Exercising “Disappointment Muscles.”

Tina Leonard | Brevard, NC

A great amount of time is invested in designing the layout of a classroom, particularly in a Montessori prepared environment. How close are the Art materials to a sink? What about the Practical Life materials that often include liquid for the children to practice and perfect their pouring skills? Where is the more calm and quiet space that supports the ideas and practices of the Peace Table as well as the Library? Where is the space that can accommodate the whole class for Gathering Time? Teachers plan and plan but they quickly learn what works or needs to be changed once the children enter their classroom and begin exploring.

In the Owl Class, the Library area is a bookshelf near a cozy rug on the floor and several squishy pillows to bring some softness to this reading area. Over time, the children have helped the teachers discover the limit of two children in the space partly because of the voice volume, the smallness of the area, and that it is in close proximity to the Peace Table. While this creates the calm and quiet of the area, it also allows the children to practice their “disappointment muscles.” There are times when a child wants to follow one of his best friends into the Library but another child reaches that area ahead of him. It is much the same way when a child gets excited to have snack with a special friend but finds that someone else is already at the snack table. Also, there are times when a child may want to share some materials with a friend only to be disappointed that the friend wants to work alone or is already playing with someone else.

As a teacher, it would be easy to “fix” these situations and eliminate the disappointment of the child by allowing three children to be in the Library or at the snack table or to force children to play together. But what is the bigger message that is then conveyed to the disappointed child? Does the child then begin to believe that “I will always have my desires met?” Does the child learn that “I will always get my way?” Does the child interpret that “someone else will always fix things for me?” In these situations, the teacher first validates the feelings of sadness and disappointment and then supports the child by helping him discover that while he may be disappointed, it isn’t long-term. These situations also provide the child with an opportunity to practice other skills that help him to cope with his disappointment. The child may be offered the idea to draw a picture of how he is feeling, or to take some time at the Peace Table, or maybe some deep breaths. A possible outcome from these moments of disappointment is the potential to form new friendships with other children. The child may be encouraged to think about how many other children there are in the classroom that he could approach to play. As the teachers allow these disappointments, the teachers are, according to Madeline Levine, “doing a great favor by helping them use their resources to problem solve.”

While it is sometimes heartbreaking for the teacher to observe any child in a moment of disappointment or sadness, it is important to the growth of the child that these situations not be fixed by the teacher. It is encouraging to be reminded by Dr. Nelsen in Positive Discipline for Preschoolers to “help a child explore for herself what is happening, how she feels about it, what she is learning from it, and what ideas she has to solve the problem. It is in the way that children learn that they are not powerless and that the choices they make in life affect what they experience.”

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