been vetted by generations of Montessori children.  She has detailed three stages of the development of will.  The first stage begins with the repetition of activities.  When a work draws deep concentration and attention he will repeat such work again and again and demonstrates obvious satisfaction in said repetition.  This “achievement, however trivial to the adult, gives a sense of power and independence to the child.”16  The child has achieved an independence in this work.  We could say the first step of the will is independence through repetition.  Whereupon succeeding in this, the child progresses to the second stage of the development of his will.  This second stage is marked with an independent and spontaneous choice of self-discipline.  The child makes conspicuous choices to exert his efforts in the discipline of his own body in its relationship to his environment.  He develops self-knowledge and self-possession.  At the onset of this stage of development we may see a child exerting great effort to walk around a rug and not on it, to use “quiet” water, to shut the door with no sounds at all, to walk without so much as a shuffling sound during the quiet game, to walk the line with ever increasing precision, or to sit in an absolute stillness during the Silence.
“Anton” is five years old and has been in class 10 for most of the 2014-15 school year.  During the first weeks of the summer schedule we have had daily silence.  During worktime he has shown an increased concentration and self-awareness which has transferred into our line-time.  For him the silence has nothing to do with me.  His focus is increasingly inward and he has on several occasions become unaware that others are leaving the circle to go outside.  His travail is for himself alone and it is an inward work.  I spoke to his father about Antons’s development in concentration and stillness.  He asked if there was some kind of prize for the child who sits in silence the longest.  He had a difficult time understanding that his son would do this by choice since there was nothing for him to gain for this work except inside himself.  He wondered aloud why he was behaving so unlike himself.
Out of self-knowledge and self-possession springs the third stage of the developed will, the power to obey.  Obedience is not the same as the “discipline” so often described in parenting and educator help-books.  Obedience is the conscious choice controlled by a child herself to work in cooperation with her environment and world.
Will and obedience then go hand in hand, inasmuch as the will is a prior foundation in the order of development and obedience is a later stage resting on this foundation…Indeed if the human should did not possess this quality, if men had never acquired, by some form of evolutionary process, this capacity for obedience, social life would be impossible. 17
This is the pinnacle of normalization that we as Montessori educators look to.  This is the bar that is set for us and by which we measure the effectiveness of our classroom environments.  Are we participating in the development of a whole child?  A child who is in possession of all his faculties, who is awake in looking to learn, who displays self-awareness and knowledge, and who has developed his will of obedience.

In Summary
The revelation of “new child” is the work of the guide.  This is not a work we can take off the shelf and manipulate.  Our work is the constant observation, experimentation and careful managing of the prepared environment.  We must become attuned and experienced in the cues the children give about current needs so that we may alter that environment to meet them.  We must remove her pride from ourselves since humility is necessary to keep our eyes open to the workings of the classroom.  We must remove what distracts, discard what does not entice (even though we may have spent time creating it) and become the practiced observer of the children’s space.  We must teach ourselves; must choose to change ourselves and value the ways and workings of the child.  In the end we do not need greater interventions, but greater independence, greater understanding and greater preparation.
Each time a child walks the path to becoming new I am rewarded for every effort.  Each time the child discovers themselves through concentrated work, and I become invisible, that is when I get a feeling under my skin that cannot be described.  When the child awakens his new self and exalts in independence my heart flutters.  This is the work I love.


1 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  E. M. Standing (1998) New York: Plume p.148
2 Ibid p.174
3 Ibid pp.175 - 178
4 The Absorbent Mind  Maria Montessori (1949), Adyar, Madras, India: The Theosophical Publishing House p.289
5 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  p.150
6 Montessori: A Modern Approach  Paula Polk Lilllard (1972) p.41
7 Montessori: A Modern Approach  p.38
8 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work  p.155
9 The Absorbent Mind p.290
10 Ibid p.296
11 The Secret of Childhood Maria Montessori (1966) New York, Ballentine p.82
12 The Discovery of the Child Maria Montessori (1967) New York, Ballentine pp.178-179
13 Montessori: A Modern Approach p.40
14 Ibid p.40
15 Ibid p.40
15 Ibid p.41
15 Ibid p.42


  1. A helpful reminder, thank you!

  2. Thank you for this! We have just begun our Montessori preschool homeschooling and I have prepared so much the last few months that I fear my rather rambunctious 3 year old son will not appreciate. We did just a few works today and I was impressed at his willingness to watch and learn and then do. He spent about 30 minutes on two works and about 10 on a third after we had finished for the day. He has become increasingly "badly" behaved over the past several months. Now I understand that it's because I wasn't presenting the right stimuli for him to learn from. I've really been looking forward to starting his schooling but wanted to wait until the normal start of the school year to keep things consistent for him, if he ever goes to public school. Anyway, this was a great reminder of why I chose the Montessori method and have been preparing for this for so many months! Thank you for all you do to make this Montessori journey so much easier for moms like me!

  3. Dear Cathie,

    I hope all is well with your love ones. I follow your blog and have enjoyed all the free resources you provide. I want to thank you for your kind, sharing heart. I have one question; I wanted to download a pink series work for vowel substitution and while I can download the pink word slips, I cannot not seem to find the vowel substitution chart/mat that goes with it. Is it there and I am just not seeing it?

    On another note, my heart and prayers are with you as you go through the experience of taking care of your love ones during a difficult time. Thank you for all you do.


  4. Cathie, I have just discovered your site and wanted to let you know how grateful I am for your generosity in sharing these beautiful materials with all of us. I am a public school teacher (1st grade) and have a deep interest in Montessori education from my college days when I worked as an assistant teacher in a Montessori school. Your lovely cards and booklets are just exactly what I was looking for! They are nicer than any I have seen for purchase and I am thrilled to be able to print them and use them with my class! Many thanks and may you be blessed in return!