Interacting or Interfering? Challenges of Montessori Practice

By Antonella Cirillo and Barbara Isaacs

In this week’s Conversation with Antonella Cirillo, which we will share at our webinar on Tuesday 9 November at 19.00 (UTC), we are exploring the challenges to our Montessori practice, focusing on why and how we engage with young children and when we choose to interact and when to interrupt.  This conversation was inspired by Julie Fisher’s 2016 book Interacting or Interfering? Improving Interaction in the Early Years”. It was our intention to revisit the challenging topic of when not to interrupt the child’s deep level engagement, and how to offer support or extend the child learning through tools such as sustained shared thinking introduced to us by the EPPE project in 2004. Co-construction of learning is another useful lens through which to reflect on this topic – referring to sustained interactions and experiences with all children in secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships, whilst the dialogical approach enables consideration of a complexity of the conditions that shape our understanding of dialogue in context.

The conversation gave us an opportunity to consider the importance of the early interaction particularly in the first and second years of life when the child’s sensitive period for language is unfolding, attachment patterns are developing and need for social connections emerges.  We were reminded of the importance of our human tendencies, our inborn predispositions for communication and gregariousness.   It made us aware of the interconnectedness of these early experiences and of the importance of feelings as the bank of our memories is added to through our interactions.  Yet at the same time it is important to be patient and not interfere when choices are being made, be it in play with treasure baskets or when selecting an activity from a shelf.  Early strides towards independence require extra patience in non-interference as babies feed themselves and toddlers put on their coats, help in setting table or when washing their hands. This is where respectful pedagogy (Hawkins, 2014) makes particular impact and helps children to grow in their competence, confidence and the internal working model of our interactions expands.

From the practitioners and children’s point of view, careful preparation of the environment offers greater opportunities for both interaction and non-interference; however, observation is the key to learning more about when to interact and when not.  Interestingly Julie Fisher reflects on the need for active observation – by which we understand that the adult is fully engaged and present in the moment whilst appearing to be very still.  Her advice to wait, watch and wonder provides a wise guide to our daily work with children, and an opportunity to more effective team work, particularly when mentoring colleagues and sharing our learnings about children from our observations.

During our conversation, Wendelien reflects on the non-binary nature of our approach to this topic.  It is neither the full-blown interaction or strict non-interference – it is nuanced and influenced by our observation based on knowledge of the children and by the moments of shared learning.  In order to do this, it is s not always necessary to hold a notebook or an iPad. These tools (often loved or hated) can become a screen that interrupts and interferes with our ability to deeply connect with the child. Without these gadgets, we become more able to identify with the child and get closer to the child, to become attuned.

Julie Fisher reminds us to look not only at the hands of child, to what they are ‘doing’, but to the whole body and facial expression, that could be of intense concentration, hard thinking, ‘eureka’ moments, or grappling with a problem. This professional, human connection opens windows to emotions the child feels and dispositions the child activates.  If you are not familiar with the Leuven observation scales of involvement and well-being – this may be the time to become acquainted with these very helpful observational tool.

As we grapple with when to interact or intervene, we do not always get it right, however when the interaction or the non-interference meet the need of the child, we do get the sense of a special shared moment when both the child and the adult benefit from the coming together. Fisher (2016: 175) invites us to analyse the effectiveness of the interaction and to ask ourselves

“Did the child gain something positive from this interaction that they might not otherwise have had?”

You might find it helpful to use the tables provided on the subsequent pages in the book to gain further understanding in support of continued learning about ourselves and the children with whom we work.

Do join us on Tuesday when we share the full conversation with you, after which we will break into smaller groups to explore this challenge to our practice. Register here.


Fisher, J. (2016) Interacting or Interfering? Improving Interactions in the Early Years Maidenhead, UK, OUP

Hawkins, K. (2014) Teaching for social justice, social responsibility and social inclusion: a respectful pedagogy for twenty-first century early childhood education

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (2004)

Dialogical and Dialectical Thinking

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