Doing Nothing, Really?

General surveillance and individual teaching, given with precision, are two ways in which the teacher can help the child’s development.  In this period, she must take care never to turn her back on the class while she is dealing with a single child. Her presence must be felt by all these spirits, wandering and in search of life. ~ Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, page 271


Miao and her assistant, Laura were having their weekly meeting before school.  Miao had been observing Laura “redirecting” children who were disrupting the other children during the morning work cycle.  After many of these “redirections” the redirected student would stop their disruptive behavior temporarily.  A few minutes later, the student would be back at it, and Laura would traverse the classroom to redirect again.  An unintended consequence of these “redirections” was that Laura’s movements through the classroom were as disruptive, if not more disruptive, than the student who was distracting others in the first place!

 Miao shared these observations with Laura, and suggested that before she attempted to redirect a child, that she simply observe the child, and count to ten, slowly.  The next week when they checked in, Laura said, “I can’t believe how well that worked.  More than half of the situations where I was about to redirect one of the children, and then paused to count, they corrected themselves before I got to ten.”

Just observing and being present can often be enough for a child to redirect their own behavior.  When I first found out about this concept I was really taken aback.  It had never occurred to me that this was an option.  One morning, , I was sitting on the edge of the classroom observing my elementary classroom, reading with a student and taking a few notes.  James, age 8, was making the rounds through the classroom, visiting friends sitting at different tables, making jokes, socializing, and disrupting other children.  In the past I would have gotten up, walked across the classroom, and addressed the child, and asked him to go back to his work, often getting involved in a power struggle or argument.

  This time, I just stayed in my seat and watched him, without doing anything.  Eventually, he felt my gaze and presence from across the room and looked over at me.  He then went back to talking and joking with his friend.  I continued to just observe.  He looked up again and saw me watching.  He turned back to his friends and continued his conversation.  I continued to just watch.  Again, he looked and saw that I was still watching.  This time, he shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and went back to the timeline he had been working on.  He had made his own decision, I had set a limit with very little effort, and we both were able to maintain our dignity in the situation. As well, I was able to stay present for the child who was reading to me.

 Dr. Montessori suggested that one of our most important tasks as teachers was to observe the children in the classroom environment.  However, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many of us take very little time to sit and observe.  One of the most frequent answers that teachers give, when asked why they don’t spend time observing their classrooms, is that they don’t have time.  They are giving lessons, redirecting children, and addressing behavioral issues.  Is it possible, that we might actually be creating or inviting many of the disruptions in the classroom by our belief that we need to react to every misbehavior? Can you both give lessons and observe?

“Her presence must be felt by all these spirits wandering and in search of life.” 

The next time you have a chance to observe another teacher’s classroom take notice of how much adults unintentionally disrupt the children.  Often, adults will move through the classroom to address a situation, and don’t see the wake that they left behind them as they traversed the classroom.  The teacher, without meaning to, will not only disrupt her lesson or work with a child, but also disrupt the other students in the classroom on the way to “redirect” the misbehavior of another child.

Adults have a very powerful presence in the classroom, no matter what the age of the children.  Their movements, tone of voice and interactions with the children reverberate throughout the environment.  When I was observing James, I did not do so passively.  I “filled the room with my presence.”  When children feel the presence of an adult, they feel safe.  When they feel safe, they do better!  Often times, a knowing smile by the teacher is enough to redirect a distracting or distracted student. 

Preparing the Environment for Observation: Consider designating a couple of areas in the classroom for adults to simply sit, be present, and to actively observe the children, filling the room with their presence so they can redirect with their eyes rather than their bodies and voices.  Many classrooms have an observation chair.  What about a couple for different views?  We took the suggestion, and the results were amazing.  To our surprise, when the assistant simply sat and actively observed the children and the classroom as a whole, the children would more often than not stop their disruptive behavior without being asked, or their classmates would ask them to stop. [1]

Until next time…

[1] Nelsen, Jane, and Chip DeLorenzo. Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom: Preparing an Environment That Fosters Respect, Kindness and Responsibility. USA, Parent Child Press, 2021, page 118-120. 

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About the Author

Picture of Chip DeLorenzo

Chip DeLorenzo

An experienced Montessori Educator who has served in a variety of roles for over 25 years, Chip DeLorenzo is a trainer, consultant and co-author of Positive Discipline in the Montessori Classroom. He works with teachers, parents and schools across the globe to help them to create Montessori environments that promote mutual respect, cooperation and responsibility.


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