Much of what the adults in a Montessori environment (home or school) need to do for children, is related to the developmental crises of infancy. Dr Silvana Montanaro describes these crises in her book, Understanding the Human Being. She explains that if a child experiences complete resolution of each of these crises, then they should emerge from the period of infancy (the first three years of life) with a basic level of trust in the world, in themselves, and in their ability to function as competent and worthwhile participants of social life.
The key for parents of young children is to know what the crises are, when they occur, the characteristics of each crisis and also, most importantly, how to adequately assist the child in moving through each stage, and on to their next phase of development.
It is most important to understand that whilst we as adults may have a negative connotation attached to the word ‘crisis’, in the period of infancy, it presents a very positive opportunity for growth and development for the child, if supported in an appropriate manner. Each crisis can also be viewed in terms of separation – which also holds negative connotations for the adult. Judi Orion, Montessori Infant teacher trainer, says that “when we talk about separation and attachment , we see separation as a negative thing: we’re losing something. With attachment we see a positive thing: we are gaining something. When we talk about stages in separation and attachment, we have to accept that when a child needs to separate from something, it’s something they no longer need in order to grow. They’re going to attach to what they currently need for their continued growth.”
The first separation that the child undertakes is a separation from the womb.
This is the crisis of birth. Although the womb is a perfect environment, it can only fulfil the needs of the child for a short period of time, and will then no longer be adequate for the developing needs. Birth is a physical separation from the mother. The baby, once separate from the mother, needs to establish an attachment to the outside world, which replaces the connection he had with his mother in utero. Initially the mother is a representation of the ‘world’ for the newborn baby. The infant attaches to the new world she finds herself in, via the mother, in her arms, and through the relationship developed during feeding. This first period of attachment is called the symbiotic period and lasts for the first 6 to 8 weeks after birth. It is a fundamentally critical time, psychologically speaking, for the infant’s development. If the child has a strong attachment to the mother in this period, and if the mother facilitates this attachment, then after 8 weeks or so, the baby will be ready to separate and attach to the world outside of the mother’s arms. The mother is a secure base, from which the baby can experience the wider world, which she now becomes more interested in.
The mother can facilitate the resolution of the crisis of birth, and the subsequent attachment to the external mother, by creating a home environment in which their shared time in the initial weeks of life is protected and separate from the outside world. The role of the father, or other significant adult, is particularly important here, as they can act as a gatekeeper for the family and protect the fragile relationship that is being built between the newborn baby and the mother. The mother should be freely available to the infant during this time, and should respond promptly to any cries or signals of discomfort and need from her baby. The baby should not be handled unnecessarily, or passed around from person to person, but should be granted a period in which he can become accustomed to the new sensations of his body, skin and sense of touch. This is best achieved when a family makes a commitment to providing a close-knit and nurturing home environment that is almost cocoon-like in a way. The baby is not subjected to loud noises or bright lights and sensory stimulation is kept to a minimum. The period of symbiosis is over when the baby shows that he is ready for interaction with the world outside the mother’s arms. The infant becomes interested in noises and lights and is more alert. If the child develops a basic trust in the world in this first 6 to 8 weeks, they are really ready to turn outwards, separate and detach from the mother and go into this wider world.
The next opportunity for separation is usually during the sensitive period for weaning. The crisis of weaning usually begins when the child shows signs of readiness for introduction to solid food. This is usually around 6 months of age. Some of the signs are the ability to sit upright, the eruption of teeth, and an intense interest in watching others eat, even to the point of trying to grab food off the mother’s plate. Bear in mind that the weaning does not refer to the end of breastfeeding, but rather, the start of solid food experiences. The process of weaning concludes when the child ceases to drink milk as their main source of nutrition, and takes a number of months or longer, with each child having a different set of circumstances and needs. Anne McNamara wrote in an article for the NAMTA journal that Montessori parents should “guard against being influenced by our society’s preoccupation with freeing the mother from the baby, instead of allowing the baby to free himself from the mother...Babies are interested in nursing beyond their nutritional dependence on breast milk. This is because breastfeeding has psychological and emotional as well as nutritional benefits....It is important to encourage the observations and intuitions of mothers to know what is best for their children. Mothers need to be supported in letting their babies determine when and how long they need to nurse.”
When introducing food to the baby we take a number of variables into account: the baby’s temperament, her needs, her desire to try new things, and her willingness to try new things. When the introduction of solid food has been gradual, respectful and matched to the child’s individual timetable, and if we are sensitive to their likes and dislikes, they will most often wean themselves from the breast, naturally. Judi Orion explains that we “are not imposing our will on the child, but it does mean that if nursing has become a way we nurture the child, we find another way of nurturing.”
The crisis of objectivisation is another period for separation and attachment, this time of a very physical nature, as the child begins to move. At first she crawls, and then she walks away from the mother, returning periodically for reassurance and validation. It is important for the mother at this point, to communicate our belief in the child’s abilities, through our body language, facial expressions and words. This is also the period in which the child develops object permanence – the understanding that even if you can’t see something, it still exists. The correlation between the development of object permanence and the beginning of movement is striking, as the child who understands that their mother still exists, and is still available to them when needed, is more likely to confidently move away from her to explore their surroundings. It is our desire to see the child move into the walking plane very secure and very confident that she is equipped with many skills and is a capable person. The child who is stifled by her mother, or who’s mother communicates a lack of confidence in her ability to explore the environment and move away from her, will move into this plane with a very different idea about her capabilities.
At around 18 months of age, the child enters into the crisis of self-affirmation, sometimes called the crisis of opposition. The beginning of this period is marked by the use of the word “no”. This period is an ambivalent time for the child, who is leaving her infancy behind and moving towards childhood. She is torn between the drive to move forwards and become independent, and the desire to remain within the protective and nurturing circle that her mother provides. The child demonstrates her desire for self-affirmation through her activities and her language which are directed towards affirming herself as an individual. In the preceding period, particularly the symbiotic period, the child’s trust in the world is established. During the crisis of self-affirmation, the child’s trust in herself is established. This is when the child moves from believing that they are capable, to knowing that they can do things. She is no longer content with watching, she wants action, and most importantly she wants to be a collaborator. So we need to provide plenty of chances for her to do things, even if we think she might not be able to do them!
Silvana Montanaro advises parents that “behind the child’s ‘no’, is the desire to be recognised as a person who is already able to resolve many problems related to him...and to ask for his opinion much more often than is generally done.” She stresses that she is “not suggesting that it should be left to children to decide what to do. The idea is to simply avoid giving only orders and to leave a choice between alternatives when it is possible. In this period what really counts is helping the child to verify the importance of his presence in the family. Real collaboration comes only from those who do not feel overpowered and can contribute freely. We are not risking anything by offering choices, while the child gains very much, because we demonstrate that we consider him able to choose and that we respect his judgement. “
The end of this crisis is marked by the child’s use of the pronoun, “I”. This is the sign that he has really integrated himself as an autonomous human being. He understands that he is unique and not really a part of anyone else, but separate and individual.
“By the age of three, the model for the human being that is developing within the child is complete. Crisis periods are favourable for change, not only in children, but in all who participate in them.” – Understanding the Human Being, Silvana Montanaro