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Tolerating Caterpillars


As spring unfolds here at Pine Grove and our little caterpillars begin to sprout their

wings, you may begin to see some new and interesting behaviors emerging on the

playground (and in the classroom). As our children naturally grow and develop

academically (and get a touch of spring fever!) so does their social behavior grow and

change. Although our peace curriculum runs wide and deep all year long, at this point in

the school year we may have to refresh the foundation of appropriate conflict resolution

and peer problem solving skills that we laid earlier. You may also see notes on your

classroom wipe-off boards regarding specific classroom meeting topics that are being

revisited and reinforced.

We pride ourselves on the fact that “Pine Grove is a peaceful place” and most of the time,

it is. However, our children are continually learning and honing their social skills.

Rather than be adults that are quick to jump in, intervene and solve disputes as they arise,

we will continue to facilitate your child’s affective growth and to empower them to

handle a variety of social situations on their own. (However, be assured that if we sense

that any situation is escalating too far, we will step in to mediate.) As you read the

attached article, “Tolerating Caterpillars” by Sharon Caldwell realize that a few tears or

hurt or angry feelings may very well be a sign of “I’m still learning!” and are also

important signs of emotional growth.

Tolerating Caterpillars

By Sharon Caldwell, East London, South Africa

“Well, I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars

if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.

It seems that they are very beautiful”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

Natasha Brown withdrew her child from his Montessori Casa class after seeing a four-

year-old hit another child. She informed the school administration that Montessori

environments are suppose to be peaceful places, and that she was looking for a school

where the children are not allowed to be unkind to one another.

This scenario is all too common, but it is unfortunate, as in the majority of circumstances,

the parents’ efforts at protecting their children are misguided, and could end up actually

disempowering their children. Just as children learn practical daily life skills and

cognitive skills through practice in real contexts, so affective skills can be developed

through real and meaningful interactions.

Parents often question whether the Montessori classroom prepares children for the ‘real

world.’ Disagreeing with other people, and sometimes having to cope with aggression

and violence in others, is all too common in the ‘real world.’ Failing to prepare our

children to handle their own anger in appropriate ways, and protecting them from all

threatening situations, deprives them of the opportunity to practice peace-making and

conflict-resolution strategies.

Young children often hurt one another. This does not automatically imply that a child,

who sometimes bites or lashes out is a nascent bully. It is, on the contrary, the indication

that he has not yet acquired and mastered appropriate social skills. The child on the

receiving end of this behavior may also lack the skills necessary to avoid such physical

conflict and strategies to deal with them when they arise.

A teacher, who stands back when such a conflict arises, risks the accusation of

abandonment or of being irresponsible. This is the point at which the skills of

observation come into play. It is necessary for the teacher to know her pupils, and,

obviously, no caring adult will stand back and watch a five- or six-year-old attack a two-

year-old. If a teacher knows her students well, and has provided adequate indirect

preparation through a variety of lessons which provide the child with a range of strategies

for handling conflict and possible aggression, she should give the children the space to

bring those skills into practice. In a mature multi-age class, older children are able to

provide scaffolding for younger children when necessary, empowering them as mediators

as well as helping the ‘combatants’ learn that adult intervention is not always necessary.

There are clear disadvantages in the assumption that all conflicts (even those which may

involve some level of physical aggression) require the intervention of an adult. On the

contrary, adult interference often teaches the opposite lesson to that which we intend.

The natural tendency is to console the apparent victim, and in some ways chastise or

correct the apparent perpetrator. The child who bites, hits, or kicks, however, may well

have been responding in an impulsive way to a situation of frustration or even perceived

threat to himself. Adult intervention in favor of the ‘victim’ may convey to the aggressor

that his needs don’t matter, resulting in further aggression. Adult intervention to directly

solve or mediate children’s disputes reinforces dominator paradigm strategies – get

someone stronger to handle a situation – and fails to develop skill sets that would enable

children to both deal with aggression and anger, as well as the abilities needed to evolve a

culture of peace in the environment. As Dr. Montessori pointed out, peace is not merely

the absence of war. A peaceful classroom is not a classroom where the adult ensures that

no conflict can occur, but one where the children, themselves, develop ways and means

of resolving real life disputes as they arise. Each new child entering the environment

upsets any equilibrium which as been established, and presents new opportunities for


Montessori teachers and administrators can help parents to become partners in this

process by highlighting that peace in the environment is a process which is ongoing.

Inappropriate aggressive behavior in young children should be seen as an ‘error.’ Errors

provide opportunities for learning and children can be helped to use visual and verbal

cues from others to moderate their own behavior. As a child gains control of his will and

greater control of a variety of communication strategies, so he will begin to either avoid

conflict or to handle disagreements and challenges in proactive ways.

By all means, the teacher should intervene if a child is in real danger of being injured, or

severely distressed. Occasional tears, hurt feelings, or physical discomfort are, on the

other hand, important constituents of emotional growth. Standing back and ignoring

disputes, or brushing off a child’s distress is, indeed, abandonment. Rushing in to

prevent a potentially aggressive situation or to resolve all disputes is the affective

domain’s equivalent to doing a child’s math problems for him, or directly correcting the

child’s work. Guiding a child to understand that you are available if your help is really

needed, but clearly conveying to the children that you have the faith that they are able to

handle a variety of situations alone is immensely empowering.

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