Conference Summary I: Unsettled Children in an Unsettled World

Most people would acknowledge that children today are being raised in a fast-paced culture with more choices and more distractions than ever before. The question that interests parents and teachers is, “How is this fast-paced society affecting children?” which leads to further questions about how we can counteract the effects of our culture.

The workshop that I attended this past weekend in Indiana aimed to discuss and elaborate on both the causes and possible solutions for the topic, “Unsettled Children in an Unsettled World”. The presenters were P. Donohue Shortridge and Janet Wolfe Engel, both well-known names in the field of Montessori philosophy. Together and individually, they speak at conferences and conduct in-house evaluations of Montessori schools. Each is Montessori certified with many years of experience in the fields of Montessori and education.

Donohue began by asking us to picture a child we know who is unsettled. We listed different characteristics of that child on an index card. I had no problem thinking of such a child and filling the card with descriptive phrases. She then talked about the different cultural causes of unsettled children. They include: adults leaving home earlier in the day and coming home later; violence in schools and public places; decline in unrestricted activities in recent years (free play); decrease in family dinners and vacations; increase in TV watching; and poor nutrition and insufficient sleep and exercise for school-age children.

Most of us are aware of those factors – and many others – so the critical question becomes, how do we as Montessorians create environments where unsettled, distracted, hurting children can heal? Many of these issues are things we have no control over, so it’s extremely important that we pinpoint the things we can control – ourselves and the prepared Montessori environment (more on that later). She ended by encouraging us to look for “the child that’s not yet there” – the inner spark of spiritual life inside each child.

Janet was up next, to address the topic of “The Child Then and Now”. She began by describing the way Maria Montessori viewed children circa 1907 and contrasted that with our own view of children in 2007.

As Dr. Montessori started her first Children’s House, the children who attended were initially frightened and aggressive. They lacked self-discipline, had poor communication skills, and little or no personal hygiene. After working in the prepared environment, they began to reveal inner peace, self-direction, and deep concentration. She called this process “normalization”, and referred to them as “new children”.

Janet continued by stating that children in 2007 still have a deep spiritual nature, it’s just not being revealed. Even an unsettled child exhibits the “new child” characteristics from time to time. She then had us turn over our index cards (with the characteristics of an unsettled child) and list the positive traits we see in that same child. This was a revealing process, as it was obvious that even a child who struggles with behavioral issues has many “new child” qualities.

Here were my two “unsettled child” lists (both about the same child):

Negative Traits
easily distracted
lack of focus
doesn’t enjoy learning

Positive Traits
loves parents deeply
eager to befriend others
not frightened of new experiences

She then encouraged us to see the potential in each child, even if we only get glimpses of it from time to time. We often have an angelic image of a normalized child: while wearing a halo, this child chooses work perfectly, doesn’t interrupt or bother other children, and is consistently polite and kind. No child can live up to that ideal. Normalization is an individual process, and looks different for each child. We need to broaden our views and adjust our expectations.

Have children changed in the past 100 years? Probably not as much as we sometimes think. My own thought at this point was: the culture has changed, so children present themselves differently. The essentials are unchanged. As both Donohue and Janet said, our own stress, pride, and anger can also influence the way we view and respond to children. If we can prepare ourselves and our environment, we will see “new children” emerge.

Interested in learning more? Take a look at the post Conference Summary 2: Preparation of the Adult.