Aggression in the First Plane
While Montessori classrooms are generally peaceful places to be, and Montessori teachers describe the intrinsic peacefulness of the child, the actual behavior of those same children is sometimes, well, less than peaceful. That we know children's intrinsic nature to be peaceful does not mean that children will always choose the most peaceful way around the obstacles to that nature. Indeed, it is because we believe children can be peaceful that we pay such close attention when they're not.
Understanding aggression in your child is a complicated calculus. If you believe that aggression is not the natural condition of childhood, you need to ask what's different about (this child, this context, this language, this interaction) that may interfere with that condition. In the First Plane of Development, when we know children are working to understand their place in the world and the reliability of relationships within it, aggression is often a means of testing that developing knowledge. Up until about the age of two, most children's aggression, including pulling, pushing, biting, hitting and kicking, results from a lack of language and a lack of self-regulation. Both, of course, are developmentally appropriate, although the behaviors that arise from that development may be troubling. Between two and three years old, aggression is often the result of overwhelming emotions: frustration, hunger, jealousy, but also sometimes curiosity, enthusiasm or excitement. Lacking the impulse control necessary to stop, think through their emotions and predict the most appropriate way to convey them, toddlers leap into action, engaging others in whatever way they can, even sometimes forcefully.
For older children in the First Plane, aggression still often results from immaturity or a lack of impulse control, but it is more likely to occur in times of conflict, when two children disagree over whose turn it is to use a particular toy, for example, or when one child's behavior is irritating to another. Older children may be able to more clearly express why they were angry after the fact, although they may still be developing the ability to manage that anger without acting out.
As teachers and parents, it's important to understand the child, the context, the language and the interaction to know how to prevent or respond to aggressive behavior. What may be a tough day every once in a while may become a pattern of communication... if the child is regularly using aggression with peers or adults, you need to disrupt the pattern to help the child realize they have other tools available to them besides their bodies.
1. Know the child: Is this a child who is easily overwhelmed? Is this a child who struggles more with self-regulation when they are tired or hungry? Does the child have regular sleep habits and a healthy diet? Is the child in the middle of a growth spurt? When looking for a pattern of aggressive behavior, start first with the basic needs: food, sleep, activity, love. Then, especially with young children, help to break the pattern. Make sure the child isn't hungry or tired before changing environments with them. If you know the child is having a harder day, stay nearby to help monitor their frustration before they may recognize it. While you don't want to have to helicopter your child forever, you may need to for the short term to help them learn new ways to interact when they're frustrated.
2. Know the context: Is there something in the environment that is likely to upset the child's sense of well-being? Are you in a new environment, for example, or a place that's louder or brighter or more distracting than your child is used to? Has your child come from a previously restrictive environment, like emerging from their car seat to run from the car to the playground, or transitioned from the quiet attentiveness of time with you alone to a birthday party with lots of friends they aren't used to seeing on the weekend? Is your child someplace that is overwhelming in sound, smell, sight or temperature? Are you less available to them than usual, such that their efforts to test a new environment might get a little farther along before you notice them? If you can be aware of the ways in which a space may be disruptive to your child, you can spend a little extra time with them as they transition to that space, gently holding them and observing the space first until your child feels safe to explore. Then, stay nearby and attentive. Unusual spaces evoke unusual behavior, and your typically-gentle child may grab, bite, or push when unsettled by new stimuli.
3. Know the language: What language does your child already know and use to describe their emotions and needs? For younger children and toddlers, this is probably not much. For older children in early childhood, this may be more complicated but still irregular. If your child is experiencing something for which they do not yet have words, you can expect that they'll express themselves physically. It takes a lot of self-restraint and self-awareness to be able to articulate, "I am anxious here because there are so many new people and things and I know I'm supposed to be excited about it, but I'm actually a bit afraid because I don't know what to expect." Most adults don't even express themselves with that much self-awareness! But your child may be experiencing all of those emotions, including the awareness that they are uncomfortable or ill-at-ease. Without words, they'll rely on their bodies. It falls, then, to you to give them the words they need. Disrupt the frustration by naming it before it's expressed physically. "This birthday party is so bright! Let's look at all the colors together." Take a moment to talk your child through the stimuli that might otherwise overwhelm them, and give your child as much space as you understand their ability to self-regulate to be. For younger children who have not yet developed the language to express themselves in stressful settings, that's just a little bit of space. For older children who have demonstrated the ability to ask for help or make themselves understood, that should be more.
4. Understand the interaction: Is your child engaging with other children with whom they regularly interact? Are there personalities that just don't mesh? Are there new children in the group or muddied ground rules among the parents supervising? Be alert, especially if your child has been aggressive in the past, for new interactions that might evoke a stronger response. If you can predict them, you can prevent them.
Until your child has the language, self restraint and executive functioning skills to respond to unsettling experiences with words, you have to remain extra alert to triggers that might evoke a more physical response. But you won't be able to prevent them all. If your child does engage in hurtful behavior, intervene promptly but sternly. While you don't want to frighten your child, you should avoid messages that might confuse them.This is not a time for sing-song or smiling. Attend to the hurt child first, modeling care and gentleness, then speak firmly, quickly separating your child from the action. Clearly and concisely articulate your expectations. "You may keep your hands on your body." "You can touch gently." Draw your child's attention to the child they've hurt. "It makes Maya sad when you push her. Let's ask Maya what she needs to feel better. Maya, how can we help?" Direct intervention toward resolving the issue, demonstrating gentle interaction or helping to restore the commotion, instead of forcing an apology. Older children can ask, "How can I make it better?" when they've behaved aggressively, rather than being told to say, "I'm sorry." Remember: while remorse requires an ability to understand the perspective of others, and often develops later than the child's ability to say, "I'm sorry!" true resolution is based on action, not words.
Intervening in children's aggressive behavior is time-sensitive. The child who has acted out of impulse will not be able to resolve that impulse by still being in trouble for it later on. But those impulses can be regulated with practice, in real time. Respond to the aggression quickly and firmly - not angrily, but sternly- and then begin looking for ways to prevent it from happening again. Stay with your child, observing and modeling how they should interact, until the conflict is resolved and the climate feels settled again. While your child needs to be in challenging situations to learn how to behave in challenging situations, you may need to be a bit more alert to potential pitfalls as your child is mastering this new skill. It may take many many examples as your child builds their self-restraint. In the meantime, be candid with other parents about the work you are doing with your child. Let them know that you're going to stay a little closer than usual to your child but that you look forward to chatting with them later on. And don't let your own embarrassment at your child's behavior cause you to lose your cool... your child is learning more from your self-restraint and intentional intervention in the conflict than from the words you use. If you're angry, they'll learn to be angry. If you're physical, they'll learn to intervene with their bodies. Model how to engage in highly stimulating spaces peacefully, how to communicate frustration firmly but without aggression, and how to resolve issues when they do happen, and trust that your child wants to live in a peaceful world as much as you want that for them.