Soothing Work for Troubled Kids

Many children today have trouble adjusting to the pressures of schooling. Causes are varied: they can be external, like the loss of a loved one or an acrimonious divorce. Other causes are internal, as in the case of behavioral issues or learning disabilities. With many children, there is no obvious cause – just an anger seething below the surface, quick to spill over at the least provocation.

Whatever the cause, the end results can vary. Sometimes kids are able to work through difficult situations with the help of their parents and teachers. Other times they are diagnosed with learning disorders and medicated. Then there are the children who simply shut down, refusing to communicate with anyone.

These children are often desperate for a place to fit in. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Montessori classroom could meet their needs? The answer is: it can. With the Montessori method, children are given a way to move beyond their behavioral and emotional issues and begin to perform meaningful work. Montessori can provide the key to unlocking a child’s soul.

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear. I am not saying that hands-on work in a Montessori classroom can replace therapy, counseling, or medication if those things are needed. That will need to be decided by the child’s parents, teachers, and medical care providers. Rather, the following information can be used to help children function successfully in a classroom or homeschool setting.

Welcoming the Unsettled Child into the Montessori Community

In this post, I’m going to refer frequently to an excellent book that I highly recommend to everyone: Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom by Donna Bryant Goertz. I recommend this book to all parents and teachers, even if you are working with the preschool (3-6) age group. Many of the lessons that Donna learned in the elementary classroom are applicable to younger ages as well.

Donna Bryant Goertz is an extraordinary woman who did more than just study the Montessori method and then implement it. There are plenty of people who do both, and never see the results that she did. Instead, she trusted the Montessori method to do what it claims to: normalize children through work and a loving, sharing community.

Listen as she shares what she observed (emphasis mine):

“…it is the children’s response and engagement that interest us, not their early levels of achievement. When children respond with interest and then deep concentration, even if only sporadically at first, their achievement level will develop over the years along with their concentration. Through their own efforts in this appropriately prepared environment, the children are able to reach their greatest potential.”

Continually, she welcomed hurting children into her classroom and then met them where they were at. Over and over again, she put academics on the back burner to focus on creative tasks like knitting and sewing. She let children do exactly what they needed to do to feel safe in her classroom, and brought the other children alongside her to support and encourage the hurting child.

Helping a Child Find Their “Great Work”

When sharing the story of one little girl in her class who struggled to find her way, Goertz shares this quote from Maria Montessori:

“If a teacher respects the freedom of the child and has faith in him, if she has will enough to forget all she has learned, if she is modest enough not to consider her intervention essential, if she waits patiently, then she will see a complete change in him…he must concentrate and consecrate his entire being, and at the same time he must be free from everything that goes on around him. This is what we call the great work.”

Time and again, Goertz stepped back and watched the child find their own “great work”. Sometimes it was a project that involved other children; other times it was an individual project. Sometimes it was something that she showed to the child; other times, it was something the child discovered all on their own. In each case, the “great work” enabled the child to begin concentrating, and from there a world of opportunities opened up.

Sadly, we often dismiss hands-on work as being less important than academic work. In traditional education, those activities are often the first to go when budgets are cut. In Montessori, we see it the opposite way: for a struggling child, there is no other way to develop concentration than through practical life and sensorial activities.

There’s a reason that even in traditional therapy, the focus is on arts, crafts, and music – and why they’ve been practiced since the dawn of human existence. These pursuits tap into something primal, and free us to express ourselves in ways we can’t through writing or speaking. Working with your hands is the ultimate soul-soother; it puts the child in touch, literally, with his or her environment.

Why Do Hands-On Activities Soothe the Soul?

Arts and crafts are soothing for many reasons. They allow for participation at various levels of understanding. Also, choosing when and how to do the work can provide a feeling of control and self-determination. While engaging in these repetitive tasks, children are improving hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills, as well as strengthening their ability to follow directions and complete a task in the correct sequence.

As strange as it sounds, language has its limits when it comes to communication. Children may find themselves unable to express their emotions verbally; they may lack the vocabulary to describe what they’re feeling. Hands-on activities bypass the language centers of the brain and go straight to the amygdala – the emotional core of our entire being. When the amygdala is soothed, concentration can begin.

Hands-on activities have many things in common:

1. They are easy to learn and can be done by a child who is new to Montessori, without lots of intensive lessons.
2. They are usually tasks that are done individually, and it is through this individual, uninterrupted work that a child is truly able to focus without distractions.
3. They are usually repetitive without being complicated, which creates a pleasant rhythm.
4. They often result in something being created, which creates a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of being able to contribute to the community.
5. Tasks can be dropped for awhile and picked up at a later time; there is often no set beginning and end.

If you have a child in your classroom or home who needs help adjusting to school for any reason, there are certain activities that you’ll want to make readily available. You will want to carefully observe the child, waiting for that moment when they begin to concentrate and enter that state of “flow” when they no longer notice the passage of time or activities going on around them. When concentration begins, you will know that the child has found his or her “great work”, which is the key to becoming a functioning part of the classroom or home environment.

Some ideas for soul-soothing activities:

  • Hand Crafts: sewing, knitting, crochet, weaving on a loom, and needlepoint. For a beginning knitter, a French knitter is a wonderful option.
  • Tracing and Punching: tracing shapes on paper (like with the metal insets) and then punching them out with a dowel punch or large pushpin. The same activity can be done with countries or continents from the wooden maps.
  • Water Work: scrubbing (everything from a chair or old tire to a pumpkin or beautiful seashell), and pouring (using various combinations of cups and pitchers), squeezing water with basters or eye droppers
  • Clay or Playdoh: You may wish to provide wooden clay tools (shapers, shaped cutters, rolling pins) to use with the clay. Squeezing real clay is very therapeutic.
  • Painting: tempera paints on paper, watercolors, acrylics on canvas, and fingerpainting
  • Coloring: with crayons, markers, colored pencils, beeswax crayons, and oil pastels
  • Lacing & Stringing: lacing cards, stringing beads of different sizes, making necklaces with pasta, lacing crafts like lanyards
  • Polishing: using a soft cloth and child-safe polish (or even baby lotion), a child can polish silverware, soup ladles, candlesticks, or other metal objects

Concentration Is the Key

Giving a child a chance to concentrate is the key to their progress in every area: emotional, spiritual, academic, and physical. A child cannot learn when they cannot concentrate. Forcing them to do academic work when they are in this state is futile. They will know when they are ready for lessons; until then, giving them space, encouragement, structure, and hands-on work will prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.

For more information:

Children Who Are Not Yet Peaceful: Preventing Exclusion in the Early Elementary Classroom by Donna Bryant Goertz

Goertz includes many stories of the children she’s worked with, sharing her insights along the way. Her book also includes a section of tips for parents and a list of recommend books that deal with similar topics.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi