The Sensitive Period to Order, or Why Won't My Kid Just Use a Different Spoon?
The Sensitive Period to Order, which usually presents between the ages of two and four, brings with it a whole new set of challenges for parents and teachers. Suddenly, your easy-going child is insistent that the stripes on his socks line up with each other. Suddenly, the cup that's in the dishwasher becomes the only cup your child could drink from at dinner time without a complete meltdown. Children thrive with routine and predictability throughout childhood, but children in the Sensitive Period to Order don't just benefit from order: they demand it.
Be on the lookout for signs: you will likely notice the Sensitive Period to Order between age two and the second half of their three-year-old year, with some children experiencing it at 18 months or as late as five years old. The way the pencils line up in the Metal Insets may be essential to the child in a Sensitive Period to Order. A new material on the shelf or a missing tool from a familiar tray may be disconcerting. At home, a change in bedtime routine, or a new babysitter, or a shift in a parent's work schedule, may cause great distress. Many of the tantrums teachers and parents see in toddler classrooms happen when a change has occurred that the toddler lacks the words to respond to. Those "Terrible Twos" aren't so terrible at all; they'd be better described as "Just Badly Misunderstood Twos."
Montessori classrooms prepare for this period for order by decreasing disorder and by maximizing order, by offering carefully designed, reliable routines, from the way individual lessons are sequenced on the shelf to the precision of a teacher's hand during an initial presentation. At home, parents can prepare for the sensitive period by thinking through the child's daily routines and maintaining as much predictability as possible. Avoid major changes in the child's environment without the child being involved in those changes. That doesn't mean every day needs to look the same, but that the way we do things, like putting away our shoes or preparing for bed, follows a predictable routine even when other parts of the day may be less structured.
Decrease disorder: Prepare your child for the dis-orderly parts of the day. For example, a child in a sensitive period to order may not be so overjoyed with the new furniture you've put in her room while she was at school. You should still change out the bed your child is sleeping in if she's outgrown her floor bed and is ready for a taller bed, but you should involve her in that process.If your child's need for order presents itself in ways you cannot satisfy, acknowledge that. "Oh, my! We've left your cuddly at school today. We won't be able to get it back until tomorrow. Which cuddly would you like to sleep with tonight instead?" Your child will probably still express sadness or frustration at the lack of order in his (choice of spoon, preferred shampoo, special chair at the table, whatever!) but try not to panic. When your child is responding with anxiousness about a change in routine, calmly explain the change in terms of what control you do have over it, giving your child a choice in how to respond to the change, and maintaining your composure even in the face of a tantrum. "I know you would prefer the red pencil. Today, you may choose between the blue or the green."
Increase order: Prepare your home spaces to be accessible and predictable for your child. Have a place for his or her laundry to go at the end of the day, and keep that space the same. Follow the same routines for morning breakfast, packing lunches, settling in before nap time... the more routine you can offer, the greater the satisfaction to the child in a sensitive period to order. Put things away, and let each thing have its own place, avoiding toy bins into which objects get thrown and cluttered and choosing instead low shelves and limited choices to make sure the visual environment is orderly and inviting to your child as well. Think about all the ways in which your child's prepared environment at school offers order: the way teachers say good morning each day, or the placement of materials in the room, or the specific routines for setting the table for lunch. Incorporate this mindset at home, looking for the ways to think through and prepare for processes that involve your child.
Finally, know that, like all the sensitive periods, your child has not chosen this sensitivity. When your child's need for order rears its head (walking across the playground, for example, and stopping to pick up every piece of trash on the way, despite the fact that it's time to go!) be patient and calm. Know that your child's need for order comes from a deep developmental drive to understand and master the world around her. She's not doing this for attention or to annoy you. She's driven to influence her world. By supporting and satisfying this need when it arises, you can both decrease the tantrums that might otherwise result and increase your understanding of your child.