Dealing with Deviance

Maria Montessori called it deviant behavior…deviant from the normal, focused, concentrated attention to activity that she realized could be achieved by all children given a stimulating environment, freedom within limits set by a code of respect, gentle guidance and time to explore.  The last few weeks, ever since the first four to six weeks of school got behind us, the concerns for lack of settling in have emerged everywhere in my mentoring work. It seems that in so many classes, the children are just not responding as teachers expected. Teachers are following the principles: the prepared environment and lessons given to spark engagement, but students persist in behaving outside the lines.

Yesterday, another cry for help passed through my Facebook feed. This time with a class of older elementary students; the age-group I spent most of my teaching years guiding. The responses were supportive and all things that I successfully used throughout my 30+ year Montessori career:

  • spend more time building community through play,
  • give lots of lessons,
  • use assigned seats,
  • develop community service,
  • encourage art with an emphasis on emotional literacy,
  • just wait it out.

All those suggestions are good things to try; things that just might work in this new class of children in a normal year. But this is not a normal year.

There was one comment that caught my attention: “a way out of self absorption.” I wondered about this perception and how it might influence the adult’s response to the child. I’m still scratching my head, without conclusion, over that. But the comment did cause me to consider how Montessori asked us to understand the child. 

Dr. Montessori shared a lot about this in the collection of speeches gathered into Education and Peace. (Montessori, Education and Peace, 1992) She writes,

“Let us suppose now that the characteristics and goals of the independent life of childhood are not recognized and that the adult takes those characteristics that are different from his own to be mistakes on the part of the child and hastens to correct them. At this point a battle will take place between the weaker and the stronger that is crucial for humanity, because the sickness of health of man’s soul, his strength or weakness of character, the clear light or dark shadows of his mind depend on whether or not the child has a tranquil and perfect spiritual life.” Pg 17.

The last few years have provided little tranquility for the inner life of the child.

I would suggest, that to address the behaviors being observed, that we adults strive to understand the feelings and inner anxieties that lie beneath the behaviors. Of course, this begins with observation. Our assessment gleaned through these observations must be slow to surface and not a hastily drawn conclusion. We must stay mindful of our judgments lest they cause us to respond in a way that lacks trust of the child’s efforts to meet a need. A bit further on she writes,

“The child bows to the cruel necessity of hiding himself, burying in his subconscious a life force that cries out to express itself and that is fatally frustrated. Bearing as he does this hidden burden, he, too, will eventually perpetuate mankind’s many errors.”

In group meetings, give opportunities for children to share their fears, worries, angers and frustrations. Help them to understand how the trauma of the last few years can cause any of us to behave outside our normal human tendency to be kind and caring for one another. Ask them what they might need so they can develop a peaceful internal feeling and see how that could be provided to them.

While I fully believe that all of us can “normalize” through work, I also recognize the challenge of trying to work when upset, worried, anxious, or unsettled in any way. Remember that our work with children is to build “a new humanity” and a culture of peace. I encourage you to begin with understanding each individual child as best you can…and go from there.