What is social life if not the solving of social problems, behaving properly and pursuing aims acceptable to all? (Montessori, 1988, p. 225)
One of the most challenging experiences for Montessori teachers is being interrupted by a student while giving a lesson or having a conversation with aanother child. Interruptions are a common occurrence in Montessori classrooms. Because children work independently, and we spend much of the work cycle working with individual children or small groups, the environment is ripe for a “quick question” or an “EMERGENCY” (usually something that could have waited until you were finished). Reducing interruptions is critical in a Montessori environment. To become the “dynamic link” between the children and the environment, as Dr. Montessori implored us to be, we need to be free to engage children in the work in the classroom. Normalization does not occur without connection to meaningful work.
One morning I was giving a lesson to five-year-old Cristina when Robby appeared in my peripheral vision. I knew what was coming next. There would be a hand on my shoulder in the next few seconds. Once the hand was in place it would get heavier and heavier as Robby waited for me to turn my attention towards him. I would eventually have to interrupt my lesson with Cristina to attend to Robby. After responding to Robby, hopefully Cristina would still be there and able to resume her concentration.
Robby was a kind boy and incredibly respectful, but he was still developing independence. I had taught the children how to interrupt me by putting their hand on my shoulder if they needed help. It was taught to me by other teachers, and I had put it in to practice as a matter of course. Robby and the other children had internalized the hand on the shoulder method of interrupting. While it was certainly a less disruptive way to interrupt than a child calling for my attention verbally, I still found it disruptive to me and to any student that I was already engaged with (I also didn’t like a hand weighing down on my shoulder).
I have since talked to many teachers who have had this dilemma. I had taught my students how to interrupt respectfully, but the number of interruptions was still disruptive! Let’s take a deeper look into how to both teach skills for respectful interruptions and reduce the number of interruptions.
Observation – Before jumping into solutions let’s look at some questions for consideration while observing. The answers to these questions can help guide our solutions.
- Environment: How might the environment be promoting interruptions (too much open space, disorder, stale work on the shelves, etc.)?
- Environment: During which situations is the interruption most frequent (circle, particular transitions, lessons, conversations, adults conversing, etc.)?
- Adults: What might the adults be doing to invite the misbehavior (allowing interruptions, inconsistent follow-through on ground rules, interrupting children when they are working)?
- Students: What missing skills might the children need to be successful?
Preparing the Environment
Here are some ideas to consider when preparing the environment (routines, expectations, and procedures) to minimize disruptions from interruptions:
- Create Help Nametags. When a child has a question or needs support with a situation, they simply hand their nametag to the adult. When the adult is finished with their lesson, conversation, task, etc. they seek out the child to help.
- Use the Wheel of Choice. This is a list of ideas or solutions to common classroom difficulties (empty supplies, conflict with another student, etc.) posted on a pie chart. When a child runs into difficulty, they can use the Wheel of Choice to help them find a solution to their problem. See Chapter 11 in Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom.
- Adjust routines and procedures to help support independence. Maybe it’s just giving more time for a transition, or having older children volunteer to help younger students.
- If children are interrupting a lot to ask for help while you’re giving lessons, consider a “one up, one down” practice. This is where one adult is observing and fully present for the entire class when the other teacher is giving a lesson, thus leaving the lesson giver free to work without interruption.
- Establish a proactive routine of checking in with students who are not yet independent, before lessons, transitions, or other times where they might need support. This may also apply to groups of students. For instance, if a group of students is working on a multi-step follow-up activity for the first time, check in with them before you have a private conversation or give a lesson to a student.
Take Time for Teaching
Consider teaching the following Grace and Courtesy Skills:
- Identifying a good time to interrupt a teacher or a friend. Be sure to be as concrete as possible with young children. They are in the process of developing social awareness and they cannot always read subtle social cues. Give them specific examples of how to tell that it’s a good time to ask a question.
- Identifying a bad time to interrupt a teacher or a friend. Again, be as specific as possible with younger children.
- Identifying who to ask for help if it is not a good time to interrupt. Maybe it’s an older child or another teacher.
- When to interrupt, even if it is not a good time (safety, etc.).
- How to interrupt politely. Decide how you want to teach children to interrupt. A hand on the shoulder is one way. How else do adults interrupt (write a note, give a non-verbal signal, stand by silently, ask for them to find you when they are ready, etc.)?
Kind and Firm Follow-Through
After children have learned the appropriate Grace and Courtesy Skills, and have had time to practice these skills, it’s time to follow-through. Remember, mistakes are an opportunity to learn. This doesn’t mean that adult responses are permissive. Kind and firm follow-through means that the adults maintain clear expectations while bringing a spirit of warmth and support when it’s time to maintain previously set limits.
- Non-Verbal Signals – For individual students who are more prone to interruptions, create special non-verbal signals to indicate:
- I need your help.
- I’ll come find you as soon as I’m done.
- Let’s talk privately.
- Curiosity Questions – Instead of giving directives, like “Go ask Mrs. Smith,” or “Please find some work until I’m finished,” consider asking prompting questions that invite children to draw on what they know. For example, “What ways can you get help when I’m in a lesson?”, or “Where can you find some ideas to solve that problem?”, or “How can you let me know that you need help when I’m in a lesson?”
- Act, Don’t Talk – If you have an agreement with a child around interruptions, and the child interrupts, ask them, “What was our agreement.” Then, stop talking but remain supportive.
- Present, Warm, and Silent – Whether you establish a private non-verbal signal ahead of time, or prompt the interrupting student verbally, stay present, warm, and silent (PWS) after the prompt. Give a warm and knowing smile that communicates, “I know that you know, and you know that I know. I trust you to follow through.”
- Encouragement – Focus on progress, not perfection. Take time to notice when children make progress with this social skill. If you observe a child approach you when you’re speaking to someone else, and then they go and get their Help Nametag be sure to give them encouragement when you speak to them after your conversation. “It looked like you really wanted to talk to me when I was speaking with Monique, and then you stopped and got your nametag to give me. Thank you. That really helped me pay attention to Monique, and now I’m able to pay attention to you. How can I help?”
- Class Meetings – Children become leaders with practice, not by osmosis. Class Meetings are an incredibly effective venue to teach Grace and Courtesy Skills (first period), practice them (second period), and apply their understanding through problem solving when challenges arise (third period). When children are involved in follow-through by problem-solving, they learn how to help support their friends outside the class meeting. That is leadership!
The end of the story: Robby began to exhibit more independence throughout the year the more that I worked with him proactively. Like most children, Robby needed to know what to do more than he needed to know what not to do.
Until next time…
Montessori, M. (1988.) The Absorbent Mind. Clio Press.