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Is Montessori the Best Start for My Child?(Part2)

June, 2008
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Conflict and Conflict Resolution

CIMG1021 Everything in Montessori is an opportunity to learn. If pouring water is an opportunity to maser the skill of using a pitcher and glass, and spilling water is an opportunity to learn how to use a cloth or mop to wipe out the spill, conflict, likewise, is an opportunity to learn conflict resolution the correct way—through dialogue, negotiation, peacefully. These are secondary goals. The process is the most important aspect of it, and the primary goal is, like everything else in Montessori, independence and self-reliance. Children are developing skills that allow them to become independent and function on their own. If when conflict occurs, adults rush in, and try to stop children from getting into a confrontation, they are in fact handicapping the child. Children need to find ways to solve problems at all levels, including disagreement situations with peers, adults at school, parents at home, and other family members. If there is no risk that children may be seriously hurt, conflict can be as enriching an experience as is being able to help oneself to a glass of water, or prepare a snack. Conflict in this sense, exists even when not directed at another human being, child or adult. The conflict may be merely internal—frustration with a box that refuses to open, a pet that does not wish to be cuddled, a toy that makes no sense, or simply some need that is not being met. CIMG1097

  The idea that kids need limits and discipline comes across as a simple, evident truth, yet, it isn’t that plain. What we need to ask is, what kind  of limits children need. What kind of discipline. What kind of authority? In Montessori, again, empowerment is all that matters. Limits and discipline are a choice children grow up to make and that needs not be imposed. The fact is, that adult- or authority-imposed discipline does not produce self-disciplined children. If children are not involved in decision making—and conflict resolution is all about decision making—they will not acquire the skills necessary to settle disputes and get out of arguments.

  Conflict is many faceted. The most insidious and most difficult to resolve conflict situations, are hidden. These are subliminal forms of control. Apparently, all may be well and fine, but gentle manipulation, subtle coercion and intimidation messages are being sent out constantly. Because children need to be safe, all these usually convey to the child a sense of that security being taken away. What can be interesting, or rather frightening in this process, is that adults may not even be aware of the fact that they are sending out these subliminal messages, and breeding fear in children. This kind of behavior can and usually is a mere perpetuation of the way one was brought up and raised. The acquired model, in most cases, is not one of conflict resolution, a win-win model, but one of overpowering ones opponent—and everyone becomes as opponent under this win-lose model. Win-win solutions require relationships based on open dialogue, and trust.


CIMG1104   To reach agreements and find out solutions, one must exercise trust. Trust in one’s capabilities and competency, and a feeling that the environment is trustworthy. The environment includes both objects, tools, spaces, and the individuals. For a young child, up to the age of six or so, there are two main realties: self, and everything else. So, the environment includes everything and everyone else that is not the child.

  In Montessori, the preparation of the environment is often thought of as the space and the things, apparatus, didactic materials that are displayed and available for work. It goes beyond that. It includes all the other children and adults. Since children are not yet aware of their own inner world in a way that they may have control over it—self-mastery is being learned—it is up to the adult to make sure adequate preparation of the environment does not lack. The inner preparation of the adult, is essential in Montessori. Because children need a certain amount of predictability, or, in other words, they need to trust their environment, this must be provided. A balance must also be found between this predictability and new things to discover. But trust is essential. DSCN3664

  Another aspect of trust in Montessori is that of the adult towards the child. The adult must trust that the child can and will develop following her own inner tendencies and needs, according to a clock, a timetable that is her very own. 

  The idea of trust is a delicate one. Trust bonds people and allows the creation of solid social structures. It is based not on set on stone principles, but upon flexible and organic protocols, that evolve and adjust as needed. In democratic educational systems and environments, negotiation is a need. What is important in negotiation is not as much the result or outcome of the negotiation, but the process itself. The child must sense that her feelings are respected, genuine, and that her opinions count and can shape the environment. At a negotiating table, even when there are disagreements, those who do not see eye to eye see each other not as opponents or enemies, but as members of a group, collectively seeking a new paradigm, a new set of protocols or rules, that can be experimented with and will eventually lead to common growth. In the process, needs are being met. With time, this leads to new ways of thinking and behaving. Different models are created. Conflict when it arises is not bellicose but dynamic—interests, wants and needs, much like particles, collide to produce energy, that can be, if properly channeled, put to good use.

CIMG1075   However, if mistrust regulates a negotiation, the energy created is wrongly channeled and its contention will result in disaster, because it is not cooperatively created, channeled and used, it will seek other ways to be released. Violence, aggression, and other deviations may occur. This usually happens when the parties involved in the process have, in one way or another, hidden agendas. If controlling the other party, manipulating the outcome, getting the best of it, supersedes the common interest, there is no real dialogue taking place. Indeed, all there is, underlying an apparent negotiation is fear of losing. Manipulation always creates a reaction, resistance, on the part of those manipulated. In social, or even anthropological terms, this means that instead of evolution, we end up having a revolution. Coercion always translates into conflict—it is just simply a question of time, until it finally happens.

  The question in Montessori is, can we trust each other? The “other” here implies a kind and level of trust IMG_0082 that is often considered impossible to envisage, because it implies a relationship between equals. But can a partnership exist based on a relationship that is almost always considered of unequals, that of adults and children? And the younger the children, the greater the ditch that prevents adults from seeing them as equals, able individuals that can make decisions. Adults have more experience than children; adults know better; etc., all these are arguments that we commonly deal with. So decisions are made for the child, and imposed. Children seldom have an active voice in maters that directly or indirectly impact their lives.

  Professor Roger Fisher may be right[1] when he points out that "The more one trusts the other side, the greater the incentive one provides for behavior that will prove such trust to have been misplaced."[2] when it comes to adults, who negotiate with results in mind, and start from premises that regulate relationships that at first cannot be trusted. With children, however, the approach must be different. The end is only part of the “deal” and again, process is far more important. Why? Because children are learning the ins and outs of social life and negotiation. We cannot impart trust without trusting, unless we want to breed mistrust. Montessori is set on providing optimum examples that can be absorbed by children, so that later in life, they can trust themselves and others.

MariaMontessori02   Many techniques in communication nowadays are flawed in that they start from a platform that is set upon preconceived ideas, vitiated principles, and do not think of freedom as an innate value and condition of every human being. Freedom is often used as a commodity to manipulate others in order to acquire a greater profit for oneself, following rewards and punishments practices. This model is set not upon a win-win paradigm, but the very opposite. It is regulated and measured by a profit scale, that oscillates between higher and lower percentages of goods—whatever these “goods” may be: time, money, objects, etc., to be won or lost.

  Trust with children cannot be conditional. In fact, we can question the validity of all conditionality when it comes to trust, especially with children. The same is valid as long as relationships are healthy. As far as diplomacy, business negotiations and the like are concerned, trust is not possible, unless it is conditional, in which case, it should be called something else. The reason is that there is always a hidden agenda, the private interests of one party being met, and satisfied, at the expense of the other party.

  In Montessori, the situation is different. What we are set to do is create the conditions that prevent mistrust from taking over. We start out with a blank sheet: no assumptions. Trust, like love, is given unconditionally. The adult is an observer, more than a force trying to tip the scale favoring either this or that outcome. MariaMontessori01

  Observation is the key to an harmonious environment because we observe the child with no preconceived ideas, and without passing judgment. The objective is creating the right conditions that let the child develop as per her own needs and capabilities.

Evaluation, when it is made, sets in motion choices that guide the best course of action to be taken. And, based upon the needs of each child, and the observations made, the environment is adapted. The environment is the true facilitator. The adult, does not teach, simply prepares the environment. What about elements that cannot be made predictable—such as, for example, other children’s behavior?—well, those are the discovery factor, the learning opportunities.

  This is the reason why in a functional Montessori environment, there is no manipulation, no imposed control, no extrinsic rewards and no punishments.

  Trust is not possible if these elements are present.


(We will address this question on the second part of this article, on the next issue of LittleStar)

Series on Montessori education contributed by Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

Photos courtesy Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

[1] Professor Fisher founded (1979,) the Harvard Negotiation Project. Its mission is to improve the theory, teaching, and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution so that people can deal more constructively with conflicts ranging from the interpersonal to the international. The Project, or HNP as it is commonly known, is results-oriented. HPN continually explores better methods for encouraging habits of mind and discourse that promote constructive problem-solving.

[2] Fisher, Roger and Ury, William, “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving in”

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