Maria Montessori observed that young children often get agitated when even little things in their lives are out of place. If we always start the bath by washing our baby’s body first, and head second, and then absent-mindedly reverse the order one day, we may find our toddler inconsolable. Whether or not we can identify it, the source of frustration is very often a broken routine. A snack in a new container; a different seat at the table; a toy that cannot be found; an interruption in play to head to an appointment: these all may be so minor to us that we don’t even notice them, but for a toddler, these small things can set off a major reaction, a seemingly “causeless” tantrum that in fact is caused by a disruption of our child’s developing sense of order. I recently observed one of LePort’s Parent and Child Montessori classes, and witnessed just such a tantrum. It was clean-up time, and the parents and teachers were moving about the room, putting materials back on the shelves. While one mother was cleaning up a forgotten toy, her two-year-old son had discovered a fun puzzle, and carried it to a table. He walked away to get another piece when the teacher, unaware that the boy was actively playing, took the puzzle and put it back on the shelf. When this little boy returned to his table, he flew into a rage—which neither his mother, who was busy putting other things away, nor the teacher could understand. (As soon as we replaced the puzzle on the table and invited the boy to finish it, he calmed down.) It’s easy to see how mother and teacher might have viewed this as a causeless tantrum!
In a Montessori classroom, teachers deliberately accommodate a young child’s need for order. Materials are displayed on low shelves, and each has its special spot. The day follows a clear, consistent routine: outside time, then coming back inside, washing hands, having snack, then work period, and so on. Writes Dr. Montessori:
Order is one of the needs of life which, when it is satisfied, produces a real happiness. In fact, in our schools, even older children, those three- or four-years old, after finishing an exercise will put the things they have used back in place. … Order consists in recognizing the place for each object in relation to its environment and in remembering where each thing should be. This implies that one is able to orient one’s self within one’s environment and to dominate it in all its details.
Children are just discovering their world. It is largely a mysterious place, where things are wondrous and at times scary. Being able to have a space that is safe, where things are predictable and in their control, is essential for their mental well-being, and helps prevent many tantrums.
- Have clear, consistent routines—for getting up and getting dressed, for eating, for playtime, for transitions, for getting in and out of the car. Follow these routines, particularly when there are other upheavals in life (a new baby, a relative visiting, the start of school).
- Simplify the play area. Invest in some open shelves (Ikea has cheap, good ones), and display only a small number of items, each in its proper spot.
- Take time to observe your child. Be on the lookout for violations of order that might have caused a tantrum—like a toy put away prematurely, or a step in a routine that was omitted in haste.
- Prepare your child for changes in routine. If you’re going to have dinner outside in the yard rather than at the table, mention that in advance, and if possible involve your child in a transitional activity such as helping to take placemats outside.
[Of course, our toddlers will experience big emotions no matter what we do. If that happens, our role is to be an empathetic listener, to help them name their emotions and to provide reassurance that we are not rattled by the behavior. This blog provides good pointers!]