Every once in a while, I come across a person who amazes me with their kindness, their intention and attention, their understanding, their compassion and respect. And I wish we could all be more like that. I wish *I* could be more like that. It’s really breath-taking.
Really listening — attending — observing — seems to be at the heart of it. I’ve seen this in many other places, too, such as Hand in Hand Parenting. How important, and how very effective, it is to truly listen to someone, with positive regard, and with hope and faith that whatever needs to change can and will change, and that there’s nothing that needs to be hurried about it.
I think the more people experience this kind of faithful support and listening, the more we are able to escape the grasp of our own internalized judgments, scorn and shame, and anxious urgencies.
Donna Bryant Goertz writes about how a Montessori classroom, teacher, assistant, and children can form an inclusive community. It’s not idealistic. It’s not simple and easy and always successful. It’s a lot of work, a lot of missteps, a lot of patience and faith.
There’s an introduction where she talks about the idea and benefits of an inclusive community. Then there are stories. Each chapter tells the story of some particular child who has some particular challenge, and how the classroom community broadens and deepens in its efforts to learn how to include this child, how to support and love this child, and in the process all the children benefit and grow in peacemaking, in compassion and respect and kindness.
In the chapters —
There’s lots of kids telling one another about how they struggle with one thing or another — how they are embarrassed when they find that they have been mean to a friend again, for example, or how hard it is to accept no when they really want to be with someone.
There are times when the teacher speaks openly of a child and his or her struggles — frankly, but without shame or condemnation, as well as without sugar-coating — in a way that draws other children in to support this one, and in a way that deeply assures the odd one that he or she is understood and respected, and that there is an intention to help.
There are kids who are clearly reluctant to come close and work with / help / support an eccentric kid. And how a teacher invites and entices them to this work, without shame or coercion, but through a confidence in the benefits, certain hope in the possibility of the others enjoying something about this child, and reminders of the others’ own struggles and how they have appreciated their peers’ support.
There are times when children are overbearing and controlling or withdrawn or destructive or meanly disengaged, and how the teacher and the other children learn to speak about these struggles with patience and hope, acknowledging what is going on, acknowledging the difficulties involved, and waiting and / or acting in ways that will work around it and help melt it.
Nothing is too hard or too scary. Nothing is forbidden. Nothing is sugar-coated or pretended to be more okay than it really is. The most subtle signs are understood and respected. So are the loudest and most inconvenient signs. Working WITH is the general rule, instead of opposition. It’s not permissive — but limits and boundaries are really seen (and presented, and received) as supports, as helps, as coming alongside, without judgment or shame or any sense of permanence or doom.
The book also reveals again and again the beauty and effectiveness of the Montessori prepared environment and the training of the teachers. There is space and time here for dealing — directly — with these most fundamental and crucial issues of relating to one another, without the constraints of a traditional school schedule. There are a variety of materials and activities that can help kids grow and learn and become themselves in so many ways. Crochet, for example, is not just about crochet — for many kids it is a door into concentration, or for calming down, or for organization.
I am a little uncertain about Goertz’s insistence against medication; I know that ADD drugs and the like are far too highly prescribed, but I don’t know enough to be sure that they’re never necessary or helpful. So far in her experience they haven’t been — sounds fantastic.
I’d also like to know how much the various available Montessori training programs (and the admin and support staff at schools) are equipped and equipping teachers for this level of relational work. Is this kind of beautiful support widespread in the Montessori world? How lovely that would be.
Some notes and quotations from the introduction (read the chapters to see more about how it gets fleshed out):
“[t]he children expand their humanity and redefine their civility to include the eccentric children, rather than labeling, hurrying, ostracizing, diagnosing, or medicating them” (6).
Eccentric children – those “whose behavior strikes us as eccentric, complicated, challenging, or confusing” – indicate how well the community is functioning, because they react more, and more overtly, when things are not working well (7). In this way their signals can lead to development of better functioning, which benefits not just them but everyone.
A good inclusive community does not make life simple, easy, without conflict, or marked by consistent cooperation and concentration. Living in inclusive community takes vigorous work.
It is good to “see all of the children in our classes as mirrors of our own inner lives and part of the group dynamic that we develop” (7).
Relationships can and should be part of the core curriculum. It is important to make time for working with such issues as obligation to others (Friendship to all, or only kindness / respect to all? Everyone works to support others, or only those who like such work?), relative importance of academics and social skills, what to do when someone is resistant, relative rights and consideration about things that might be annoying… “How loudly is it okay to sing while you work? Who should move if the singing becomes annoying? How do you know if someone is singing softly just to be annoying – and is that relevant?” (8)
In dealing with relational issues, “no child is blamed, and any problem is everyone’s problem. None of the children is ‘unmanageable.’ None of the children ‘has a problem’ or is a ‘difficult child’” (8).
Working on relational issues with children who require more time, attention, commitment, and finesse can lead to all the children learning that there are ways to negotiate conflict and settle things respectfully. Strife among children is not an inconvenient obstacle for a classroom, but an opportunity for growth for everyone.
No one child is ever put on the spot, called out, or cornered – no one is guilty or innocent, good or bad. Even a “good” label can lead to exclusive thinking – the “good” child feels she is better than the “bad” child, and is therefore only “good” in comparison to others, which leads to a more or less subtle reinforcement of division, strife, and misbehavior.
The children do better with emotional and relational skills when they are helped to develop and exercise them, instead of having conflicts solved or avoided by an adult’s fiat.
Again, discipline is something not handed down, but something developed inwardly through “deep concentration on chosen work” (10).
“Deep down, each child knows he is only as worthy as any other child. Casting some children in negative roles puts the very being of each and every child at risk. If even one child can be cast aside as unworthy, no child is truly safe. He feels keenly insecure at the ground of his being.” (11)
How the teacher handles relational issues teaches children something about how to handle relational issues – “either that children can learn the skills to work out their issues among themselves with respect, fairness, and care or that children must be controlled by an adult” (11).
(My own note — we need to treat teachers in the same way we treat the children, in the same inclusive and respectful spirit – no bad teacher, no difficult teacher, etc.)