Every Adult in the Environment:
A Unifying Approach to Safety
by Tim Duax Ph.D.

Maria Montessori offered a clear path for adults to assist children in gaining freedom and discipline within the classroom and beyond. And today, Montessori training institutes continue to offer instructional methodology to impart in adults the “philosophy and praxis” necessary to carry on the Montessori mission.

During training, adults are given opportunities for practice, follow a consistent approach, and have the motivation to achieve. These three concepts: practice, consistency, and motivation are known to be necessary for the brain to learn. In a similar manner, trained Montessori adults allow children an abundance of opportunity to practice, follow an elegantly consistent approach to instruction using Montessori materials, and support the basic principle of the child’s self-determination necessary to ignite the child’s motivation.

How wonderful when this approach is carried out by every adult and in every environment the child encounters in a school day. In a Montessori school, a common approach by adults is core for the child’s development of independence. However, the child has many additional experiences upon entering school, in halls and offices, during lunch, during outdoor physical activities, leaving the school, etc., and often with several guiding adults. Unfortunately, the impact on the child can be negative. In many exchanges between adult and child, the child may learn to ignore adults, fear adults, argue with adults, or become dependent upon adults.

In my experience all adults in the child’s school environment need to be provided with guidance in interactions with children. This is specific training for all school personnel encountering children, or, as perhaps stated in common school language: all adults need guidance in the role of adults in school-wide discipline. Adults who do not have Montessori training often have time constraints. They often function without the Montessori teacher’s advantage of blocks of flexible time periods, the tools of grace and courtesy presentations, and, in the elementary, group discussions/meetings with children.

I believe guidance for adults can reinforce the Montessori approach in the classroom and provide a more fundamentally safe environment for the child: one in which the child does not fear “being yelled at and scolded,” does not become angry at feeling powerless in a situation, does not become dependent on an adult for direction, nor seek adult attention. Failure on the adult’s part may lead to inadvertent reinforcement of exactly the behaviors that are unsuitable for Montessori, or, in fact, any school environment, and lead to the child being typed or prejudged by the adult.   

I have found that an approach built on short-term intervention practices used in behavioral psychology is effective. In this approach each adult is asked to master a defined intervention technique so that the technique is carried out as second nature and flows quickly. Note that changing our own adult behavior can be difficult, so we need opportunities to role-play example situations, self-critique interactions, discuss the rationale for each step in the process, and to discuss refinements for given environments while learning this technique.  

The goal is to address a child’s specific behavior in a quick, consistent interaction that leads to reinforcing positive behaviors and extinguishing negative behaviors. The adult stays respectful, apprises the child of missing information, guides the child with an unemotional interaction and demonstration, and ends with an opportunity for the child to try the actions/words for one’s self. These brief interactions are intended to be short, yet lead to long lasting results. Intentionally, interaction time should be in seconds, rather than minutes.

The following seven steps outline the approach:

  1. Stay observant: Watch the children for any situation that needs adult intervention.  Montessori was a patient observer and researcher of children while knowing that occasionally there was a need for a “clarion call.” It is always easier to redirect children at the first indication of a problem. Key indicator: Is there clear danger for the child or others?  Clear abuse of the environment?  Does the child need information?

  2. Be active: Approach the child; be on the child’s level; make eye contact. Key indicator: Adult should be able to use a quiet, calm voice. The adult actively stays emotionally calm and uses self-awareness.  The adult adjusts to age appropriateness for the primary or elementary child.

  3. Be objective: Make sure that the child knows you are there because of what you have observed. Share the situation so you can solve it together. This is a respectful way to approach the child. Use statements like: “I see you rocking the shelf and that will hurt someone (or yourself).”  “Your friends are waiting to come down the slide,” addressed to the child blocking the bottom.  “That stick has a sharp point on it.”  Key indicator: short factual statement.  The child is not “over-talked.”

  4. Clearly, quickly state the common practice, rule, or human right to the child.  These are the collaborative practices, rules or rights that have been previously established at the school.  “Everyone goes down the slide to stay safe.”  “The class agreed that all pointed sticks are safest staying on the ground,” can be a reminder to an elementary child. “At school everyone has the right to work undisturbed.” “Walking down the stairs helps make sure that no one gets hurt.” Key indicator: statement is short; statement is not framed as a question; statement does not lead into an adult/child discussion;  statement must be suitably framed for a primary or elementary child.

  5. State the specific appropriate action that the child should do, and offer to the child the opportunity to do that action. “Please put the sharp stick on the ground or in the trash bin.” “This is the shelf where we put cups and glasses.” “Please simply ask her for a turn with the jump rope when she is done.” This key indicator is the same as in step four: statement is short; statement is not framed as a question; statement does not lead into an adult/child discussion; statement must be suitably framed for a primary or elementary child.

  6. Observe the child doing the appropriate action. This opportunity for correct practice is extremely important. This is a non-verbal stage of addressing the situation. The adult must be focused exclusively on the action and be totally present with a warm presence for the child. Stay with the child all the way to completion of the action. Key indicator: Adult can confirm that child has followed direction to completion. The adult is self-aware of being present with the child.

  7. Acknowledge that the child has completed the appropriate action or behavior, smile, and turn your attention to other matters! Psychologically, this may be the most important for maintaining a positive relationship and fostering the child’s independence. Acknowledgment is known to be a powerful behavior shaping practice. This is distinct from simple praise which can lead to dependency and derails self-motivation in children. Reinforce the appropriate action or behavior with a smile or nod or appropriate short statement: “Now that sharp stick on the playground is out of the way. No one will get hurt!”  “Now everyone is free to come down the slide, that’s safe!” “Taking turns is fair for everyone!” Key indicator: Statements acknowledge effort, call attention to detail, direct attention back to the appropriate action, show a modest and sincere positive emotion... smile! Note: Detrimental praise has not been used; that is, undeserving or inflating, creating dependence on the adult, focusing on the person and not the action, e.g., “That’s a good boy!” or shows exaggerated emotion: syrupy sweet, “I love you for doing that.” Acknowledge and move on. It’s over.

Let’s face reality. Reading this article is only a first step. So many adults in schools are intellectually on the same page but vary widely in daily practice. I have spent a career in Montessori and traditional schools as a teacher and administrator witnessing, I’m sure, tens of thousands of brief interactions with children. I still need to stay conscious of the above information to use “best practice” on a consistent basis.

In order for a school community to function in the best interest of the child, as written above, all adults need opportunities for discussion, opportunities to list example situations, self-reflect on current adult behavior, and examine if adult statements to children promote the goals of Montessori education. As a training tool for adults, a chart with a simplified version of the seven steps can be created. Finally, discussion needs to be supplemented with actual practice of the above steps in an unhurried manner, practice to carefully hone communication to be brief, and practice in using proper ways to acknowledge children.

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© AMI/USA 2014