“Aid to Life” Chapter 10, Montessori at Home Age 0-6

(Excerpt from the book Aid to Life, Montessori Beyond the Classroom)

Temper Tantrums

Everywhere I have worked it seems that temper tantrums are becoming a problem. In some cases a child crying “for no reason” was just not tolerated in the past and any incidence would be immediately punished. Now parents realize that it is important for children to honestly express their emotions. Temper tantrums are one of the ways young children express their emotions, unhappiness, boredom, need for attention. I hear stories from around the world that are similar:

Children cry or yell in order to get what they want and parents don’t know what to do. When the temper tantrum happens in public they are ashamed and know that something is wrong but they don’t know the answer. So they give in to the child’s demands to end the embarrassing scene.

Yes, in these situations we parents know that something is wrong. But what can we do about it? I will share some of what I have learned over the years.

There are emotions, expressed in temper tantrums, that are healthy and justified, and there are also those that we have trained children to exhibit.

Here is an example of the second type in my own experience.

A new two-year-old girl entered my preschool Montessori classroom. I took her to the shelf, selected a knobbed puzzle, took her to a table and chair and showed her how to begin. Then I watched. She chose a puzzle piece but couldn’t immediately fit the piece into one of the empty spaces. Rather than looking for another space for that puzzle piece, she threw the piece down and began to yell loudly. I showed her how to match the shape to several different empty spaces before trying to place it in the puzzle. She managed one piece, but then repeated the behavior with the second. I showed her again and she did the puzzle quickly. But each time I gave her something else to work with, and she couldn’t do it perfectly immediately, she started to yell even though there was nothing anyone could do for her.

Finally, I told her that I could see she was used to yelling a lot but she should just come and get me if she really needed help. I also explained to the rest of the class that she was all right, not hurt or scared, she was just used to yelling. I would say she had about twenty temper tantrums during that first morning. The next morning she had ten tantrums; the third morning five temper tantrums; and then no more, ever. My not responding with each outburst is an example of extinguishing, rather than reinforcing, a behavior pattern, from Psychology 101.

She seemed quite relieved not to have to spend so much time yelling and trying to get someone’s attention and settled very well and happily into the routine of the class.

It was such a striking change, even though the tantrums continued to a lesser degree at home, that the mother wanted to learn; so we discussed this at the next parent meeting. When observing the beginnings of temper tantrums at home I asked the parents not to change any behavior but to observe and make a note, what had happened before and what did they think the child needed, or wanted.

Temper tantrum – Old Brain

Prevention is always more powerful than cure. The more a parent can meet the needs of a child the less chance that there will be temper tantrum. But if one occurs, it is important to understand two basic causes.

One kind of a temper tantrum, or strong negative reaction, is fully justified. It is an old brain survival reaction to an emotion such as pain, confusion, hunger, tiredness, sensory overload, missing a parent, boredom, too much TV or computer, even upsetting a sense of order, or having one’s concentration interrupted!

Here are a few things to keep in mind in preparing to deal with a temper tantrum. I was reminded of them recently in a parenting talk given by a friend Heidi Philippart, an AMI Montessori 0-3 teacher trainer in Amsterdam. Her talk was broadcast throughout the world and benefited many parents.

In the first three years of life there are three freedoms:

1 – A child needs to have freedom to move.

2 – A child needs to have freedom to communicate, to talk.

3 – A child needs to have freedom to work on something interesting.

Children in these early years cannot obey us when we are asking for something (hold still, be quiet) that goes against this life-supporting inner drive. We can help by keeping a consistent order in how the day goes so the young child knows what is coming next. And by keeping the environment simple and not chaotic, keeping things in the same place as much as possible.

Here is an example of how an upset sense of order can cause a problem.

A very young child in our neighboring home had begun, seemingly out of the blue, to hit her father. The father, a psychologist, realized finally that his usual schedule was to leave for work every weekday morning at the same time, and on the weekend two days he would stay home. This was Christmas vacation and the third day of staying home. The sense of order of the child’s life had been upset. Just an understanding of the situation defused the confusion and calmed the whole family. An infant can become very upset over things that we would not notice; for example the child, in a story told by Montessori, who cried because an umbrella, which the child had seen many times closed, was opened for the first time. A child may become disturbed as a result of being bathed after a meal when she has become accustomed to being bathed before a meal.

Temper tantrum 2 – New Brain

The new, or higher brain, develops gradually. But just like anything else, a child needs practice in self-control. Just as there are three freedoms in Montessori 0-6 environments, there are also three limits, again, very well put during my friend’s parenting talk.

1 – A child is not allowed to hurt him or her self.

2 – A child is not allowed to hurt another.

3 – A child is not allowed to be destructive to the environment.

Here is another example from personal experience. A grandson, age four was visiting for a few days. He started arguing with his older sister over something they were playing. Suddenly he started yelling, hitting, her, and throwing toys. My Montessori teacher instinct immediately came into play. I gently but firmly picked him up and put him in my lap and held him firmly, even as he struggled to hit me and get away. My words were something like, “I am not angry at you. I am just holding you until you get yourself back under control, until you are back to being your wonderful self.” This first time was the longest episode but he calmed down.

During a second episode we did the same thing and this took much less time. Later, at a neutral moment (when they were playing well together),” I said, “If you ever feel like losing control like that you could just come and sit on the sofa next to me and see if that is all you need.” This happened a few times.

Then I said, “If I am not in the room and you feel the need to control yourself would you like to try just sitting here on the sofa to see if that helps you calm down?” It worked.

When his father came to pick up the grandchildren the first thing our grandson wanted to show him was how he could come and sit on the sofa and calm down ALL BY HIMSELF.

Setting limits clearly is in no way intended to prevent a child feeling, and expressing, emotions that are valid to the situation! These limits instead, give a child a healthy way to express emotions, and a feeling of security because the child knows exactly what the limits of behavior are. So even though it is not always easy to understand what caused the first kind, we can understand that it is not purposeful, and we then decide our response either to let the child exhaust the expression alone but with us nearby, or if we need to calm the child or hold the child till it is over if the tantrum becomes violent.

Here is a quote from the book, Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson that explains this in another way:

When you know about the upstairs and downstairs brain, you can also see that there are really two different types of tantrums. An upstairs tantrum occurs when a child essentially decides to throw a fit. She makes a conscious choice to act out, to push buttons and terrorize you until she gets what she wants.

A parent who recognizes an upstairs tantrum is left with one clear response: never negotiate with a Terrorist. An upstairs tantrum calls for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

A downstairs tantrum is completely different. Here, a child becomes so upset that he’s no longer able to use his upstairs brain. Your toddler becomes so angry that you poured water on his head to wash his hair that he begins screaming, throwing toys out of the tub, and wildly swinging his fists, trying to hit you. In this case, the lower parts of his brain-in particular his amygdala-take over and hijack his upstairs brain.

Children are natural scientists carrying out research and want to know the rules. Once they begin to understand that a temper tantrum is not the way to get the parents’ attention at home, or to get something they want, they will want to know if the same rules apply in a variety of situations outside the home. We must be alert to this intelligent research and be clear.


The above is taken from the chapter “Montessori at Home, age 0-6” of the book Aid to Life, Montessori Beyond the Classroom.

It was Mr. Montessori’s dream that his mother’s, Dr Maria Montessori’s, educational approach could be realized without being bound to a set of materials. He would be very pleased with this book. The author, Susan Stephenson, is fulfilling her dream in showing how all children can receive the Aid to Life that they need to develop their potential. It is very readable book, full of real life situations. The table of contents intriguing for finding just the answer one is looking for. This book will give confidence to parents who want Montessori for their child beyond the classroom.

—Rita Zener, PhD, AMI Montessori Teacher Trainer

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