Monday, January 26, 2009

Montessori Manual: Wild Irritability

Next in the series of strategies from Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Montessori Manual (the book is available online).
Third -- The mother should make the most careful distinction between the conscious, willful action of a child and the sort of wild irritability which results in "naughty" actions, but which is the result itself of nervous fatigue, due to injudicious treatment.

I guess past posts, like this one, Retreat to Quiet, have already discussed this somewhat. But that one was more about the peaceful life in general, and why a certain rhythm is desirable for small children, and this one is more about the little upheavals that occur inevitably in any child's life. Dorothy Fisher says that even in Montessori classrooms --she mentions Casa dei Bambini where Dr Montessori actually worked---there is occasional naughtiness. There, a "naughty" child is treated as a "sick" child. ... he is put in a quiet corner, allowed all the toys he wishes, is soothed and well treated, BUT (the most important part) NOT sent back into the thick of things until he is restored.

She says that for most intents and purposes, an out of control child really IS sick. A small child is not that far from babyhood where hunger pains or wetness or loneliness filled the little one's whole being. It takes maturity to keep being peaceful and well behaved through excitement or overtiredness or other upheavals of the body. Even a grown person often frays significantly under these conditions (and regrettably then sometimes takes it out on the children....mea culpa! More on that later). Usually the children that remain "good" in those circumstances are not really "good" but just unusually peaceful or regular children, who aren't so easily put out of whack by external stimuli. But for the more high-strung ones, anger and punishment on top of the initial upset is like torture.

For this reason, she says, a mother

Should not discipline or try to reason with a child when nervously excited.

(I think she means when the child is nervously excited, but it applies to the mother too! I try very hard to make sure I'm calm before I make a "consequence", just so I don't have to either retract or carry through something totally over the top later when I've cooled down! If you need to tell your child "We'll talk this over later when we're both calmer" that does work, and often you find the need for the consequence has passed. OR that it can be a more productive type thing, either a token "reminder" type consequence or a discussion "what would help you remember this rule next time?").

Methods for restoring peace in the nervously excited child:

Rather than escalate the nervousness by a hasty, emotional disciplinary action, remove him from the source of stress if at all possible, and try to calm him by purely physical means... a bath, comfort food, comfortable clothes, a place to rest, a warm steady gaze and kind touch. When he is restored, his normal desire to be good tends to be restored too. A word or two suffices then, and often the child agrees. If there's still something wrong, it's easier *after* the crisis has passed to discern what the underlying problem is -- maybe the child is getting ill, or is troubled about some life stress, has a food intolerance, etc.

What if there doesn't seem to be an immediate cause for the behavior?

If a child keeps falling into what Mrs Fisher calls "brain storms" even when there doesn't seem to be an immediate cause, try keeping an observation journal. Pay attention to the times and circumstances when the upheavals take place. Often you see a pattern. It isn't always easy to solve -- my special needs 9 year old gets frantic when the dog is let out of its room, IF he's already anxious about something else, but not at other times. I kept an informal observation journal over the weekend and I recorded several moments of conflict that I wouldn't necessarily have been able to predict. But knowing the conditions when you're likely to have problems helps you deal proactively instead of being shocked and distressed and angry.

Occasional conflicts in a house are normal. Perhaps the 20/80 principle applies here. If you can get rid of the BIG recurring rocks of conflict, and these are usually not very many, you have accomplished 80% of the task.

What if the mother is having a bad day, too?

The same principle of understanding "wild irritability" applies to Mother, as well, though the book does not discuss that aspect of it. There are times when I KNOW I'm not at my best. During those days it is even more important not to project the interior problem -- sickness, hormones, worry, whatever -- onto the situation. Yet that is very easy to do -- so it might be good to consider a Plan B for days when you know you're already off balance. That's a whole big topic itself and perhaps for another post, but I'm mentioning it here: Moms get nervously fatigued too and they too need to consider comfort measures for those times. St Francis de Sales says that it's important to remember that invalids and pregnant mothers, for example, shouldn't try to hold themselves to the spiritual practices they can do when they're absolutely well. When I know I'm not at my best, I try even harder to stay peaceful, and don't expect so much of myself in other ways that to me are not as important.

What if I'm worried that this behavior will carry into his future?

I think it's important not to project the child's present behavior onto the future. Say he gets frustrated and starts flinging his things around the room. That does NOT inevitably mean he will be in his 20's and get fired because he starts throwing office supplies, or even that he will be the kind of man who complains about the dog or scolds the baby when he's stressed. The strategies that an adult with anger management difficulties would have to learn in adulthood, you can start working on simply and constructively now when he is six or seven. By noting the child's "natural" reaction to circumstances, you can be a part of the solution. But it's much easier to work on these things in the present moment rather than extrapolate and "catastrophize".

Can you stop or rechannel naughtiness before it gets off the ground?

By keeping half an eye on childrens' play you can sometimes forestall "wild irritability" before it gets off the ground. I probably should have mentioned this first, but it probably comes under the earlier post on avoiding near occasions. You can usually hear a more frayed tone or more hysterical laughter or the beginning of an argument, or see wilder movements that look like they will end in someone getting hurt. Mothers are generally very sensitive about these early signs because they know their children.

Sometimes you can redirect quickly BEFORE naughtiness. Charlotte Mason recommended this. Some moms are gifted at a quick fun distraction -- "can you help me start these cookies?" Sometimes mom just coming in and interacting within the play makes a difference. Your stability and creative energy can change the flow in a good way. Sometimes you can change the scene completely; bring the kids outside or get their help fixing a snack. Sometimes I come in and "moderate" an argument that seems to be escalating. "K is saying that he had this first. What do you say, A?" etc. It sounds silly so sometimes it has helped me to make it sound even more formal than it already sounds... as if it were a momentous debate. Obviously I wouldn't do this if it offended the kids, but sometimes it eases the tension in the moment. These are just examples.

A friend of ours, who's a dad, will say "No more tiger play," when he sees that a rowdy game is heading for an inevitable blood-drawing. By saying this he affirms that rowdy play IS fine but that now is a good time to end it. If the child's "ears have shut off" as sometimes happens when games are rowdy, he can simply scoop up the non-listener in a warm circle of arms and transition to a "dad/child" wrestling match which is more controlled and then can be de-escalated into another together activity like reading together or talking about the child's day, or whatever.

What about consequences?

Finally -- if a child hits or does something that is against the family rules, you may have to still impose a consequence. As Mrs Fisher says, it's more effective to do this AFTER everyone is cool. And my personal tendency is to make the penance as minimal as I can considering the child AND the offense. Why? Because an excessive punishment can aggravate anger and cause fear and this distracts from my goal which is to teach the child to do better freely because it is right. Sometimes a somewhat silly immediate token punishment like "run around the room three times" sticks in their memory better and is a better inoculation against future offenses than something like "you're grounded for two weeks, and I better not catch you doing that again" Minimal consequences don't teach disrespect like you might think they would, because you can always ratchet them up with genuine regret and even ask for the child's take on what would work better to solve the problem. Sometimes I have offered a choice of consequence. This kind of thing is much easier to do in calm moments than in the heat of things.

Charlotte Mason recommends "natural consequences" or at least, as close to natural as possible. I think this makes sense, but sometimes is difficult to manage in the heat of things around a busy household. You could write them ahead of time. I usually try to make "healthy" consequences at least -- things that are sort of constructive in themselves and tend to produce good energy rather than anger and humiliation. Maybe I ought to try to write some more about this some other time, since there is probably more that could be said about this.

Boy, I meant this one to be short! Sorry, folks! On to the summary.


  • "Wild irritability" due to over-stimulation is not wickedness in a child; it should be treated with quiet comfort measures. The child should be kept aside from the scene of conflict until he is restored.
  • The mother's times of wild irritability should be as much as possible treated by the same methods -- quiet and comfort.
  • Don't project a personal mood onto the child, and don't project a child's temperamental lapses into his future, because that usually escalates the emotional intensity.
  • In general, when things are escalating, work towards "de-escalating!" If you need to still impose some consequence, say for hitting, it works much better to deal with it AFTER things have calmed down.
  • Natural, logical or at least "healthy" consequences are usually most productive.


I've already mentioned a few in former posts. When Paddy was three he would have regular tantrums. I found that with him, taking him into my room, lowering the blinds, wrapping him in a blanket and rubbing his back helped him be restored. Did this reward the tantrums? No, because this is not the natural REWARD of a tantrum -- it's the natural antidote or counter-measure. A reward would probably be anything that fueled his anger or that brought the play of the others to a sorrowful halt.

Another child of mine hated to be touched when he was furious. He wanted to stay in his room by himself. I'd usually put his legos near him, put his covers over him and leave him to himself. His dad was better than I was at direct warm intervention -- he would joke and talk about unrelated things and somehow steamroll past the anger. This probably isn't recommended in a Montessori school where the teacher has to be careful about imposing her personality too much on the child but I think it's a very constructive thing in the home environment, though I am not good at it.

Yesterday Aidan was taking a bath, I was in the bathroom with him, and Paddy was there too. Aidan started sliding the shampoo bottle down the bath rim into a plastic box on the floor. There wasn't any naughtiness in the behavior, but obviously I could see possible problems, especially as Paddy started jumping around gleefully and encouraging Aidan. So I changed the scenario by telling Aidan it was time to go make pizza and fortunately, both the boys were into that idea.

Something I have to work on:

  • Reading Paddy's signs when he is playing with his siblings and starts showing increasing irritability. Maybe have some books or drawing paper ready?


  • Anyone want to share something that's worked for them or something that they are working on now? Please feel free! Stephanie has been mentioning some of her family strategies in the comments. If others would like to, I would certainly love to hear them.


Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying your posts on the Montessori Manual. They are very helpful. I appreciate you digesting the information and illustrating with your own thoughts and examples.

Tracey (Connections)

Stephanie said...

Really good point with the minimal consequences thing, Willa. I think kids can figure out very easily whether the result of the behavior is genuinely the result of the behavior or whether the adults just doing something to prove who's bigger.

Amy said...

THANK YOU!! Yes, I'm shouting - this describes my 3yo to a T. I have been trying to figure out "what is wrong with her" and "what to do about it" for some time now. There are some great examples here. Now for the hard part - not reacting in anger *first* and instead trying some of these wonderful gentler approaches. We (meaning I) have gotten into such a negative cycle together.

I love what you said about our own wild irritibility. De Sales is quite the wise man, I need to take his advice to heart yet again.

Stephanie said...

Amy, one thing I figured out (after a bit of a bumpy ride down the I'm In Charge Here Road) was that I was expecting my child to know what to do, and then finding ways to discourage all her forays into doing things. No. No. No. Not that. Stop it. Come here. Put that down. AAAGH!

Things started to click a lot better when I told her what I DID want instead of being in constant hypervigilance mode looking for what I did not want. After all, she'll be doing something - might's well offer her some choices I can live with.

Amy said...

Thank you Stephanie! The problem with this child (I hate to keep calling her a problem!) is that she doesn't WANT to do anything I suggest, which puts us right back in the battle of wills. I'm guessing she needs a lot more predictability and structure, but we're always struggling with that here.

Willa said...

Amy, I think where strewing(unschooling), "preparing the environment"(CM) or the "freedom within limits" schoolroom (Montessori) type settings all have something in common is that they all avoid "suggesting to the child what to do" which is often a very tricky proposition. Possibly if you have sanguine children they will usually like mom's ideas, but I don't think you have those kind of children.... I don't either....

I am thinking about your situation with a handful of kids and the 3 year old a "younger" -- it's so difficult to arrange the environment so that she isn't often frustrated, aye?

I've never found out a way to do this perfectly, but by keeping it in the back of my mind as a Good Thing, sometimes I'm able to rearrange things to be just a little better for the poor preschooler who wants to be treated like an Older but isn't mature enough for much responsibility (ie breaks or spoils everything she gets her hands on).

Dorothy Canfield Fisher recommends that when you have to frustrate a little one -- she thinks it should be rare, but she probably wasn't raising a handful -- you do it best if you keep as much tension as possible out of it. IOW the child is going to want to escalate and escalate, because that is how a child gets attention which is a substitute for approval, so you just make what has to happen HAPPEN with as little fuss as possible and get past it QUICKLY and as effectively as possible. You save the attention for the good things and basically just hold your nose and deal with the ucky things.

I suppose if you manage this it does end up being gentle but I don't generally go into a conflict thinking "gentle". Yes, I avoid battles but generally by trying to rise beyond the possibility, if you see what I mean. Battles are between equals, generally, and battles are fought when all other measures have failed. Battles put me on a lower turf, a childish turf, a turf where someone is likely to get wounded (not physically,but emotionally or in the will or reason), and honestly, it probably won't be me who gets most injured, because I am simply not as vulnerable as my small opponent.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not saying every battle inevitably leads to injury and I'm not saying I don't ever get locked-in to battles with my kids. I'm just saying it hardly ever seems to work and I think it can be dangerous because little children generally escalate to the point where it's hard NOT to wound them somehow. The rare occasions when I go head to head with a child I try to make sure it's a battle I can win.

But by "win" I don't mean crush their wills. I mean that they can see it's totally going to happen .... like, recently, you ARE going to Mass, my little fellow; you don't have to like it but you do have to go.... we'll do our best to support you through it and help you be successful, but you don't have a choice about the basic fact. Their (wrong) will in the very limited situation is simply bypassed. It's not a head-to-head battle, I suppose, so much as a short-cut or an executive Veto. When you pick a toddler up as he rushes out towards a busy street you're not battling, you're just overriding for the moment. Later, you can work on and explain safety habits; at the moment you just want to be effective in preventing bodily harm, and the harm to the soul of getting away with disobedience. .... later, as CM says, you can "take them into confidence" and show WHY it is good to obey, but at the moment you are just ensuring that as much as possible they DO obey and thus get into a bodily habit of obeying.

Again, Dorothy Fisher says this "bypassing" is not good to rely on as the only way to discipline. That's why she mentions the other things -- allowing good things and avoiding "near occasions" -- as being more primary. But for those limited occasions where there is no alternative it seems to at least keep the relationship lines open, which is important for those little ones. You can hug the little angry one that you've rescued from death by traffic and express your REAL feelings of relief and love and concern, rather than have to get into a lecturing "teaching moment" when you're both emotionally unstable.

I knew this was going to get way too long. I keep thinking of more things to say! I'm hesitating to post it, but here goes, and one of you let me know if it doesn't seem to hold together, or you would like more examples, or something.

Willa said...

Busted! Right as I was writing that out, Amy, I started noticing that my 2 youngest were getting tense. Before I managed to tear myself away from the computer they had managed to both fall completely apart. It took me about 20 minutes to restore calm. That's why "getting off the computer in a timely manner" is my Issue to Work On right now ;-). Oops, I hear tension starting again... better get off now!

Stephanie said...

Battles are between equals, generally, and battles are fought when all other measures have failed. Battles put me on a lower turf, a childish turf, a turf where someone is likely to get wounded (not physically,but emotionally or in the will or reason), and honestly, it probably won't be me who gets most injured, because I am simply not as vulnerable as my small opponent.


Stephanie said...

Amy, you know what? She sounds a lot like our firstborn - our daughter. The kid who kept me reminding myself that Saint Paul was strong willed - and that was exactly what God used to evangelize the world. (I figured her will would be a good trait if I didn't have to strangle her before she reached adulthood - and I too hated to identify her as a problem because that seemed so dismissive and a little mean.)

Anyway, you little one sounds like she just flat doesn't believe you. She thinks you're not really paying actual attention to her, and she's going to prove it to you. "See? Didn't see THAT coming, did you? Mmm-hm! Just like I thought. NOT paying attention." (Only, it's in toddler-speak)

I bet a lot could be fixed if you kept her close at hand, and kept her in a running conversation with you - or did projects together - and remember to turn away from whatever you're doing the instant she so much as breathes funny, and focus on her, and wait. She might take a lot of convincing.

I might be way off - so this idea might be worth what you paid for it! lol! Just thought I'd throw it out there.

Anonymous said...

This was really useful for me Willa. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.