Sterling Qualities of the ‘Normalized’ Montessori Child

I’ve been in Montessori (as a teacher, parent, or both) for over ten years. It’s become so much a part of my DNA that I automatically approach almost every situation – educational or not – from a Montessori perspective. When I think, “That child is normalized”, or “How can we work towards normalization?”, I don’t really think much about the word ‘normalized’ and how it sounds to other people. But I realize using that term can create confusion.

What Does ‘Normalized’ Mean in Montessori?

The dictionary defines ‘normalized’ this way: To make normal, especially to cause to conform to a standard or norm. None of the references I consulted defined it the way Montessori does, probably because Dr. Montessori borrowed the term and made it her own. Because there is more than one meaning, someone unfamiliar with Montessori might assume that we are attempting to make all Montessori children fit into a narrow box where everyone is perfect and perfectly behaved. This is definitely not true.

Rather, the term ‘normalized’ refers to special characteristics that Maria Montessori observed when children were allowed to work freely in a prepared environment. This quote from the North American Montessori Teacher’s Association sums it up nicely:

Dr. Montessori observed that when children are allowed freedom in an environment suited to their needs, they blossom. After a period of intense concentration, and working with materials that fully engage their interest, children appear to be refreshed and contented. Through continued concentrated work of their own choice, children grow in inner discipline and peace. She called this process “normalization” and cited it as “the most important single result of our whole work”.

What are the special attributes that Montessori observed in normalized children? Here they are, as enumerated by E.M. Standing in his book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work: love of order, love of work, love of silence and working alone, spontaneous concentration, obedience, independence and initiative, spontaneous self-discipline, attachment to reality, and joy.

As you can see, within that list is the freedom for a child to see be him or herself, with all the variances of personalities and abilities that we know exist in the human race. If these traits sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because they’re very similar to the characteristics of an authentic Montessori experience. Let’s take a look at each:

Love of Order

From infancy onward, Montessori children discover that everything has its place. Our attention to providing a special place for favorite learning materials creates a sense of stability that honors children’s natural love of order.

My children went to a neighborhood Easter-egg-hunt this past Saturday. Basically, a giant field is strewn with small chocolate eggs and all the kids run around seeing how many they can gather. After the hunt was over, the kids ate a few eggs and asked for more. “No,” I said. “We’ll have some more tomorrow.”

“Oh,” said my daughter. “If I can’t eat anymore, I know what I can do with my eggs! I can sort them!” And she sat down and began to sort them according to color. It was lovely to see the characteristic of ‘order’ manifest itself in this way.

A Love of Work, Silence and Working Alone

Most people experience those pleasing times when you become so involved in something that interests you, time slips away unwatched. You don’t want to be interrupted. You’re attending to your mind’s call for a peaceful time of focus; in common psychological vernacular, you’ve entered flow.

Montessori children are provided with interesting work to do, but along with the activity of doing the work, they are partaking of the activity of building-the-self. I cannot overstate the importance of giving the students plenty of time to work uninterrupted. You cannot enter flow when you feel like a bell, timer, or buzzer is going to ring any minute, or that someone else is going to impose a pre-determined ‘schedule’ upon you.

Profound Spontaneous Concentration

Walking through a friend’s beautiful garden, your attention is suddenly caught by a stunning flower. It isn’t enough just to look at it. You must inspect how it grows, touch it with your hands, smell it with your nose. The rest of the pretty garden seems to fade into the background in that spontaneous moment of learning about the wonder of that blossom.

This is the experience Montessori instructors attempt to promote in students by engaging their focus on important, absorbing learning materials. If the materials have been skillfully presented, they will be worthy of the child’s concentration and rapt fascination will happen naturally.

Obedience

In the Montessori classroom, obedience is never blind or abusive. Traditional education focuses on the principle of children being unquestioningly obedient to a teacher with punishments employed to persuade children away from ‘doing things their own way.’

Instead, Montessori children are encouraged to be obedient to the internal voice that indicates to them what they need to learn next, and when they need to learn it. Additionally, Montessori children come to respect their fellow students, their teacher and their classroom so that they are obedient to the goal of promoting a peaceful place to live and learn.

Independence and Initiative

Happiness for the child is the golden objective of every Montessori instructor and parent. In order to be happy, children need to learn how to work independently, discovering and caring for their own needs to grow emotionally, spiritually and academically.

Pop-psychologists agree that depending on others for happiness is a dangerous modus operandi, and the independent work that goes on in the Montessori classroom gives children the confident skills required to undertake proper tasks at a self-determined time and engage in these tasks with a sense of being able.

Spontaneous Self-discipline

The great genius in Montessori learning materials is that they contain built-in controls that tell students when they have mastered a skill, or when more learning is required. This removes the need for an outside person telling students they’ve ‘failed’. In a system where shaming rebukes are used to correct children in public, the fear of humiliation takes center stage, rather than the desire for skill mastery.

Think about it. When you work a crossword puzzle on a Sunday afternoon, it’s a private engagement for your own satisfaction. If you get a word wrong, the puzzle tells you so because other words begin not to match up – it has a built-in control of error! You go back and correct the initial error to make the puzzle work. All of this goes on inside your own head, and you enjoy the pursuit. It would be a lot different if every time you hit on a wrong word, all of your neighbors announced it, some of them snickered and you got a community reputation of being a real dunce. The zest would certainly be gone from the activity!

Because Montessori children learn to self-correct much of their own work, the discipline of getting things right for one’s own satisfaction is developed. This leads to solving moral dilemmas in future life with the thought that one should act for good, not because one fears discovery of wrong-doing, but because one is eager to do one’s level best.

Attachment to Reality

The Montessori method strives to steer children away from the fantastical so that they develop real skills and habits for living in a real world. Dr. Montessori would not have been a fan of a fairytale which teaches children that if your foot fits in the correct shoe, you’ll be lifted out of poverty, marry the handsome prince and live in a castle for the rest of your life.

She would have been better pleased by a story about a boy reading learning to read by firelight in a log cabin, dedicating himself to a life of public service and eventually, by dint of his energetic efforts, becoming President of the United States and putting an end to slavery. Fantasy teaches children that actions have unreal consequences and Maria Montessori felt it was vital for children to understand the truth of cause and effect in life.

Joy

This is the best of all gifts the Montessori students discover because they are made free to do so by the effort of the adults who care for them. The world’s greatest art, greatest music, literature, scientific achievements, humanitarian triumphs are works of hope and joy. We live on a stunning planet, from the treasures of the rain forest to the mysteries of the deeps. A person can live for a century and only see a small percentage of all of the wonders our world holds for the seeker of joy.

What Does It All Mean?

As they grow, Montessori children, given a free and beneficial environment, learn to approach challenges with gusto and find true joy in acquiring knowledge. A spirit of vivacious activity pervades the Montessori classroom as the students undertake the ongoing work of self-revelation. In addition to this being a wonderful planet, it can be a tough place to live, but ‘normalized’ Montessori traits cultivated early in life will carry a child far in the future.

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23 Responses to “Sterling Qualities of the ‘Normalized’ Montessori Child”

  • Gypsy said at March 17th, 2008 at 1:22 am :

    Lori, I love the post, but I struggle with the fantasy thing in Montessori, which is one of hte reasons we are now at a Steiner playgroup, although I also really like a lot of the Montessori philosophy. Children love fantasy and make believe and it seems to me this stimulates thier imagination and creativity. Does Montessori really think we should steer children away from using thier imagination? Please don’t think I’m trying to ‘slam’ you, it is something I have blogged about on my own blog lately and would really appreciate your perspective on. http://domesticallyblissed.wordpress.com/2008/03/15/fantasy/

  • montessori_lori said at March 17th, 2008 at 6:22 am :

    It’s a great question, and one I’m going to be writing more about in coming days.

    I’ll just say now that it’s very, very important to note that Maria Montessori wasn’t against pretend play or fairy tales, she just felt that they should only be introduced after the child had a very firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality.

    And, she was one of the first people to discover that very young children love, love, love learning how to do “real” things like sweeping the floor and preparing snack. Up until her day, kids only “played” house, but didn’t participate in the real activities.

    I think it’s important that kids do both real and pretend activities, not just one or the other – like the saying goes, “moderation in all things” – and that when they do fantasy play, it’s with a firm foundation in reality.

  • montessori_lori said at March 17th, 2008 at 7:26 am :

    Just wanted to add a little more info about fantasy. There’s a thread from an educational discussion board that talks about this from lots of perspectives, and the best comment (for my money) is from Eleanor (you’ll have to scroll down a little to see it):

    Fantasy and Children’s Lit

    Also, I don’t think you will ever, ever find any writing about Montessori (by herself or anyone else) that says we should discourage children from using their imagination. Actually, Montessori kids (in my experience) are usually much more imaginative and creative than children in traditional educational programs.

    It’s because they have a firm grounding in reality that they can be imaginative, not in spite of it.

    I would encourage you to do more reading and research on this topic, because there is a lot of great stuff out there and it’s easy to misunderstand what Montessori was getting at.

  • Erika said at March 17th, 2008 at 7:59 am :

    HI Lori,
    I’m loving everything I’m learning on Montessori, and I’m trying to apply it to teching my 4 yo. She is so not normalized! I’m not sure where I should start. I started down this path because she is always asking about how different words are spelled. So, I’m making her some sandpaper letters, a moveable alphabet, and I’m trying to get a set of metal insets for a reasonable price. But now I’m confused because I read somewhere that to start out a child in Montesori you should be doing PL or Sensorial work before progressing to anything else. I’m really confused! To complicate matters, the only real time I have with her is from 6PM or 6:30 PM to her bedtime at 8:30PM and weekends. Oh, and I have a baby to take care of during that time as well! Do you have anything you could suggest? Sorry for rambling!!
    Erika

  • montessori_lori said at March 17th, 2008 at 8:29 am :

    Hi, Erika! It’s okay for you to do spelling and sandpaper letters with her, but I would bring in some practical life activities as well.

    In most Montessori classrooms, children quickly begin doing work from all areas of the room, even if they start in Practical Life and Sensorial.

    Some simple pouring, sorting, scrubbing, etc. would build her concentration and fine motor skills, which in turn would help her with the language activities as well as many other things.

    It sounds like you are very busy, so don’t feel pressured to do everything at once. Slow and steady wins the race! Give her a few new things to do every few weeks, and you will begin to see her make progress.

  • Tracy said at March 17th, 2008 at 9:32 am :

    Lori, do you know what the word or phrase was that Maria Montessori used to mean “normalized” in Italian? I’m one of those odd ducks that loves to see how terms in one language get translated.

  • montessori_lori said at March 17th, 2008 at 10:47 am :

    That’s a great question, Tracy! I’ll look into it and see what I find. I’ve always felt that if she had chosen another word without the connotation of “normal”, it would have been easier for people to know what she meant.

  • Salvomenza said at March 17th, 2008 at 6:03 pm :

    Hi, I’m italian and I’m currently reading Maria Montessori in italian ( L’autoeducazione ).
    Well, she writes “bambino normalizzato” (‘normalized child’) and “normalizzazione”. Also in nowadays italian those words might be misunderstood, much as in english, as Lori says in her post (by the way: it’s wonderful). Thus the english translation sticks to the original word both morphologically and etymologically.
    I would like to underline, howerver, that the link to the word normale/normal seems to be explicitly wanted by M. Montessori. And her perspective was different from ours: she was not worry about misunderstanding. Rather, she even seems to me to be aiming at changing the current meaning of the word alongside with what people feel and think as ‘normal’: she challenges the common assumption about normality in general (and in children). In her opinion, a child (a man) with the “sterling qualities” cited by Lori are just normal, not special. Those who don’t display those qualities are compared to flowers or trees grown up in a place not suited for them, without enough light or water, and the like. Such flowers and trees won’t blossom as they would, so they are not normal. In the sense that they did not develop their real self. They are not what they are supposed to be, what they were born to be (a slight catholic flavor could be present in such an idea of normality). For natural sciences (and statistics), instead, normality often is just the most common and widespread actually displayed behavior observed in a certain environment. Unfortunately, common sense still seems to stick to this latter idea of normality, and prejudice overlaps with (and overcomes) objective observation.
    In fact, e.g. in my country, a child is considered normal if he is bored by school, if he does not love order, if he does not like concentrating, if he is not curious about science, nature and so on, because the majority of children displays the same behaviors (think of a traditional classroom…)
    Normalized children, in turn, would often be considered strange, or special.

    Salvo Menza

  • montessori_lori said at March 17th, 2008 at 8:28 pm :

    Salvo, what fantastic information! Thank you so much for stopping by. You are the missing piece of the puzzle to understanding exactly what Dr. Montessori meant.

    You are absolutely right to bring this back to science, since she was first and foremost a scientist. “Normal” in a scientific context means just what you said, commonly displayed behavior among similar species under similar conditions.

    Great insight!

  • Tracy said at March 18th, 2008 at 12:42 pm :

    Thank you so much for your insights, Salvo. And what a poetic description of how “normal” really ought to look!

  • Gypsy said at March 21st, 2008 at 2:21 am :

    Thank you Lori for such a great response, and the link to the forum site. I laughed that many of the books I have seen recommended on Steiner forums, who also caution against books with animals dressed up playing houses for little little children. I will really look forward to more posts from you. I don’t understand the idea of holding off on fantasy until the child is firmly rooted in reality though, my understanding of brain development is that the brain develops in those early primary school years to make ‘critical reasoning’ possible, so then children can really determine real from pretend. While for littlies, their fantasies can be very real, and a very precious part of being children. I suppose its all about balance, letting children enjoy their imaginations while they have brains that can really run wild, without undermining their trust that adults will protect what is real and tell them the truth. Thank you for being one of the most sensible and inspiring blogs on this subject!

  • Shawna said at August 31st, 2008 at 7:05 am :

    Great post!

    My only concern is with the fantasy element. I find fantasy to be too important a vehicle to exploring various idea, emotions, concepts and in passing down cultural history. But I do not see this as a conflict with Montessori education–I think the overall concept without the emphasis on “reality” still works wonders in developing the child into an adult.

  • Amy Ball said at August 10th, 2011 at 5:33 am :

    To chime in on the fantasy topic, I have seen a few children get so lost in fantasy, they they literally lived in another world. As always, it is important to look at the individual child. Perhaps providing them with reality, real things, was a so very different way of dealing with children 100 years ago…and today!

  • Lori Bourne said at August 13th, 2011 at 1:42 pm :

    Hi, Amy! I’ve seen that happen too – it’s a sad illustration of what happens when fantasy is taken to the extreme. I like the balance found in Montessori. I wish more people understood Maria Montessori’s position, but hopefully we can spread the word.

  • Jennie said at October 23rd, 2011 at 7:35 pm :

    Hello, I have a daughter who will be turning 3 soon. I have been a teacher for 11 years (now staying home) and am a product of an early Montessori education myself. I have been doing some research on the montessori pedagogy to try and refresh my memory and have appreciated tremendously, all of your comments. I am hoping you might go into a little more detail about your thoughts on creating that healthy balance between the ingenuity of a good imagination and the fantasy aspect. My daughter just w/in the past several weeks (at most) has started to express creative thoughts that are connected to fantasy and I don’t know exactly how to respond. We do not expose her to Walt Disney and even focus more on the Harvest during the fall, rather than on things like Halloween. Two recent examples: (please give me your thoughts on how to respond) She opened up a clothing hamper in our closet not long after we had read a book about plants and their seeds. She said, “Oh mommy, look- I have a plant growing here inside the hamper with a pink flower, see? And there’s a bee on top of the flower making honey.” and…(and I’m not sure what prompted this one) “Mommy, look there’s a little monkey over here by my potty, and I am going to pick him up and put him in his nest.” ha!
    I have never (up to this point) been confused as to how to respond to my daughter…now I am not sure.
    Please give me some feedback… THANKS!

  • Lori Bourne said at October 23rd, 2011 at 7:59 pm :

    Hi, Jennie! That’s perfectly normal for a 3-year-old – even one who has never been encouraged to do a lot of pretend play. Just respond with a calm “Oh, that’s nice” and move on. It’s completely normal and nothing to worry about.

  • igbokidi chioma said at March 2nd, 2012 at 8:55 pm :

    How exactly does a normalized child show continuous and happy work, social help and sentiments?

  • Lori Bourne said at March 2nd, 2012 at 9:38 pm :

    Hi! I think you’ll see just that: a happy child, working continuously, getting along with others, and wanting to help out. Exactly like it was described in the blog post.

  • Montessori Minute ~ Concentration & Normalization said at May 23rd, 2012 at 5:00 am :

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  • Kot said at January 25th, 2013 at 9:52 pm :

    How does one go about normalizing a child older than 6? Is it possible? Please help!

  • Lori Bourne said at January 25th, 2013 at 9:56 pm :

    Yes! Please see this post for help: Soothing Work for Troubled Kids.

    Also, please get a copy of the book I reference in that post, Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom by Donna Bryant Goertz, as it is extremely helpful.

    Hope that helps!

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