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The ‘Cult’ of the Normal

November, 2008
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child02  Montessori education uses a number of terms that often are not immediately understandable to everyone. Sometimes Montessorians are even told that they use a rather insular and method-specific jargon. Terms such as “normalization”, to mention just one, still sound like cultist mumbo-jumbo to some people.

  When the concept of “normal” is brought up, people automatically think of the opposite of “abnormal”. So, when in Montessori someone speaks of normalization, some parents react with: “What are you saying? That my child is not normal?”

  This is an understandable reaction, but it is not what is meant by normal in this case.

  "Normalization" is a somewhat problematic name for a natural phenomenon which Montessori was the first (but not the last) to describe. A. S. Neill saw something similar happen to children at his school "Summerhill", and people involved in Free Schools sometimes see it too. Normalization can be difficult to describe to someone who has not seen it. Unfortunately, normalization is not noticed by most adults. However, it is not something uniquely Montessori, and psychologists have identified a similar concept called ‘flow’1 in adults and adolescents..

  It may sound like "cultist mumbo-jumbo" simply because it is such a mystical, almost miraculous event. This is until we understand how very down-to-earth it really is - no more miraculous than permanent teeth replacing milk teeth or hair growing!. It seems miraculous because we adults rarely allow it to happen. We are constantly intervening, fussing, teaching, guiding, molding and modeling to the point where normalization cannot or does not occur. The following is an example that actually happened in our school. We had a new child who was not yet 3 years old. He was particularly distractible and flittered from one activity to another. Only one thing seemed to hold his attention for more than a few minutes and that was playing with the water in the bird bath. He wouldn’t make eye contact, and everything else he touched got trashed. Despite careful presentations, he refused to work/play with anything in a constructive way. On one occasion, just after he joined our community, he was going the practical life area, trashing everything on the shelf. Eventually I persuaded him to take a tray to a table, where he proceeded to take handfuls of rice out of the bowl (a spooning activity) and spread it on the floor. Normally I wouldn’t have made too much of a fuss, given his age and the fact that he was very new in our environment, but there was no sign of concentration or even interest in the activity. He kept on looking at me, as if to say "someone stop me please". I went to him and said "you have chosen to put the rice on the floor - that means you need to clean it up". Every time he made some half-hearted effort to leave I would gently take him back to the rice on the floor. child01

  "This needs to be cleaned up - what are you going to do." Now this may sound like me getting into a conflict with him, trying to assert my will over his, but every time he looked at me, then turned to leave, the look he gave me was like he was saying - "don’t let me do this." He began to pick up grains of rice one at a time and eventually went to fetch a brush. I helped him clean up and then he looked at me and said "Now I go outside, OK!" – It was a statement of fact; he was not asking for permission. He stayed outside for the rest of the day.

  Now I don’t know if that incident has anything to do with what happened next, but my gut feeling and experience of working with children and adults in a Montessori environment is that it did.

  The next day this child arrived and went to the Practical Life shelf. He looked at it for a long time and then chose a tray pouring work. He took it to a table and sat down and proceeded to pour from one jug to another with deep concentration. After doing this for a while he put away the work (after making a real effort to clean up) and went to get the tray for feeding the hen. He put one scoop into the bowl - went to throw it on the ground where the chicken eats… back to the tray… another scoop and so on. There was a look of intense concentration on his face and a deep calm. At this point I told our intern to make sure that he was not disturbed because I knew what was coming. This cycle would continue until all the chicken food was finished. For the rest of the day he was calm, chose his work, played outside and was very focused.Neill_02

What is the point of this tale? This concentration is the first step toward the profound change in a child which Dr. Montessori called normalization. I knew that we had passed the first obstacle with this child and that his concentration would grow (maybe steadily, maybe very quickly). Anywhere outside of a Montessori environment this change would not be recognized, and therefore not protected. In fact in most environments an adult would intervene to stop what would be interpreted as a waste of chicken food, or unnecessary repetition of an activity. But an experienced Montessori guide recognizes the onset of spontaneous repetition which leads to concentration which leads to normalization – an integration of the personality of the child. It can happen outside of a Montessori classroom, if a child is left alone to work with concentration, maybe playing at home, or in sand on the beach, or watching bugs in the garden – but how often in our busy lives do we give children the long periods of unstructured time necessary for the type of deep engagement with a freely chosen activity that is needed to achieve this simple natural progression?

  Normalization is very, very real. You’ll know it when you see it, if you pay attention. It’s unmistakable. If it is cultish, then it is the cult of the natural development of the child, and I am a proud member of that cult!


By Sharon Caldwell

  Sharon Caldwell is at present the Montessori Foundation and International Montessori Council’s representative in Africa. She has qualifications in both regular (high school teaching) and Montessori education, and has worked in educational contexts with all ages from toddler through to adult education.  The founder and director of Nahoon Montessori School in East London, South Africa, she is at present a co-editor of the IMC’s Montessori Leadership Online magazine.  She is on the editorial review committee of Montessori Leadership, and is also part of a team working at present on the Recognition of Authentic Montessori Schools. She is the editor for the course materials for the Centre for Guided Montessori Studies, a course instructor for the Montessori Foundation’s Leadership Institute courses for Montessori school administrators, and a member of the SAMA (South African Montessori Association) Executive Committee with the Publicity Portfolio, as well as being the IMC representative on the SAMA Conference sub-committee. 


1. The term “flow” was proposed by Hungarian psychology professor and positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and it defines the mental state in which a person is deeply concentrated and fully immersed in the activity at hand. The person is focused, fully involved, and engaged. Maria Montessori referred to this state in children as “normalization” because she observed that all children tend to reach this stage of deep concentration and ability to engage in a task when provided with the right conditions and environment – a stage she believed was common and normal in all children.

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

Photos courtesy Mammolina Children’s Home Montessori Kindergarten

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