We are creatures of routine and rhythm. We spend considerable mental energy working to anticipate the future or make our best guess as to how that future will affect us. As adults, the energy consumption tends to increase as we attempt to influence the future at deeper and deeper levels, typically with an eye toward minimizing personal tension and pain.
Trying to anticipate the future and our appreciation of rhythm and routine seem to be an inherent part of our humanity. When things change, it causes an imbalance and creates tension while we work to find equilibrium again. For children, those changes can be minor, such as changing the type of breakfast we eat in the morning, or they can be more significant as with the birth of a sibling.
The start of the school year represents a significant change to the way things have operated during the summer. Schedules change, meals change, time with parents and friends changes, and what constitutes fun changes. In a Montessori environment, the time spent finding equilibrium in the classroom is called Normalization. The Normalization process, as discussed in the Montessori context, takes many weeks with special attention given to allow this process to work in spite of our (parents’) natural drive to minimize tension in our children's lives.
Key to the Montessori philosophy is that we all have inner voices available to guide our learning throughout life. As Parker Palmer illustrates in his metaphor, this inner voice can be thought of as a wild animal in the woods. Should we go stomping through the woods, the animal will hide in fear and we might not perceive its existence. If we spend time sitting quietly the metaphorical animal that is our inner voice will come into view. One key goal in the Montessori world is to provide a safe, calm space for children to be who they are and for each child to hear his or her inner voice.
The Montessori Normalization period is the critical time at the beginning of the year where the community builds this safe space. The children become acquainted with their classrooms, the available lessons, and the other students in the room. Together the students create the rules that govern the classroom, and they all have a voice, a voice deserving of being heard even if others disagree.
During this normalization period, students become increasingly comfortable and perceptive of the safety that is the Montessori classroom. By removing as much fear from the classroom as possible, the students grow to understand the classroom as theirs. As they progress, the students will work independently and grow comfortable with the routine and rituals of the classroom. Students begin to recognize they are in control of their own actions and understand how those actions affect the community they are working to build and sustain.
During this time, it is normal for children to have butterflies on the way to school or to have emotions run over as they are dropped off in the mornings. Toward the end of the normalization process, the community has been established, and students are considerably more comfortable working independently while being driven by their inner voices. They learn to manage their classroom freedom and to manage that freedom relative to the freedom of others in the classroom community. As they continue to progress, they become increasingly comfortable expressing their feelings in a way that respects the feelings of others. As their communication skills grow stronger, the community’s ability to empathize reinforces the safety of the community and the cycle perpetuates itself.
The longer students are in the classroom, the more they understand they can work through problems on their own and find joy in the process of learning rather than just focusing on the “success vs. failure” paradigm so prominent in educational culture today. As they develop in the Montessori classroom, our students have a safe space to experiment and practice without the judgment that might otherwise scare them away from trying challenging new skills. The feelings of safety and community increase each child’s capacity to learn and to feel confident in making the mistakes required to fully learn new concepts.
To a lesser or greater degree, we all are all constantly undergoing a kind of normalization process. Sometimes there are dramatic changes while other changes are almost imperceptible. There is no doubt that tension has the power to facilitate growth. However, it is wise to recognize that tension is not the same thing as fear, which inhibits open exploration and learning. The time spent building our learning communities, common routines, and trust at the beginning of the school year is as important as any worksheet or drill and, in the end, will facilitate increased academic progress while also helping our students become caring and self-motivated members of society. Learning to appreciate the process, finding joy in learning and comfort in being ourselves can only help to promote the positive change we all want for the future.