Challenging Behaviors in the Early Childhood Environment

NAMC montessori challenging behaviour early childhood. children in classroom

They [misbehaviors] are merely his reactions to an environment that has become inadequate...But we do not notice that. And since it is understood that the child must do what adults tell him, even though his environment no longer suits his needs, if he does not comply we say that he is ‘naughty’ and correct him. Most of the time we are unaware of the cause of his ‘naughtiness.’ Yet the child, by his conduct, proves what we have just said. The closed environment is felt as a constraint …
—Maria Montessori
From Childhood to Adolescence

Helping young children through challenging behavior can be a challenge itself. Training, knowledge, and experience all help the early childhood teacher prepare for those inevitable times when a child requires some extra support. Recently, however, there seems to be a distressing trend to expel young children who exhibit challenging behavior. The rising expulsion rates in early childhood settings are staggering.

Over 8,000 public preschool children were suspended during the 2011–2012 school year, with over half of those children being suspended more than once. (Samuels, 2014) Even more sobering is the fact that preschool-age children are being expelled at three times the rate of children in the K–12 environment. (Gilliam, 2005)

It is unfortunate that young children who need the most support and guidance and being expelled at such high rates. Yale researcher Walter S. Gilliam stated that “No child is more in need of a school-readiness-boosting preschool experience than a child who is being expelled or suspended from a preschool.” (Samuels, 2014)

Challenging Behaviors in the Early Childhood Environment

NAMC montessori challenging behaviour early childhood. little girl looking upset

While there are a number of theories why more and more preschool children are being suspended, the US Department of Education says that when teachers feel competent about working with challenging children, suspension and expulsion rates are drastically reduced. (Samuels, 2014) Gilliam adds that large class size, extended days, along with the reduction of play and the overuse of worksheets and flashcards are also major causes. Dr. William DeMeo, author of When Nothing Else Works: What Early Childhood Professionals Can Do to Reduce Challenging Behaviors, reports that the single greatest challenge faced by preschool teachers is disruptive behavior. (DeMeo, 2015)

A child who has become master of his acts through long and repeated exercises, and who has been encouraged by the pleasant and interesting activities in which he has been engaged, is a child filled with health and joy and remarkable for his calmness and discipline.
—Maria Montessori
The Discovery of the Child, p. 116.

DeMeo reminds us that all behavior has a function. In order to understand the behavior, we must look at the root of the cause. He says that behavior is either to get or get away from attention or to satisfy a sensory need. (DeMeo, 2015) Montessori tells us that inappropriate behavior is due to a lack of developed communications skills: The child simply cannot tell us what is the matter, and thus acts out.

“Young children learn best in an environment where they feel safe to explore, experience and interact.” (DeMeo, 2015) The Montessori environment is structured to provide a stable, predictable environment. The use of natural light, plants, neutral tones, and natural fibers create a calm, peaceful atmosphere. The entire room belongs to the children. There are no “don’t touch” or adult-only zones. Personal space is clearly delineated with work mats, and all materials are at the level of the child. He does not have to rely on an adult for help; he is free to work as he chooses. He is also free to move about the classroom, exploring and working to satisfy his own internal needs. “An active learning environment provides a climate where learning is enjoyable and engaging for children.” (DeMeo, 2015)

In short, the environment creates within the child the self-discipline for future learning and independence.

NAMC montessori challenging behaviour early childhood. teacher and boy using zoology puzzle

The Montessori teacher is an extension of the environment.

And while we are taught not to intervene when the child is concentrating on purposeful work, “Before concentration occurs, the directress may do more or less what she thinks best; she can interfere with the children’s activities as much as she deems necessary.” (Montessori, 1964) “She may direct and redirect behaviors to ensure that the concentration of others is not broken. Once again, we see the importance of observation. The teacher must be able to recognize concentration when it appears. She must be able to see beyond the obvious misbehaviors and look for normal behavior. This is not easy, because in the midst of disorder and misuse, normal behavior tends to go unnoticed.” (Montessori, The Child, Society, and the World, 1989)

This is not to say that children in the Montessori environment do not exhibit challenging behaviors. However, Montessori teachers have both the training and knowledge of child development to put into place developmentally appropriate practices to guide children toward normalization.

Works Cited
DeMeo, William J. EdWeb.TV. “Challenging behaviors in young children: What to do when nothing else works.” September 29, 2015.
Gilliam, Walter S. Foundation for Child Development. “Prekindergartners left behind: Expulsion rates in state prekindergarten programs.” May 1, 2005.
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, 1964.
Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child (trans. Joseph Costelloe). New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1967 (first published in 1948).
Montessori, Maria. The Child, Society, and the World. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 1989.
Samuels, Christina A. Education Week. “Pre-K suspension data prompt focus on intervention.” March 31, 2014.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate


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