Teacher Talk: When Children Are Hurtful
The child is capable of developing and giving us tangible proof of the possibility of a better humanity. He has shown us the true process of construction of the human being. We have seen children totally change as they acquire a love for things and as their sense of order, discipline, and self-control develops within them.... The child is both a hope and a promise for mankind.
- Maria Montessori, Education and Peace
We believe this. We really do. We describe children's peacefulness in our school brochures and admissions tours. We talk about it at Parent Education events and we make space to honor it in our classrooms. We believe that children are inherently peaceful, and that when children behave in ways that are notyetpeaceful, it falls to us to identify what has gotten in their way. We are meant to look for the child who is yet to come, and to prepare our environments and ourselves as though they are already here.
Except that, sometimes, when they're not so peaceful, when they're bossy or aggressive or controlling, when they break things or throw tantrums or disrupt group time or hurt each other, when they bite each other or bite us or yell when we want them to be quiet or fight back when we want them to comply, sometimes, when they're not so peaceful, it's really really really hard. It's hard not to fight fire with fire. It's hard to keep cool and keep loving on them and it's hard to keep believing that, even when their faces are red and twisted and angry and fierce, that they are both a hope and promise for mankind. It's hard not to take it personally.
But when they're not so peaceful, when they're bossy or aggressive or controlling, when they break things or throw tantrums or disrupt group time or hurt each other, when they bite each other or bite us or yell when we want them to be quiet or fight back when we want them to comply, that's when they need us to believe in them most of all. When the world has gone so wrong for that child that even they have lost sight of their own nature, that's when they need us to remind them of who they are, of their goodness, their peacefulness, and their promise. "But it's just a crayon," you might be thinking. "Let's keep this in perspective," you might be thinking. "The world hasn't gone so wrong to warrant this behavior," you might be thinking.
For the child, every moment is the world. The younger the child, the more that is true. Imagine an infant who is hungry. Would you be angry with an infant for crying in their hunger? Would you try to reason with them? Would you tell them to sit down and be still until they calmed down and that you would bring them food once they stopped crying? Or would you hold them gently, rock them and soothe them as you found their bottle, speak softly or sing for them until you could satisfy their need? We understand that the child has a need to be fulfilled, and we forgive the child, not just after the fact, but in the moment, for the emotions they express until that need is resolved.
Imagine, then, an older child, whose need for agency or need to feel included, whose expectations have been dashed or whose motivations have been squelched, who has complicated ideas but limited words or lofty goals but limited skills, who has the emotional self-regulation predictable of a child. Would you be angry with that child for how they respond when the world overwhelms them? Would you try to reason with them when their emotions are so deeply engaged that they are seeing the world through tear-filled eyes? Or would you comfort them, speak softly and assure them that they are safe and they are loved. Can you forgive them, not just after the fact, but in the moment, for the not-so-peaceful expression of not-so-peaceful emotions?
Imagine, then, an elementary learner, whose sense of justice, deeply ingrained and essential to them like air, is injured, who has been excluded by their peer group or who is balancing between wanting to be respected as an older peer and having the maturity of a younger child, whose body has grown while they slept and whose bones are aching as they're trying to sit still, whose empathy is dueling with their need to be independent and in control. Would you be angry with that child? Are we faster to anger when the child isn't as cute anymore? When they can talk back with more bite? When their fists land harder? Can you forgive them, not just after the fact, but in the messy, fierce, angry moment?
Fight fire with fire, and you get more fire.
Remember: your work is to see the child for the possibility of a better humanity, as the hope and the promise. Even when they're chaotic, when they're aggressive, when they're frustrated or overwhelmed or angry. Especially then. Match their aggression with peace. The angrier they are, the calmer you must be. The more fiercely they test their limits, the more firmly those limits must stand. They are not just testing the rules; they're testing whether you'll love them even when they test the rules. They're testing whether you'll have faith in them even when they don't give you much cause. Love them like they're hungry children. Find the unmet need, and meet it. And then, when the dust has settled and their hearts and minds are open again, talk about how they can have that agency, that independence and control, by taking peaceful steps earlier and avoiding the meltdown.
Remember: your heart is no different than theirs. You may, too, suffer when your empathy duels with your need for control, when your expectations have been dashed or motivations squelched. If you find that you cannot respond peacefully to the notyetpeaceful child, love them enough to step out of the way. Forgive yourself in the moment, take a breath in, make eye contact with someone who gets it, let that breath out, and demonstrate for the child that, even when you're angry, even when you're frustrated or overwhelmed, you can still be peaceful. Be sure that the obstacle isn't you, so you can better prepare the environment for the child who is yet to come.