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Sensitive Period for Order

Did you know there are specific times in children's development when it is easier for them to learn a particular skill?

In Montessori, we call this the sensitivity periods. These periods last for a specific time during which a child concentrates on one aspect of his environment and excludes everything else. Let's focus on the sensitive period for order in which it begins at birth, is most influential at six months and two years, and peaks during early toddlerhood. This period usually lasts until around age 5.

During the sensitive periods, a child will have an inner need for consistency and repetition, and passionate love for established routines.

The child may seem disturbed by disorder and can be very confused if the environment changes. Drastic changes can leave the child stressed. Many temper tantrums can be avoided by having consistent, predictable schedules and especially ground rules.

Understanding the sensitive periods

Sometimes this is hard for us, adults, to manage. For example, we may travel or have visitors come to stay at our home for a while. When we experience these changes in their routine, we may notice our child "acting out." And you might even find yourself saying, "he/she is just looking for attention." For instance, an infant may cry for what seems like no reason at all. It is easy to dismiss the importance of order for young children because these small changes may not seem consequential in our lives. But keep in mind that while we can understand why they happened, our young children do not have that advantage.

I once had a toddler in my classroom who would move the garbage can every time he came into class. Assuming it was my assistant moving it, I asked her to please leave it where I had placed it. After observing closely, I realized I had rearranged the class that year, and the toddler, a returning student, had noticed the trash can's new position and had consistently moved it back to its "right" place! I then talked to the student and explained that we wanted to move the garbage because it worked better in its new location. I asked him to help me put it where I wanted it, and the next day, he stopped touching it. It can be beneficial as a parent to be aware of our environment and figure out why our child is having a hard time. Maybe something small that we barely noticed had changed in their environment.

On another occasion, a mother who had a toddler and a baby said to me, "When I bring my toddler to school, my baby has been crying hysterically every morning, out of nowhere, for three days." I started to ask her questions, but we couldn't figure it out. That is until I noticed she was wearing a different jacket. To make a long story short, she had gotten a new, dark blue coat, and usually wore a red jacket. I told her, "Tomorrow morning, try wearing your red jacket and let me know what happens." She was amazed that her baby didn't cry. Something as simple as this can affect the sense of order for little ones, and as we cannot always satisfy this need, I intend to bring awareness to the parents.

I find that knowing and understanding the sensitive periods gives us the patience and mindfulness needed at those specific moments when the child needs our support.

Having an external order, an appropriate place for everything, helps the child establish an internal order. The child uses the order to create himself. If objects stay at a consistent place, children can orient themselves in the environment. The child comes to understand cause and effect and can anticipate what activity comes next. Children may become frustrated if they cannot find consistency. You may notice your toddler waking up and doing the same thing every morning; it can be going to the kitchen and wanting to help out with the morning's smoothie or wanting to take a bath or read a story before bedtime. It is because young children in the sensitive period crave routines. Repetition also comes into play, so when they are doing something safe and okay for them to do, we need to step back and give children space to work on their own to build their concentration.

The Montessori environment meets the child's need for order by ensuring materials being in the same place every day and making sure each work is complete, which means that if anything is missing or needs fixing, removing it from the environment. It is essential to consider the organization of the home or any other setting where a younger child is spending most of their time.

Ask yourself: Does this toy/material make sense? Are there too many toys, or is it ordered, simple, and functional? Is it beautiful? We want the child to discover an orderly environment and incorporate this order within his/her mind.

When we don't have external-internal order, the child may start having tantrums or become very dependent on you. At this age, a child's sense of order is far more intense than ours. Once again, this is because they are constructing themselves and their understanding of the world.

In addition to the organization of physical spaces, it's essential that every caregiver, especially those in the home spending the most time with the child, has the same "family rules" and everyone is on the same page. By doing so, will help the child tremendously with their sense of order and what to expect. Not to mention, children learn at a young age which parent will give in more than the other. If parents disagree with one another in front of the child, it gives them an opening to consistently test the limits until he/she gets what they want from the passive parent. Having house rules gives children a comforting sense of predictability and makes it easier for them to understand expectations. Overall, recognizing and understanding the importance of the sensitive period for order can guide the parent through their parenting life.

"Order is one of the needs of life which, when satisfied, produces real happiness." —Maria Montessori

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