Whilst Montessori declares normalisation to be one of the key goals of her pedagogy, many of us either avoid the use of the term because of its negative connotations, or use it as a tool for covert behaviour and learning assessment of the child’s progress in our settings. Neither one of these approaches seems comfortable and it would be good to try to tease out what it means to us. I do not anticipate we will find any definitive answers, however I do hope we will flip the lid of this Pandora’s Box with open minds and generous hearts as we explore, unravel and grapple with what we understand by normalisation and its importance in the 21st century.
What I mean is (and these statements are representative of my own attitude too): by avoiding the term in our consideration of children’s development, behaviours and learning, we are negating Montessori’s aspirations for the child. Are we really understanding her aims and aspirations? By using the ‘normalisation yard stick’ – “this child is not normalised yet” are we passing an unfair judgement? Montessori is very clear in her writing that normalisation is an on-going process in the first plane of development. As practitioners, we have also come to experience normalisation’s fleeting qualities. When a child’s personal or home circumstances change, we might witness a change in behaviour and in the characteristics ascribed to normalisation – such as capacity for prolonged concentration, deep level engagement which Montessori refers to as the polarisation of attention, as well as joy, pleasure and harmony. I have been reminded by a friend that it is also possible to witness normalisation and its opposite during a single day. This highlights the complexity of the young child’s whole being which includes physical, cognitive and social and emotional facets all intertwined like the rhizomes created by plants. So we need to ask ourselves:
What do we understand by normalisation?
Do we see it as a cognitive process which allows the child to concentrate in an environment prepared to meet the child’s needs and enabling free choice and facilitating extended times of engagement?
Do we witness the first glimpses of normalisation as the child’s settles comfortably into our setting? Is concentration the first and most important shift to normalisation, or could it be the development of social skills, learning to simply enjoy being with others?
How do we nurture the initial glimpses of concentration and satisfaction from this engagement?
How do we support a child who suddenly finds inability to engage with our environment?
What do we know about children’s cultural and family background and do we accept them for who they are without any prejudged ideas about them and their family?
Do our own cultural norms and lack of capacity to accept those of others colour the way we help children feel comfortable and joyful in our settings?
The questions continue to flood into my mind.
Does the child’s culture influence what we understand by the uncomfortable phase ‘normalised child’?
Is the child who understands and is able to follow the routines in our settings and displays a level of self-discipline normalised?
Montessori ascribes this characteristic of the normalised child to the benefits of the prepared environment – the respect for the child’s independence, freedom to move and choice and from interruptions and interference, the ability to repeat, participate in or observe activities in the classroom For me these conditions are closely linked with the atmosphere which also fosters engagement and concentration.
Another quality of the Montessori approach is respectful and polite communication with the children, their families and all the adults in the environment. This I would see as a significant element of the normalisation process too. This means that grace and courtesy and social mores of our culture are observed, modelled and encouraged. But what about if the child’s understanding of social conventions is quite different to our own because of their home environment which fosters a different approach – are we flexible to accept, value and celebrate them?
Do we really foster social identify which is rooted in family culture?
Do we help all children feel valued, respected and accepted for who they are?
Do they feel they really belong and have a sense of well-being when they are with us in our setting?
Can a child who does not feel fully accepted really concentrate enough to be able to reach a deep engagement and level of concentration?
Montessori would indicate that the child can achieve this state despite of what is going on around them, as given in the example of a child engaging with the cylinder block.
Again I am prompted to ask How often do we witness this phenomenon and are there other pre-requisites which we need to consider to enable this polarisation of attention?
Have you witnessed characteristics of normalised behaviour in activities which engage several children, or is it something typical of behaviours of individual children?
When pondering Montessori’s writing on this topic I am reminded of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, described as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990). For Csikszentmihalyi flow is at the roots of happiness.
Perhaps knowing more about flow and creating favourable conditions will help children in finding their own path of development and the gradual unfolding of their own personality may offer some answers for our exploration of normalisation and our understanding of happiness.
Join Antonella Cirillo and Heidi van Staden in conversation about normalisation on Tuesday 10 May at 7pm (BST). Register here.